Culture, Life

Look to art history for hope after the Notre Dame fire

Much will be lost, but in 2019 there is reason to be optimistic.

When my husband came to tell me that it looked like Notre Dame’s precious stained glass windows would be lost in the blaze consuming the cathedral earlier tonight, I started to cry. I thought of them standing over Paris since the 13th century, surviving war and ruin time and time again. I remember poring over the rose windows’ intricacies in the first Art History class of my degree. The pain ran deep and it surprised me. I Googled to find out the status of the windows and became frustrated when I could not get an immediate answer. Then I took a step back.

What was I doing freaking out over windows? There were so many people fighting that fire, breathing the smoke to save the artwork within and crying because preservation of Notre Dame is their life’s work. There are people for whom this is a symbol of national pride. There are firefighters and first responders on the ground who are no doubt putting their lives at risk to save this icon of Gothic art and architecture. They are the ones I should have been worrying about.

The interior of the Notre Dame cathedral before the fire.
[Image description: The interior of the Notre Dame cathedral before the fire.] © 2018 Pedro Szekely, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
Throughout history, we have lost great buildings, pieces of art, even whole cities. Notre Dame has survived destruction before, and the difference between then and now is the vital fields of art history, museum and restoration studies, and archaeology. I will never see the Library of Alexandria, nor many of the pieces of art looted by the Nazis during World War II, but future generations will no doubt have access to what is lost in the Notre Dame fire.

I may have left my Art History studies behind when I graduated from university, but the field is still close to my heart. I know for a fact that art historians will be there when the dust has settled and the smoke has dissipated. There will be a dynamic, creative rebirth. Right now, that’s what I am holding fast to. Never before in history have we been more able to study, understand and interact with art that that is not physically accessible. From my dorm room in Maryland, I had access to some of the world’s greatest landmarks and collections, big and small on my computer via the Google Arts and Culture project. I know nothing can replace the experience of standing inside a cathedral as maroon-tinted light filters through the ancient, impossibly intricate stained glass, but there will be so much more life for this building and for those windows.

The art that is not swallowed up in the fire will be rescued and lovingly restored. It will see the (metaphorical) light of day again. The building will again be rebuilt; it will be slow, but the build will be more accurate than what could have been done before. The exact space with all its history cannot be replicated, but its stories can and will be shared. Museums around the world are exploring the potential of holograms, augmented reality, immersive experiences and the democratization of places that were once only for the elite. I think maybe I’m supposed to feel more hopeless; maybe my degree should have taught me that nothing can replace the feeling of standing in front of art. Instead, I am buoyed by hope.

Still, I can’t help thinking about the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. After its destruction at the hands of Daesh, I did not feel the same hope. 

[Image description: An avenue of classical columns before they were destroyed in Palmyra, Syria.] Via Wikimedia Commons
I feared too few people understood or respected the amount of priceless art and architecture that was lost. I am sure that impossibly large sums of money will soon be flowing toward the Notre Dame. Maybe it will be crowdfunded, and much will come from the government of France and other benefactors with deep pockets. They will understand and respect what was lost, not because it is any better than Palymra but because history has always prioritized Europe.

Palmyra will never see the kind of money and attention that Notre Dame will. I do not mean to lessen the loss, particularly for the people of France, but it needs to be said.

While museums have started to make themselves more accessible to people of all backgrounds, we must ask why money and innovation are so often put into preserving the Western Canon and we must advocate for that to change. I want to live in a world where the destruction of treasures in Paris and in Syria, in Tibet or in Rome receive not only similar attention but also resources. Until then, I will hold onto the hope that lurks behind the pain: that this is just one hard day in Notre Dame’s long history stretching back – and forward -in time.