Simon Schama on the Importance of Notre Dame

As the world reacts to the devastating sight of Notre Dame burning, Simon Schama discusses the famed cathedral’s place in history.

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SIMON SCHAMA, HISTORIAN: Well, you know, when the French king sponsored what the church would do in the 12th century, they thought of it as a Jerusalem. And by that, they meant a kind of sanctuary from the raw poverty and brutality of the rest of life. And I think now in our universe of instantly disposable sensations, Instagram and Snapchat there’s an astonishing and paradoxical appetite for that which endures something that was made long, long ago. And will survive after us.

What Notre Dame is, and it’s right in the geographical center of a great city. That centrality is very important. It was the tallest building before the Eiffel Tower. But what it is I think above all is a place where hustle cannot go, where the marketplace just stops and the kind of raw and often contemptible antics of self promoting politicians do not pass. And therefore it is something which is indispensible to the civilization long may it remain of modern life. And that’s felt above all in Paris, above all in France but you saw the immense colossal outpouring of emotion because what is actually housed in that sanctuary is beauty.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And Simon, many of us, many people around the world literally were holding their breath and in shock until they understood that the flames had been controlled.

SCHAMA: Right.

AMANPOUR: And that most of the building still stands. And you actually early on tweeted about that dramatic fall of the spire and also the collapse of the wooden roof. So, I just want to read a little. You said, I know it’s no consolation at all but the Notre Dame spire was A 19th century, much damaged original taken down in the reign — much earlier. And also the roof of course was much more recent. So, just put that in to perspective because the gothic remains, the flying buttresses–

SCHAMA: Right.

AMANPOUR: — all that makes it so dramatically special.

SCHAMA: Well, I think that was important because we think of Notre Dame as something which is fixed and then moveable. But that never, never has been the case. There were three architects at change during the Middle Ages. It resisted the onslaughts of attacks from the Huguenot Protestants and then from the French Revolution that converted it in to a temple of reason. Really we think of the way Notre Dame moves us, because it’s always been the same. But actually I would argue the opposite is true, Christiane. It moves us because it is a kind of (inaudible), a word which means stage after stage, generation after generation.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Nancy Pelosi in an exclusive interview about Brexit. She also speaks with historian Simon Schama about Notre Dame Cathedral’s place in history. Alicia Menendez speaks with Mitchell S. Jackson about his path from drug dealer to justice reform advocate.