The fire that engulfed Notre Dame in Paris on Monday, severely damaging a building that had stood for more than eight centuries, felt unprecedented. And in one sense, it was: how else can one describe the gutting of a building that stood witness to so much of Western European history?
But in another sense, Notre Dame is one in a long line of cathedrals that have been ravaged by fire, war or worse.
1. Old St Paul’s, London, 1135-1666
Construction began on Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, (actually the fourth attempt at a church named for Paul in that spot, the previous three having been destroyed) in 1087, the same year much of the city was devastated by fire, and was delayed by a fire in 1135.
It was then destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, at which point the old structure was razed in favor of the new St Paul’s, which still stands today. Astonishingly, it was left undamaged by the German bombing during the second world war.
2. St Martin’s Cathedral, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1253
St Martin’s was originally established by Frankish clergy around 630. It was destroyed by Normans in the ninth century, rebuilt in the 10th - and then partially destroyed by fire in 1253.
The cathedral in all its Gothic glory that exists today was put up in 1254. (That isn’t to say the building was never tested again. Seven centuries later, in 1964, the central nave collapsed because of a storm.)
3. Notre Dame, Reims, France, World War I
In 1914, during the first world war, more than two dozen German shells hit this cathedral. The wooden scaffolding was set on fire, which in turn lit the oak of the roof. The lead used to seal the roof melted, which in turn set, for example, the wooden pews on fire. Stained glass windows and pillars and statuary were destroyed.
The building was hit again in 1917 and 1918.
Reims was restored and fully reopened in 1938.
4. Santa Maria Del Mar, Barcelona, Spain, 1936
In the late 14th century, the bishop of Barcelona, Pere Planella, consecrated this cathedral. The basilica withstood different kinds of turmoil through the ages, including a 1428 earthquake which caused several casualties and destroyed the rose window in the west end. But nothing, according to the cathedral’s website, quite compares to July 1936, at the beginning of the Civil War, when Santa Maria Del Mar was set on fire. It burned for 11 days straight.
The baroque altar, among other images and archives of historical significance, were destroyed. However, the walls, columns and some of the stained glass windows managed to outlast the flames.
5. Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany, World War II
The Cologne Cathedral was tested by multiple wars. In 1794, the Rhineland was occupied by French Revolution troops. The cathedral was used for, among other things, a detention center for prisoners of war. In 1797 and 1798, prisoners used the nave’s wood furnishings for firewood. It wasn’t until 1821 that the Archdiocese of Cologne was reestablished (although the building was used as a parish church beginning in 1801). Nevertheless, the two towers of the cathedral were completed in the 1860s and 70s.
But the dark days for the cathedral were not over yet. During the second world war, the cathedral was damaged by 14 high-explosive bombs and 70 fire bombs. But the medieval windows were removed in time, and other treasured items were protected by sandbags. What’s more, the cathedral workshop managed to restore the choir and transept in time for the 700th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone - that is, by 1948.
6. St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, Ireland, 2009
St Mel’s cathedral in Ireland was built in the 19th century. However, as the result of an accidental fire, it burned on Christmas Day in 2009. Five years later, in 2014, it reopened.