Around noon last Monday, I texted my mother, “I’m going to be late.” I had just witnessed the spire of Notre Dame collapse. Did I really see it? I played back the live feed on my television. I then played it back again. Yes, it really happened. I could hardly believe my eyes — eyes that were tearing up. I’m known for being overly-sentimental but I knew others shared my feelings while witnessing this tragedy unfold.
That evening, while flipping through television networks again, I landed on CNN. Chris Cuomo was interviewing Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York. I thought he might shed light on the cause, progression, and outcome of the fire. Cuomo asked how it was possible that, after all the damage the fire had caused, the votive candles in the crucible were still lit. The fire expert answered, “I can’t explain it.”
Cuomo asked how the copper rooster that had stood atop the spire had survived. Knowing that copper does not have the highest of heat tolerances, he asked, “What are the chances?” Corbett replied, “Remote. The fact is that it is incredible. Maybe divine intervention. Remarkable.”
The rooster is an unofficial emblem of France. The one on top of Notre Dame’s spire was there to watch over and protect the city of Paris. It is thought to contain three Christian relics: one of Saint Denis, one of Saint Genevieve, and one thorn from the crown worn by Jesus during his crucifixion.
Denis was born and raised in Italy. He was sent as a missionary to Gaul (France and beyond) around 250 A.D. by Pope Clement. Denis established his base on an island in the Seine near the city of Lutetia Parisorium (Paris). For this reason he is known as the first bishop of Paris. It is believed that he was martyred during the persecution of Christians around 258.
Genevieve was born in Nanterre in 422 but moved to Paris to live with her grandmother after being orphaned. At age 15, she asked the Bishop of Paris to become a nun. She led a long life in prayer and acts of charity. Genevieve had great influence over Childeric, the king of Gaul who overtook Paris, and over his son, King Clovis. Because of their respect for her, both kings spared the lives of several prisoners on her behalf, so the story goes.
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When Attila and his army of Huns came upon Paris, Parisians were prepared to run, but Genevieve convinced them to stay. She assured them they would have the protection of Heaven. Coincidentally or not, Attila suddenly changed his path and turned away from Paris. Genevieve died in 512 and is known as the Patron Saint of Paris.
I emailed my cousin, Mila di Napoli, who lives on the southwestern coast in France, to get her perspective. She wrote back, “It seems that the rooster first fell on the right part of the roof, I mean the part which was not on fire, and then when the roof collapsed, it fell inside the cathedral, and was found among ashes by a worker.”
My cousin was surprised and relieved that the rose windows had also survived. Most of the intricate, stained-glass windows date to the 13th century. While glass has a high melting point, it’s still a wonder that none were shattered by the heat or the vibrations of the heavy, collapsing objects around them.
The north and south bell towers, organ, consecrated hosts, and prized works of art also survived. So did the altar’s golden cross. “It shines in chaos,” declared Marc Couturier, the designer of the cross. “I carved it myself, it’s made of flame-retardant wood, called samba, which I always use for my sculptures, and then it’s covered with gold leaf. I was not too worried because I knew architecture protected her. The vault and pillars that make up the choir are very solid, as is the triforium. But I did not think it would shine so much, it’s very strange!”
The samba wood and gold leaf might explain why the cross did not burn and why it shone so brightly. I accept all rational explanations for the survival of Notre Dame’s treasures, but during Holy Week, I like to think that there was more to it than just happenstance.