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Notre Dame fire prompts global grief for a landmark of civilization

A devastating fire consumed parts of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. While the biggest question is whether the structure itself will survive, there is no doubt that the artistic and historic landmark sustained losses that won’t be recoverable. Judy Woodruff talks to art historian Elizabeth Lev about the “shock” incurred by observing this “iconic monument” engulfed in flames.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let's take a closer look at some of the priceless religious, artistic, and cultural history at risk with Elizabeth Lev. She is an American-born art historian. She's now based in Rome.

    I spoke to her about 45 minutes ago via Skype.

    Elizabeth Lev, thank you very much for talking with us.

    What was your reaction when you first heard about this fire?

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    It's a kind of shock that comes from having read about, as a historian, destruction of monuments, the fires that have taken place in monuments hundreds of years ago.

    I never thought I would live through something like this. I never thought that I would personally feel that separation of a work of art that you assumed would always be there, would see me born, it would see me die, I never thought I would outlive a great work of art.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We don't know yet, of course, what all has been lost, but what is at stake here?

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    There are several hundred fire officers trying to get the works of art out of the cathedral.

    It is the cathedral itself which is a work of art. It's the cathedral itself which is an iconic monument. And that already has been seriously damaged and will undoubtedly submit to more damage before the whole thing is over.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about what is inside the cathedral? What, of all the treasures there, is going to be most missed?

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    Now, to be perfectly honest, the situation with Notre Dame is interesting, because a great deal of the art was damaged during the French Revolution, and more was damaged in the 19th century, about 1870.

    So that church has actually been bereft of its art on many occasions, but it still has some really splendid pieces. So, for example, some might find that the choir, which is an incredibly carved structure — it's a U-shaped structure. It's carved with these 14th century stories of the life of Jesus.

    They're painted. They're beautiful. Or you have the 17th century magnificent statue by Nicolas Coustou, this pieta, this sort of even grander bigger pieta with two kneeling sovereigns sort of reminiscent of Michelangelo's in Rome.

    But I think for the Catholic world and for the church itself, especially in the week leading up to Easter, the greatest loss of the church would have been the loss of the Crown of Thorns, the thorns that crowned Jesus' head the — during his passion, purchased by St. Louis IX in the 13th century, lovingly cared for, preserved during the French Revolution, and venerated by the faithful to this day in that cathedral.

    That would be a terrible loss.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why is it the iconic monument that we all recognize that it is?

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    It's an object that's been there long before the Eiffel Tower, long before even that famous Montmartre that — at the Sacre-Coeur Church we're used to seeing on the top of Montmartre, that church that has been sitting there in the very heart of Paris.

    It's on the Ile de la Cite. It's where the origin of Paris — it's literally the womb, the heart of the entire city. And the cathedral built on that church, begun in 1163, carried on through the years, has been the backdrop to all of that amazing history of France that's really captured the world's imagination.

    You had Napoleon at those steps. You had Joan of Arc at those steps. You had Henry IV returning to the Catholic Church saying Paris is worth a mass on those steps, and then the lives of all of those millions of Parisians that have taken place underneath those beautiful arches.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's the history of the place that's just so hard to get our arms around. We think about the three — the rose windows, the three win doze together, but there's just so much more than that.

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    Well, really, it's a church, first of all, that was — it began in one period.

    It began in the 1100s, where they started building a sturdy church with big, round columns. And Notre Dame was going to be the church of kings, the place where the kings of France would be married. And so it grew with these great ambitions into this brand-new style called Gothic.

    And it was that church that showed the world for the very first time the potential of this new invention called the flying buttress, so that you would see sort of spidery legs from the back of the church, but in the interior, it would open the entire building up to windows, windows filled with stained glass, windows that still able to make the most seasoned traveler gasp in awe when they cross the threshold.

    And so these innovations took place in this beautiful, beautiful building.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there anything, Elizabeth Lev, that you can think of to compare this to, if what we think is lost here may be lost?

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    Well, there is actually a very interesting comparison.

    On July 15 of 1823, the church considered the most — one of the most beautiful churches in Rome was burnt down. It was the church of St. Paul's outside the walls. It was a very, very similar situation. The church was build in the fourth century. It was one of the largest churches. It was filled with incredibly beautiful works of art.

    The fire began in the roof, in the wood timbers in the roof, not unlike that of Notre Dame in Paris. And despite the efforts of firefighters, the church simply burnt down.

    And the pictures — granted, not photographs — but the pictures of the next days of a church missing the roof with half the building destroyed, you know, it really looked like this was the end of this iconic, amazing building that had seen so many pilgrims and so much history.

    But an amazing thing happened. The entire world in 1823 began to contribute and to help. And they sent architects and they sent money and they sent materials. And that church was reborn. And it's now considered one of our really beautiful, most beautiful churches in the city of Rome.

    So I think that, even though this is a devastating moment for that link with the ancient history of Notre Dame, we also have the opportunity of seeing a great new moment of people coming together, which, believe it or not, that's what the word church means, people gathered together.

    So we have a great opportunity to see people gathering together and see if we can bring that church back to a new life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's hope that that is — that can happen after what we are seeing with today's horrible, horrible fire at Notre Dame.

    Elizabeth Lev, thank you very much.

  • Elizabeth Lev:

    Thank you.

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