Every cathedral, like any great stone building, is a work in progress. No sooner have the walls risen than they start to collapse, the weight of stone pushing down and splaying out, settling and cracking. Take a closer look at most great old churches, and you see huge pillars wrapped in metal, iron reinforcing bars embedded in the walls, arches pulled together at their base with metal rods. If you took an X-ray of the buildings, they would look a bit like the mouth of someone who has had a lot of dental work — a messy confusion of interventions, repairs and misguided improvements.
It looks as if the structure of Notre Dame, in Paris, is mostly intact, despite the fire that consumed the roof above its stone vaults and brought down its 19th-century wood and metal spire. Much of the art was saved, some of it placed in storage before renovations, and other pieces were removed before the fire could destroy them.
But the shock of the fire is still extraordinary, felt throughout not just France but also the world. Notre Dame stands at the heart of Paris, has led a long, rich life in the literature and imagination of France, and is one of the most beautiful Gothic structures on the planet.
History, however, tells us these things are all too common, even as modern media saturation makes it seem somehow unprecedented.
Building large stone churches has always been an art and a science, and it sometimes meant trial and error. The first dome at the greatest church of all — Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — collapsed before the miraculously thin saucer we see today was successfully completed.
Like Hagia Sophia, St. Paul’s in London was built on the ruins of an older structure. The great 1666 fire that ravaged much of London destroyed the old St. Paul’s and almost 90 other churches.
In the mid-16th century, two fires ravaged the interiors of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, offering artists a chance to work on an epic scale, redecorating its palatial rooms, and vying for dramatic and narrative preeminence.
Creative destruction is an ugly idea, hijacked by greedy and ambitious people to justify an oppression that is anything but creative. But most cathedrals exemplify the idea of continual evolution and renewal; they are sturdy, vulnerable, fragile and resilient, and it is social architecture that keeps them standing, not piers, arches or buttresses.
In other cultures, sacred sites are often sacred not because of what is built there but because of the persistence of religious devotion. The site is holy, not the thing. A temple may be dismantled and rebuilt, but what matters is the behavior of people at that particular place.
Tourism, in some ways, contains a vestige of that kind of thinking. People still visit and snap pictures of the brick campanile in Venice, which fell down in 1902 and was rebuilt. Tourists flock to places just to say they have been there, and the effort of the journey is often just as important as the authenticity of the object. No tourist will forswear Notre Dame because it has a new roof.
None of this is to minimize the losses at Notre Dame. It will take years to remake the building, and much of what was inside will never be restored. But the great cathedrals of Europe took centuries to build, have been crumbling for even longer and will continue to be made and remade.
Some daring heretics will even suggest, perhaps, that the building should remain as it is, newly reconfigured for a secular age, like the melted bells in St. Mary’s of Luebeck, Germany, which fell to the ground during the bombing of 1942 and remain on the floor as a memorial to the losses of war.
Meanwhile, the roof will rise again, and in a century some bored teenagers will stand in the plaza before the great Gothic doors and listen as their teacher recounts the great fire of 2019, just one chapter among all the others, and seemingly inconsequential given the beauty of the building as it stands glowing in a rare burst of sunlight on a spring day in Paris.
Philip Kennicott is an art and architecture critic with The Washington Post.