Notre Dame hailed as monument to the ‘best of civilization’

FILE - This 1911, file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/File)
This 1911, file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/File) (AP)
This is a nighttime view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Our Lady, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris, France, in 1933.  (AP Photo)
This is a nighttime view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Our Lady, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris, France, in 1933. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The scene of Golgotha during the Passion Play in Notre Dame, Paris, France on June 4, 1936. (AP Photo)
The scene of Golgotha during the Passion Play in Notre Dame, Paris, France on June 4, 1936. (AP Photo) (AP)
United States soldiers are shown being joyfully greeted by French women in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, August 28, 1944. They dance and one girl seems to be pulling a soldier from the truck. (AP Photo)
United States soldiers are shown being joyfully greeted by French women in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, August 28, 1944. They dance and one girl seems to be pulling a soldier from the truck. (AP Photo) (AP)
U.S. soldiers fill the pews of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, April 16, 1945, during the GI memorial service for U.S. President Roosevelt. (AP Photo/Morse)
U.S. soldiers fill the pews of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, April 16, 1945, during the GI memorial service for U.S. President Roosevelt. (AP Photo/Morse) (AP/MORSE)
President Dwight Eisenhower runs his hand over surface of one of the stained glass windows in Cathedral of Notre Dame, May 18, 1960 as he toured churches din the French Capital. (AP Photo)
President Dwight Eisenhower runs his hand over surface of one of the stained glass windows in Cathedral of Notre Dame, May 18, 1960 as he toured churches din the French Capital. (AP Photo) (AP)
A Notre Dame gargoyle looks over the city of Paris, Dec. 1966.  In the background is the Eiffel Tower.  (AP Photo)
A Notre Dame gargoyle looks over the city of Paris, Dec. 1966. In the background is the Eiffel Tower. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous)
FILE - This April 18, 1967, file photo, shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’  (AP Photo/File)
This April 18, 1967, file photo, shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/File) (AP/Uncredited)
A North Vietnam flag flies from the pinnacle of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France on Jan. 19, 1969 as peace talks on a possible cease-fire in Vietnam had started on previous day. (AP Photo)
A North Vietnam flag flies from the pinnacle of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France on Jan. 19, 1969 as peace talks on a possible cease-fire in Vietnam had started on previous day. (AP Photo) (AP)
Crowds gathered outside the Notre Dame de Paris, France where a memorial service is being held for the former French President Charles de Gaulle on Nov. 12, 1970. (AP Photo)
Crowds gathered outside the Notre Dame de Paris, France where a memorial service is being held for the former French President Charles de Gaulle on Nov. 12, 1970. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous)
The funeral of former French President Charles De Gaulle at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, on Nov. 12, 1970, was attended by many heads of state and members of European Royal families. President of the United States, Richard Nixon, sits right before the start of the service. (AP Photo)
The funeral of former French President Charles De Gaulle at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, on Nov. 12, 1970, was attended by many heads of state and members of European Royal families. President of the United States, Richard Nixon, sits right before the start of the service. (AP Photo) (AP)
Philippe Petit, a 21-year-old professional tightrope walker, appears as the tiny figure as he lies on a tightrope, strung 225 feet above the ground, between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France on June 26, 1971, during a stunt which lasted several hours, with police unable to bring him down. (AP Photo/Str/Cardenas)
Philippe Petit, a 21-year-old professional tightrope walker, appears as the tiny figure as he lies on a tightrope, strung 225 feet above the ground, between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France on June 26, 1971, during a stunt which lasted several hours, with police unable to bring him down. (AP Photo/Str/Cardenas) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Cardenas)
FILE - This 1987 file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)
This 1987 file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File) (AP/LIONEL CIRONNEAU)
A chimera and a gargoyle watch over Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral, Jan. 10, 1996. Architect Viollet le Duc added the chimeras and gargoyles to the tower walls when repairing the damages caused by the French Revolution. The chimeras are purely decorative while the garoyles were built to serve as raingutters. (AP Photo/Remy De La Mauviniere)
A chimera and a gargoyle watch over Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral, Jan. 10, 1996. Architect Viollet le Duc added the chimeras and gargoyles to the tower walls when repairing the damages caused by the French Revolution. The chimeras are purely decorative while the garoyles were built to serve as raingutters. (AP Photo/Remy De La Mauviniere) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE)
Pope John Paul II attends the celebration of a beatification mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris Friday Aug.22,1997. The 77-year-old pontiff celebrated the beatification for Frederic Ozanam, a 19th-century French layman who founded the St-Vincent-de-Paul charity. The pope is on a four-day official visit to France for the World Youth Day festivities. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
Pope John Paul II attends the celebration of a beatification mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris Friday Aug.22,1997. The 77-year-old pontiff celebrated the beatification for Frederic Ozanam, a 19th-century French layman who founded the St-Vincent-de-Paul charity. The pope is on a four-day official visit to France for the World Youth Day festivities. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis) (AP/DOMENICO STINELLIS)
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FILE - This 1911, file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/File)
This is a nighttime view of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Our Lady, on the island called Ile de la Cite in Paris, France, in 1933.  (AP Photo)
The scene of Golgotha during the Passion Play in Notre Dame, Paris, France on June 4, 1936. (AP Photo)
United States soldiers are shown being joyfully greeted by French women in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, August 28, 1944. They dance and one girl seems to be pulling a soldier from the truck. (AP Photo)
U.S. soldiers fill the pews of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, April 16, 1945, during the GI memorial service for U.S. President Roosevelt. (AP Photo/Morse)
President Dwight Eisenhower runs his hand over surface of one of the stained glass windows in Cathedral of Notre Dame, May 18, 1960 as he toured churches din the French Capital. (AP Photo)
A Notre Dame gargoyle looks over the city of Paris, Dec. 1966.  In the background is the Eiffel Tower.  (AP Photo)
FILE - This April 18, 1967, file photo, shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’  (AP Photo/File)
A North Vietnam flag flies from the pinnacle of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France on Jan. 19, 1969 as peace talks on a possible cease-fire in Vietnam had started on previous day. (AP Photo)
Crowds gathered outside the Notre Dame de Paris, France where a memorial service is being held for the former French President Charles de Gaulle on Nov. 12, 1970. (AP Photo)
The funeral of former French President Charles De Gaulle at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, on Nov. 12, 1970, was attended by many heads of state and members of European Royal families. President of the United States, Richard Nixon, sits right before the start of the service. (AP Photo)
Philippe Petit, a 21-year-old professional tightrope walker, appears as the tiny figure as he lies on a tightrope, strung 225 feet above the ground, between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France on June 26, 1971, during a stunt which lasted several hours, with police unable to bring him down. (AP Photo/Str/Cardenas)
FILE - This 1987 file photo shows the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Art experts around the world reacted with horror to news of the fire that ravaged cathedral on Monday, April 15, 2019. One shell-shocked art expert is calling the beloved Gothic masterpiece ‘one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.’ (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)
A chimera and a gargoyle watch over Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral, Jan. 10, 1996. Architect Viollet le Duc added the chimeras and gargoyles to the tower walls when repairing the damages caused by the French Revolution. The chimeras are purely decorative while the garoyles were built to serve as raingutters. (AP Photo/Remy De La Mauviniere)
Pope John Paul II attends the celebration of a beatification mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris Friday Aug.22,1997. The 77-year-old pontiff celebrated the beatification for Frederic Ozanam, a 19th-century French layman who founded the St-Vincent-de-Paul charity. The pope is on a four-day official visit to France for the World Youth Day festivities. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

