Why we’re so sad about Notre Dame

Last night, the over-800-year-old iconic Notre Dame cathedral was ablaze in Paris. Today, RUG students and staff reflect on why the event is so uniquely heartbreaking for everyone, even in Groningen.
By Megan Embry, Giulia Fabrizi, and Jacob Thorburn / Photo by Milliped (Wikimedia)

Last night, many of us watched in horror as live-footage of the Notre Dame aflame went viral. Shocked Parisians lined the Seine and crowded the dark streets that snake toward the heart of Paris, where the cathedral burned a surreal, impossible orange. Some sang the Ave Maria with upturned faces. But most onlookers were silent, aimless, untethered, and helpless.


Clemence, a 24 year old French student at the RUG, was in a café in Groningen when she saw the news alert. Rattled by disbelief, all she remembers saying was: ‘This can’t be happening.’

She quickly punched in the numbers of her Parisian relatives into her phone, relieved to hear they were safe. The French side of her family identify as Catholic, and they were equally ‘horrified and devastated seeing the Notre Dame in flames. Religious or not, this is a cultural and historical icon. It is a symbol of France and a vault of history.’

We recognise Notre Dame as the backdrop for many movies or the centrepiece of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris. But Clemence thinks that for French citizens, ‘it is more than just a tourist attraction or a place of worship. Everyone growing up in France knows they must one day see the Notre Dame.’

Before yesterday, Clemence thought Notre Dame was invincible, having survived so many years of history. ‘If the whole of France had burned to the ground, she would have remained untouchable. But last night showed her fragility, and brought her, and France, to their knees.’

It’s no wonder that Parisians and Catholics are hurting right now, but the partial destruction of this formidable cathedral is a loss that reverberates around the world, all the way to Groningen. As the fire grew, RUG staff and students kept asking versions of the same question: is it strange to grieve for a building?

Mathilde van Dijk and Andrew Irving, who teach at the Faculty of Theology and Religion, don’t think so. The colleagues are connected to the heritage master, which focuses on religion and cultural heritage in general – and they are grieving too.


Last night Irving got a text message from a colleague that simply said, ‘I’m sorry about Notre Dame’. A quick Google search turned up images from a fiery nightmare. ‘I felt like I had been punched.’ When Van Dijk heard the news this morning, she says, ‘really, tears came to my eyes’.

Irving had to ask himself why he was experiencing such an intense emotional reaction. ‘It’s not my building; I’m not French.’ But in many ways, the two colleagues say, it’s everyone’s loss: a loss of shared history, identity, and memory. ‘It has impact on millions of people who are neither French nor religious.’

Holy Week

Holy week is the week before Easter, when Christ predicted his own death and resurrection: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.’ The symbolism of the destroyed Notre Dame cathedral is not lost on contemporary Catholics, who say they watched helplessly as it burned much in the same way that early believers would have watched helplessly as Christ was crucified.

Traditionally, Notre Dame would hold mass throughout Holy Week, displaying some of Catholicism’s most sacred relics on Good Friday. All observances this week have been canceled.

So far, we know that the following iconic relics have been saved:

  • The crown of thorns: placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion.
  • A piece of wood believed to be from the cross Jesus was nailed to.
  • One of the nails used during the crucifixion


Irving says that there are many older, more beautiful buildings in the world that wouldn’t pack the same emotional punch if they were destroyed. But there is something about the Notre Dame that is alive, that captures our imaginations, that draws us into collective sorrow.

Irving explains that people have a tendency to totemise religious buildings: that is, we project onto the totem our highest values, which are complex and rich and awe-inspiring. And then we fiercely protect that totem, Irving says, because it represents the best of us. When it comes to iconic cathedrals, this happens even among the non-religious: ‘and the Notre Dame was the Mona Lisa of cathedrals.’

Our lady of tears

Van Dijk points out that people have always personified the Notre Dame. ‘The newspapers are calling it “Notre Dame les Larmes”,’ she says – ‘our lady of tears.’ They have an emotional connection to it as if it were a person they loved.

And there is a sense in which even the religious significance has seeped into the secular imagination. ‘It is dedicated to our lady; we call the building a woman. All of the associations that come with the lady, the holy mother – all of that gets mapped onto the building itself’, Irving explains. ‘The associations with the Notre Dame are so strong; it’s like seeing your mother die. And there is nothing you can do but watch.’

Memory vs history

This building has witnessed – and withstood – some of the best and worst of human history. And while it’s natural to lament the loss of historical items and medieval construction, say Irving and Van Dijk, the pain we are all feeling has more to do with a loss of memory than of history.

Irving attributes the distinction between memory and history to French historian Pierre Nora, who wrote about places and objects that ‘are the collective memory’ of France.

‘For Nora, memory is organic – it’s made up and shaped by what’s important to you. It’s a part of you. History, on the other hand, is the opposite of memory. It’s about evidence we can analyse.’ Irving sympathises with Nora’s view that in the modern period, history has triumphed over memory.

‘It’s part of our modern condition that we no longer have institutions that protect our memory – we are rootless and cut off’, he says. So people respond to the ‘no-place’ of the contemporary world by finding solace in the places, monuments, and artwork that are the depositories of our collective memory.

‘That adds a kind of weight to the Notre Dame – it is the middle ages, somehow. It is Western culture’, he says. ‘If that is destroyed or damaged, it’s like someone has amputated your memory.’

Van Dijk agrees. Like ‘millions of people all over the world’ there is a faded photo in her family album of herself as a child, posing happily in front of the cathedral. ‘A little bit of my own memory has gone up in flames.’




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