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Why is the Notre Dame Cathedral Important?

Updated: Mar 4

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Notre Dame Cathedral

If you turned on the TV or opened a social media app at any point on April 15, 2019, you are aware of the fire that broke out at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. For onlookers, it appeared the nearly 900-year-old cathedral was a total loss. Fortunately, much of it was salvaged thanks to the speedy actions of first responders. Notably, the twin bell towers, much of the interior, and many important artifacts were saved.

If the building would have been destroyed, though, what would we have lost? If you're unfamiliar with the cathedral and curious about its significance, read on to learn why the Notre Dame Cathedral is important.

Historical and Religious Artifacts

Jesus on a cross

Nestled in the Notre Dame Cathedral from 1801 until 2019 was what's said to be the crown of thorns Jesus wore during his crucifixion. In 1238, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, gifted the crown to Louis IX, who was the King of France at the time. Following the French Revolution, it was transported to Notre Dame. Thankfully, the crown was saved and is now housed in a safe at the Louvre Museum. The crown is not on display at this time.

Also stored in the Notre Dame Cathedral was a piece of Jesus's cross and a nail. These artifacts were once housed in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the reported site of Jesus's resurrection. After exchanging hands a couple more times, it was given to the Bishop of Paris in 1804, where it made its way to Notre Dame Cathedral away from tourists' view. These pieces of history are also now stored out-of-sight at the Louvre Museum. Another significant item, now stored in the Paris City Hall, was St. Louis's tunic. King Louis IX reigned over France from 1226 to 1270.

The Rose Windows

Glass stained window

The Notre Dame Cathedral is fitted with three incredible rose windows. Created in 1250, the north rose window is decorated with religious images honoring the Old Testament of the Bible. The south rose window was built as an ode to its northern sister in 1260. Gifted by King Saint Louis IX and constructed by Jean de Chelles, this window explores both the New and Old Testament as well as scenes from the Last Judgement.

At the forefront of Notre Dame Cathedral is the west rose window. Though the window was completed in 1225, it's underwent reconstruction over time. Unlike the twins, it depicts the 12 zodiac signs and the 12 original Israeli tribes. Each of the windows survived the 2019 fire.

The Bells

A boat heading toward Notre Dame Cathedral

To stand in solidarity with Paris during the Notre Dame fires, many churches in France and worldwide rang their bells. This was a fitting gesture considering the significance of the church's four bells. Notre Dame's bells have rung every 15 minutes since 1856, and they've also been used to mark major world events, such as the end of World War I and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

Most of the bells have been replaced or destroyed by war, but the south tower's Bourdon Emmanuel Bell has remained the same. Known for its exceptional sound, the bell often rings in significant circumstances. For example, when Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84, the bell rang 84 times to honor his life. Luckily, this bell as well as the others were protected from the fire.

Devastating Losses

The Notre Dame Cathedral

In line with the high-vaulted ceilings commonly used in Gothic architecture, the cathedral's roof structure and wooden frame were made from tall oak trees. In 1160, an estimated 1,300 trees ranging from 300 to 400 years old were cut down to create the impressive display. Each beam was drawn from a different tree.

As you may have guessed, the structure, also known as "the forest," was lost in the fire. It contained 52 acres of highly flammable wood, which might have actually made it worse. The structure is now part of a restoration effort using 1,000 trees up to 200 years old.

If you watched live as Notre Dame burned, you may remember the shocking moment its wooden spire collapsed. The original 256-foot spire was built from 1220 to 1230, but it was remade, renovated, and removed over time. A new, 315-foot-tall spire was completed and fully assembled in December 2023.

Looking Toward the Future

Gargoyle on Notre Dame

A building as old as the Notre Dame Cathedral is no stranger to damage and restoration. It was vandalized in the 16th century by French Protestants, pillaged for artifacts during the French Revolution, and saw statues beheaded in 1793. At the time of the fire, French President Emmanuel Macro vowed to rebuild the structure in 5 years. Now, in 2024, the goal doesn't seem too far off as it plans to reopen to the public within a year.

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