‘Miracles’ in the Fire: The Burning of Notre-Dame

Joe Nickell

When the treasured Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered a devastating fire in 2019—beginning on the evening of Monday, April 15, and burning for over twelve hours—few could ignore the irony. Occurring during Holy Week (Easter Day was April 21), the horrific event may have seemed to supernaturalists to represent the wrath of God unleashed, or to others God’s willingness to allow a profound test of faith. The Vatican seemed capable only of expressing its “shock and sadness,” together with its closeness to the Parisian people. “We pray for the firefighters,” a statement read, “and for all those doing what can be done to face this dramatic situation.”

Some atheists gloated over the tragedy, insisting to believers that it was “more proof that their god is a fake”; others expressed sympathy. One stated, “The corruption and dishonesty of the church don’t diminish the breathtaking artistry and skill of the people who built Notre Dame.”

When the news came that the cathedral was not a total loss (the reasons for which will be considered presently), the faithful rallied. Soon, despite the tremendous damage to the structure, whatever had escaped destruction was advanced as evidence of “miracles”—no matter how unlikely the premise, how trivial the focus, or how dubious the authenticity of certain holy relics that were spared.

The editors of the Winchester Star (April 17, 2019) spoke of “Miracles amidst fire and smoke,” adding, “During this Holy Week, we see reminders in the form of miracles, and the hope they embody. Namely that, within smoldering ruin, we can still witness the faith that moved men to move timber and stone to an island in the Seine to glorify their creator.” The U.K. tabloid Mirror quoted several persons who used the word miracle to describe a photo showing a cross at the altar that remained intact, seemingly “emitting a warm glow.”

Another source also responded to the photo showing unharmed pews “and miraculously, the altar with a golden cross intact,” although, as we shall see, the cathedral’s stone vault simply kept most of the roof fire from the structure below.

‘Miracles’

Some of the faithful seemed really to believe the miraculous was operating within the burning cathedral. But what is a miracle? The term is frequently defined as that which eludes explanation by the laws of nature, but that supposed inexplicability is based on a logical fallacy known as arguing from ignorance—that is, from a lack of knowledge. We cannot claim that we do not know the cause of something and then conclude that therefore we really do know that it was “a miracle from God.” In much popular and journalistic use, miraculous often means little more than “remarkable” or “fantastic.”

The claim that some “miraculous” event is indeed supernatural is invariably trumped by the old skeptical maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” and the principle known as Occam’s razor, that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred. Science, in fact, has never authenticated a single miracle.

Art and Artifacts

Nevertheless, speaking of “the miracles that accompanied this disaster, the things that survived the fire,” Guideposts devotional magazine unabashedly listed “the Rose windows, the stained glass, the organ, the relics, the statuary … the [main] altar.” A cathedral spokesperson was somewhat more circumspect, referring to the rescued art and relics as “a bit of a miracle.” Here is a brief look at some of what was spared by, or rescued from, the fire.

Rose Windows. Among Notre-Dame’s most famous features are its three great medieval rose windows. These date from about 1225, 1250, and 1260, although the glass of the oldest is not original, having been recreated during the nineteenth century. The fire left the three windows essentially intact. However, there was some damage, and one of the priceless gems was expected to need dismantling, being “unstable and at risk”—hardly deserving of the term miracle.

The Great Organ. With nearly 8,000 pipes, the massive organ at Notre-Dame is one of the largest in the world. It survived, yet concern has been expressed that the fire—with the attendant smoke, heat, and water damage—might have left its lasting effects on the magnificent instrument.

Statues and Paintings. Many artworks were saved. Several statues that had been previously removed from the spire for restoration were thus also saved. Rescued paintings were transported to the Louvre museum where they are to be protected, dehumidified, and restored. Nevertheless, several treasured artworks perished in the Notre-Dame blaze.

Notre-Dame Bells. The cathedral’s iconic bells—immortalized in Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame—were not harmed. All ten of the bells were rendered safe from the blaze when firefighters, at enormous personal risk, were able to keep the flames from the bell towers. (In January 1971, I climbed the long, long spiral stairway of the north tower to view Paris—a memory that came back with the fire and sent me again to my old travel journal from that time; see figure 1.)

Alleged Relics of Christ

The reputed Christian relics that escaped destruction deserve a special discussion. Three of “the most important relics in Christendom” were saved—both a sliver of wood and a nail from the reputed True Cross, together with the Crown of Thorns allegedly worn by Jesus at his crucifixion (Mark 14:15–20). According to journalist Chris Morris, the crown is considered “the cathedral’s most valued relic.”

However, all three relics have a rather notorious pseudo-history, including outlandish claims that they themselves possess miraculous powers. According to pious tales, Helena—the mother of Roman emperor Constantine—received heavenly visions in 326 that directed her to Jerusalem. There she discovered the holy tomb where Jesus’s cross had been secreted. Indeed, the tomb allegedly proved a veritable storeroom of crucifixion treasures. In addition to the holy cross and its Titulus (or title board), there were the crosses of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, together with nails, the crown of thorns, and much more.

