Notre-Dame Cathedral, Remembered

The Cathedral Video History | Witness Testimony | Expert Commentary

The Notre-Dame Cathedral is a stunning example of architecture, and an important repository of humankind’s art and culture. It plays an iconic role in world history.

To help us better understand the cultural, religious, and architectural significance of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, The Great Courses has pulled together a first-hand account of the fire from an eye-witness, written commentary from a cathedral expert, and a historical account of the cathedral from our archives. Here you will find:

  • A free video lecture on Notre-Dame’s history from The Cathedral, a Great Courses production featuring Professor William R. Cook, emeritus distinguished teaching professor at the State University of New York. Professor Cook’s insights into Notre-Dame follow its evolution over time—and its place in history—across 800+ years.
  • A first-hand account of the fire from a Great Courses staff member who was in Paris on vacation—and on his way to the cathedral—when the fire erupted.
  • Post-fire commentary and reaction from Professor Cook.

Video: The Notre Dame Cathedral History

Video: First-Hand Account of Notre Dame Fire

A letter from Professor William R. Cook

April 16, 2019

It goes without saying that the Notre-Dame fire is a great tragedy of many dimensions. I started a cathedral tour there just last June because of its central place not just in Paris or France, but really the whole of Europe. 

Professor William R. Cook

However, we must always remember that there have been innumerable acts of violence, accidental, natural, and human against cathedrals, including Notre-Dame, over the centuries. Notre-Dame has been in part rebuilt and in part “amended many” times, beginning in the Middle Ages. A cathedral is a not a museum, where we want it to look like what it was the day it was completed (whatever that means). It is a living entity and now includes memorials to modern people and the modern commemoration of events of many centuries ago as well as artistic changes. Joan of Arc lived in the 15th century, but she only became St. Joan in the 20th century, and it is hard to find a cathedral in France that has not added her to its pantheon of saints.

The central west portal was largely destroyed by humans to make way for an 18th-century royal marriage procession. The 24 kings on the facade were destroyed during the Revolution, and fragments lay undiscovered for almost two centuries. Many of the windows do not date from the Middle Ages. The spire was added only in the 19th century.

Certainly, Notre-Dame will be restored, but also, no doubt, in part reformulated. The tragedy of yesterday is past. Now comes the renaissance. Now is the time for hope that the “new” Notre-Dame will contain as much as possible of what has been for centuries, but also that it will be an opportunity to adapt it to the realities and concerns of the 21st century. It must not become a museum piece now, as attractive as that sounds. It must be represent continuity and change. 

Let us pray that at a future re-consecration of Notre-Dame, it will thrill those who wish to preserve all of its history and aesthetics and that it will equally thrill those who want it to be an expression of the Church in the 21st century and beyond.

Vive la Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris.

Bill Cook