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Notre-Dame Paris fire: Medieval masons saved the structure

The devastating fire that destroyed the roofs and spire of Notre-Dame in Paris demonstrates the vulnerabilities of medieval cathedrals and great churches, but also reveals the skills of their master-masons, writes Dr Jenny Alexander, from the University of Warwick’s department of the history of art.

The cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was built from 1160-c.1260 in the new Gothic style that was first developed in the area around Paris and was to dominate medieval building across Europe for the next three hundred years. Notre-Dame was built to be tall and imposing, and in order to support its great height, double aisles were used throughout.

Sophisticated understanding

The east end of the building has a complex vault to both its aisles that required sophisticated understanding of geometry by its master mason in order to bring it around the building at the same level. The building was completed with its west facade, that was designed to be a rich assembly of sculptured portals, complete with life-sized figure sculpture, and the Gallery of the Kings, by c.1245 and the towers followed swiftly after.

The original plan did not allow for magnificent facades to north and south at the ends of the transept, but these were added in the mid thirteenth century together with their superb rose windows, and their original glass provides one of the most memorable parts of the building today. Medieval stained glass artists carefully placed red and blue glass within white framing to create the stunning purple effect you get when the sun streams through the windows and they designed the north rose, on the darker side of the building, to be lighter in tone.

Skills of the master masons

The devastating fire that destroyed the roofs and spire of Notre-Dame Paris this week demonstrates the vulnerabilities of medieval cathedrals and great churches, but also reveals the skills of their master-masons. The lead covered wooden roof structure burned so fast because the fire was able to take hold under the lead and increase in intensity before it was visible from the outside, and it then spread easily to all the other sections of the roof. French buildings are more vulnerable here than UK ones, because they don't usually have a stone tower in the centre that would act as a fire-break. This feature is what saved York Minster in 1984 when the transept roof caught fire but it was the Minster’s tower stopped it spreading further.

Saved by the stone vault

Notre-Dame was saved from total destruction because the medieval builders gave it a stone vault over all the main spaces, and the stone flags on top of the aisles meant that the burning timbers and molten lead couldn't break through there. Coventry Cathedral was brought down in the Second World War when it was fire-bombed because it had a timber ceiling and the burning timbers fell into the church and formed a huge bonfire that fatally weakend the stonework and caused it to collapse. In France, the great cathedral at Reims lost its roofs in the bombardment of the First World War, but having a stone vault, it too survived as a building and has been restored.

Notre-Dame will rise again, and its conservators can take heart from the inscription inside the door of Coventry's new cathedral, 'to the Glory of God this cathedral burnt... and is now rebuilt'.

Dr Jenny Alexander is an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art.

Jenny AlexanderHer research is concerned with the architectural history of the great churches and cathedrals of the medieval period, and with the ways in which those buildings were constructed and used. She is interested in how the medieval and early-modern construction industry was organised, how masons were trained, how buildings were designed and how the materials used were chosen, supplied, and worked.

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