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Tragic Notre Dame fire may have consumed relics, great works of art

As the world watched on Monday afternoon, a large fire broke out at the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral, causing the spire to collapse onto the roof. Laurent Ferri, the curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, the former “conservateur du patrimoine” at the French National Archives, says the destruction of religious relics and rare works of art is a loss for all of the world.

Laurent Ferri

Curator of the pre-1800 Collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

Ferri says:

“This is a tragedy. Notre-Dame de Paris is a magnificent and iconic cathedral, built for the most part between 1160 and 1260. The cathedral was the setting of very important historical events, notably Napoleon’s coronation in 1804. On April 26, 1944, a special mass attended by general de Gaulle was held in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. Of course, destructions have occurred in the past, but it looks particularly catastrophic this time. 

“The spire also contained relics of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris. They were placed at the summit of the church in 1935 by the archbishop of Paris, to protect the building: if so, they are now likely reduced to ashes. It is a great loss for Catholics and for art lovers worldwide, but the cathedral had a particular meaning for the French, as a “lieu de memoire,” a concept developed by historian Pierre Nora (1984-92), meaning a symbolic element in the memorial heritage of my old country. 

“Finally, one must keep in mind that the cathedral is filled with sculptures, paintings, stained glass, liturgical art. I particularly admire the 14th century wooden panels depicting the life of Christ, and the 78 choir stalls in carved wood added in the 18th century. Now, I am afraid they might all disappear in the ongoing fire. We all need to hope and pray for the building, because it is part of the world cultural heritage.”

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Gillian Smith
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