Supposedly divided and subdivided, the True Cross provided so many alleged fragments that Protestant John Calvin wryly observed there were enough to “form a whole ship’s cargo.” (I have encountered several during my half-century career.) In fact, there were so many that there grew an attendant claim that the cross could miraculously replenish itself, no matter how many pieces were taken! Allegedly miraculous crucifixion nails were also prolific—even though another legend, which I recount in my book Relics of the Christ, relates how Helena threw one into the Gulf of Venice to quell a storm.

Mark Twain delighted in pointing out that whereas one fragment of the crown of thorns was at St. Peter’s and another in Milan, “they have a whole one at Notre Dame.” It may itself be only a portion, and all its thorns were distributed as relics over time (see Nickell 2007, 100–103). Several other relics were held in Notre-Dame’s tall spire, which caught fire, burned, and collapsed during the long conflagration. In brief, some genuine relics perished while several notorious fakes survived—evidently not a very miraculous selection process.

Science to the Rescue

Scientific investigation is now offering clues to what may have caused the fire, which appears to have started beneath the roof where renovation work was being conducted. This presented various risks, including possible short circuits, sparks, heat from welding, and the like. As well, cigarette butts were discovered on the renovation scaffolding.

Whatever the actual cause of the fire, it is now clear that science, not prayer, was instrumental in minimizing the damage and helping to save so much.

A fire alarm sounded at 6:20 p.m., and guards quickly evacuated Notre-Dame. Human error in sending a guard to the wrong location caused a delay that allowed the fire to grow. From beneath the cathedral’s oak and lead roof, flames advanced to climb and claim the cathedral’s spire. It collapsed at 7:50 p.m. Abandoning attempts to extinguish the blazing roof, firefighters turned to the towers, and by 9:45 had the fire under control, although many hours more were required to extinguish it completely. In all, some 400 firefighters engaged the blaze, while another hundred formed a human chain to remove objects to safety.

Scientific principles were used to fight the conflagration. The fire was mostly attacked from inside the cathedral. Although that was riskier to firefighters, it reduced possible damage to the structure. (Application of water from the outside had risked deflecting the flames and their hot gases—at up to 1500° F—inward. Water for this purpose was provided by boats pumping from the river Seine, but it had not worked. Aerial firefighting—such as suggested by Donald Trump—was avoided because the weight of dropped water might have caused structural damage; also, hot stone may crack if suddenly cooled).

The cathedral’s own medieval construction in the Gothic style—combining a powerful stone vault with pointed arches—had helped protect cathedrals since the mid-twelfth century. The method spread in popularity across Europe after many Romanesque churches succumbed to fire due to their older barrel vaults being constructed of wood.

The fire at Notre-Dame was thus something of an experiment in pitting science against faith. Consequently, what was trusted only to supernatural protection was largely lost, while that secured by the twelfth-century Gothic stone vault and strategic firefighting mostly endured. Thus, science even helped rescue notoriously fake relics, for which claims of attendant miracles are so utterly absurd.

 


Further Reading

  • Atheist Republic. “The Notre Dame Fire is More Proof that Their God is Fake.” April 15, 2019. Available online at https://www.atheistrepublic.com/forums/debate-room/notre-dame-fire-more-proof-their-god-fake; accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Harmon, Catherine. “Vatican Expresses ‘Shock and Sorrow’ over Notre Dame Fire [UPDATED].” April 15, 2019. Available online at https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/04/15/vatican-expresses-shock-and-sorrow-over-notre-dame-fire/; accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Raleigh, Helen. “The Holiest Week Began with a Tragedy, Ends with a Miracle.” April 21, 2019. Available online at https://townhall.com/columnists/helenraleigh/2019/04/21/the-holiest-week-began-with-a-tragedy-ends-with-miracles-n2545097; accessed July 18, 2019.
  • “Miracles at the Cathedral.” n.d. Available online at https:www.guideposts.org/miracles-at-the-cathedral-of-notre-dame-after-the-fire; accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Morris, Chris. “It’s a Bit of a Miracle.” Fortune, April 16, 2019. Available online at https://fortune.com/2019/04/16/notre-dame-fire-saved-relics-crown-of-thorns; accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Nickell, Joe. Relics of the Christ. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
  • O’Leary, Abigail. “Notre Dame fire; ‘Miracle’ as Cross Survives in Heart of Cathedral Despite Blaze.” n.d. Available online at https://www.mirror.coluk/news/world-news/notre-dame-fire-miracle-cross-14338157; accessed July 25, 2019.
  • Peltier, Elian, et al. “Notre Dame Came Far Closer to Collapsing than People Knew. New York Times, July 16, 2019.
  • Rea, Naomi. “See Seven of the Most Precious Relics That Survived the Blaze at Notre Dame.” April 17, 2019. Available online athttps://news.artnet.com/art-world/7-artworks-and-relics-survived-notre-dame-fire-1518991; accessed July 26.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, PhD, is a former investigator with a world-famous detective agency who has been consulted in homicide and questioned-document cases. Among his numerous books are Relics of the Christ and The Science of Miracles.


When the treasured Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered a devastating fire in 2019—beginning on the evening of Monday, April 15, and burning for over twelve hours—few could ignore the irony. Occurring during Holy Week (Easter Day was April 21), the horrific event may have seemed to supernaturalists to represent the wrath of God unleashed, or …

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