Yet the emotions the sight aroused were less about the building itself than about what losing it might mean. Notre Dame is an expression of humanity at its collective best. Nobody could look up into that vaulted ceiling without wondering at the cumulative genius of the thousands of anonymous craftsmen who, over a century and a half, realised a vision so grand in its structural ambition and so delicate in its hand-chiselled detail. Its survival through 850 years of political turbulence—through war, revolution and Nazi occupation—binds the present to the past.
The fire also binds people to each other. The outpouring of emotion it has brought forth is proof that, despite the dark forces of division now abroad, we are all in it together. When nationalism is a rising threat, shared sadness makes borders suddenly irrelevant. When politics is polarised, a love of culture has the power to unite. When extremism divides Muslim from Christian and religious people from atheists, those of all faiths and none are mourning together. An edifice built for the glory of God also represents the unity of the human spirit.
And it will be rebuilt. The morning after the fire, the many Parisians who went to the cathedral to mourn its destruction found comfort instead. Although the spire is gone, the towers are still standing and it seems likely that the whole building can be revived. The effort to rebuild it, like the fire, will bring people together. Within 24 hours, 600m euros($677m) had been raised from businesses and rich people, and a rash of crowdfunding campaigns started. A high-resolution laser scan of the building, carried out recently, should help.
It will never be the same, but that is as it should be. As Victor Hugo wrote in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, a three-volume love-letter to the cathedral: “Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art is often transformed as it is being made...Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.”