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MSU Expert Cautiously Optimistic Notre Dame's Stone Ceiling 'Seems To Have Done Its Job'

Dan Kitwood
Getty Images / via NPR

A fire tore through the rafters and beams of one of the most iconic and revered cathedrals in the world Monday:  Notre Dame is still smoldering in the heart of Paris as investigators begin their work looking for the cause of the devastating fire.

But one expert familiar with the architecture of the cathedral says all is not lost, thanks to the ingenuity of architects from hundreds of years ago who pivoted from constructing ceilings solely  out of wood to incorporating stone vaulting. 

Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, an associate professor in the Art and Design Department at Missouri State University, teaches art history—including the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

You can hear her interview with KSMU's Jennifer Moore below.

Kirkland-Ives says the most iconic part of the cathedral that has been lost, as far as we know, is the spire that caught fire and collapsed as the world looked on.

“I think a couple of relics were actually stored in that spire. I’m not sure why—but there was a relic of Saint Denis, one of the early, early saints in France—and also Saint Genevieve, I think. So those have probably been lost,” Kirkland-Ives said.

Otherwise, she said, the world has reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about what parts of the cathedral survived the fire.

“It looked really terrible, of course, all of that wood on fire. But I think that silver lining, again, is that the structure did what it was designed to do. What we saw on fire was, largely, the wooden roof. And also the wood that served as the armature for that spire,” she said.

“The ceiling itself of the structure was what we call ‘stone vaulting.’ So it’s a series of essentially arches, and a stone ceiling, essentially.  And that was actually invented just before the Gothic period in order to prevent the spread of fire,” she said.

Earlier churches had been constructed with wooden trusses, beams, and roofs, which “were just kindling,” she said. They would just go up in flames regularly, she said.

“The vaulting seems to have done its job, to a large extent. A little bit of the webbing of the vaulting seems to have fallen. But largely, the structure of the building seems to be intact,” she said.

Stone can be damaged by fire, she said, and there will need to be significant remediation.

Ancient relics, pieces of priceless art reportedly saved

Kirkland-Ives emphasizes that most of the information is preliminary at this point, so it’s hard to evaluate what has been damaged or lost.

“There were a number of 19th and 17th century paintings and sculptures down below,” she said. Those may have experienced some water damage, but are likely intact.

“The areas that are maybe a little bit more touch-and-go right now seem to be the glass windows,” she said.

“One other aspect of the monument that we’re receiving mixed reports on is the condition of the organs, the pipe organs there. I’ve heard that there was some damage, possibly, to one of the old organs—but I’ve also heard that none of the pipes of the organ collapsed. So that’s a very good sign,” she said.

Some priceless relics, including one believed to be the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ, have reportedly been saved.

Why the world grieved when Notre Dame caught fire

To the French, the cathedral of Notre Dame is sacred, and many have described it as “a family member.” 

Here in the Ozarks, people have been sharing their grief online as well, posting photos of themselves in front of the magnifient structure. 

Kirkland-Ives says the fire has caused ubiquitous feelings of concern and grief because Notre Dame is very much a shared monument for people worldwide.

“I think it is a monument that is very large in the collective imagination. When folks think about Europe, they think about France. When they think about France, they think about Paris. And when they think about Paris, they think about Notre Dame,” she said.

Many locals have visited it, too, leaving a lot of romanticism and nostalgia on a personal level.  

Those people can take heart, she said, that much of the cathedral has survived.

“It’s tragic. But it’s not as if it has burned to the ground,” she said.