The most-visited monument in Paris has been heavily damaged today by fire – during the Notre Dame Cathedral’s busy Easter time tourist season. Mizzou art history professor Anne Rudloff Stanton says she’s in shock that a massive fire has burned through the 13th century landmark. She hopes Paris will rebuild the historic Cathedral.

Mizzou Art History Professor Anne Rudloff Stanton

“It’s one of the primary historical structures in Paris and probably one of the three most famous churches in Europe,” she says. “It’s not just the building that is being lost. I’m reading the stain glass windows are gone. There might be some danger to a lot of the treasures that are held in the Treasury, which include old reliquaries, sculptures and many works of art. It’s a tragedy.”

About 13 million people visit the Cathedral each year and mass was still being offered there on Sundays. Renovations were underway at the church.

Rudloff Stanton, who has visited the Cathedral twice, recalls the smell of the building – the old stones, the centuries of incense from church services and sweat from summer visitors.

“They provide a particular kind of perfume of the past when you’re inside,” she says.

Rudloff Stanton remembers the relics of the Passion of Christ. The pieces were from the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Nails claimed to be from the crucifixion cross of Jesus. She says the relics had been brought into France by Louis IX in the 13th Century and were held at an important Medieval structure, called the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

“Some of them are now in the Treasury at the Cathedral of Paris. I very much hope that they were not lost in this fire,” she says.

The Cathedral was also damaged during the French Revolution in the early 19th century when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor at the Cathedral of Paris.

“He cut this huge chunk out of one of the entryways so that everything would fit through that opening for his grand entry into the church,” she says.

After Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Rudloff Stanton says the French began to consider the Cathedral as an important aspect of their cultural heritage.

The Cathedral is one of the primary monuments in the development of French Gothic architecture. She explains the building’s pointed arches and flying buttresses inspired the design of several Midwestern churches.

“There are a lot of buildings in a medieval and often a gothic style in Missouri in the late 19th and 20th centuries. There are structures in St. Louis,” she says. “For many Americans, particularly I think in the Midwest, the style of the great European churches built in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries is really what a church looks like – the pointed arches, spires and things like that.”

Rudloff Stanton says old European buildings are made of massive timber structures to support the roof and vaults. Former Deputy Director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Gregg Favre, explains why Medieval structure fires are tough to fight.

The cause of Monday’s fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral is unknown.