NEW YORK (AP) — Notre Dame, a survivor of wars and revolutions, has stood for centuries as not merely the greatest of the Gothic cathedrals and a towering jewel of Western architecture.

It has stood, in the words of one shell-shocked art expert, as “one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

And so it was that across the globe Monday, a stunned and helpless art world wept alongside the people of France as a massive fire ravaged the beloved cathedral.

“Civilization is just so fragile,” said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. “This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It’s come through so many trials.”

“It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass — it’s the totality,” she said, struggling to find words expansive enough to describe the cathedral’s significance. “It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

Boehm spoke shortly before the Paris fire chief announced that firefighters had been able to finally save the structure, including its two main towers. Much of the roof was destroyed.

The exact cause of the blaze wasn’t known, but French media quoted the fire brigade as saying it was “potentially linked” to a 6 million euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris Prosecutor’s office, which was investigating, said it was treating it as an accident.

Construction on Notre Dame — French for “Our Lady” — began in the 12th century and continued for nearly 200 years. It sustained damage and fell into neglect during the French Revolution, but received renewed attention following the 1831 publication of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” This led to two decades of restorations, including the cathedral’s famous flying buttresses and a reconstructed spire.

While most kings were crowned elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte made sure he was crowned there in 1804, and married there in 1810.

Experts note that Notre Dame is an aesthetically smooth synthesis of different centuries. “It all blends together so harmoniously,” said Nancy Wu, a medieval architecture expert and educator at the Met Cloisters. She said she was struck by delicacy of the structure, as well as that in the three stunning stained-glass rose windows, and the elegant exterior carvings.

“There are a lot of details that remind one of intricate lace,” she said, “even though it’s a building of cold hard stone.”

Aside from the structure, art experts were concerned about the fate of countless priceless artworks and artifacts inside, including relics like the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo later said on Twitter that the crown of thorns and the tunic of St Louis were among the artifacts saved.

“This cathedral has a number of elements that are not just famous but religiously significant,” said Julio Bermudez, professor at the school of architecture and planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “One of course is the crown of thorns … the faithful believe this is the crown that the Savior put on his head. It’s kept in a very safe place. But you know the fire is tremendously damaging.” He also expressed concern about the beautiful stained-glass windows, which he called “really irreplaceable.”

Those worried about the cathedral’s durability could, perhaps, take solace in one of Notre Dame’s more fascinating survival stories. In 1977, workers demolishing a wall in another part of Paris discovered 21 heads belonging to 13th-century statues from the cathedral. The kings of Judea, which were a prime example of Gothic art, had been taken from Notre Dame during the French Revolution and guillotined by antiroyalists who mistakenly thought they represented French kings.

The heads, which were thought to be lost, are now displayed in the capital’s Cluny Museum.

The mourning was not limited to the art world. Religious leaders, too, expressed deep sorrow over the devastation.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying for Notre Dame, which he called “second maybe to St. Peter’s Basilica, (in) … the ability of a church to lift our minds and hearts back to the Lord.”

“For the French, my God, for the world, Notre Dame Cathedral represents what’s most notable, what’s most uplifting, what’s most inspirational about the human project,” he said.

Boehm, at the Cloisters, found herself thinking about how the cathedral is at once of the past, and of the present — a living, vibrant building, despite its age.

“When you step inside it, you have at once the sense of everything that came before, and everything that’s still current,” she said.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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