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A history of great cathedrals that have been lost to fire and war

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4 days ago Emily Tamkin
a large stone building with smoke coming out of it: Flames engulf the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15 in the French capital Paris. (Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images) © Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images Flames engulf the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15 in the French capital Paris. (Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

The fire that engulfed Notre Dame on Monday, largely destroying a building that had stood for more than eight centuries, felt unprecedented. And in one sense, it was: How else can one describe the destruction 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 lost to fire, war or worse. 

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a close up of text on a white surface: View of St Paul's Cathedral, London, burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © Heritage Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images View of St Paul's Cathedral, London, burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Old St. Paul’s, London, 1135, 1666

Construction began on Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (actually the fourth attempt at a church named for Paul in that spot, the previous three having been destroyed) in 1807, the same year much of the city was ravaged 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.

a view of a city at night: A New Year's Eve fireworks display illuminates the sky over the Dom Tower on Jan. 1, 2012, in Utrecht, Netherlands. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) © Jasper Juinen/Getty Images A New Year's Eve fireworks display illuminates the sky over the Dom Tower on Jan. 1, 2012, in Utrecht, Netherlands. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

St. Martin’s, Utrecht, 1253

St. Martin’s was originally established by Frankish clergy around 630. It was destroyed by Normans in the 9th 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.)

a vintage photo of a person: The cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, in Reims, France, which was badly damaged by German shelling in September 1914. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ) © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divis... The cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, in Reims, France, which was badly damaged by German shelling in September 1914. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division )

Notre Dame, Reims, World War I

In 1914, during World War I, 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.

a large tall tower with a clock on the side of a building: Church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona  (iStock) © iStock/iStock Church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona (iStock)

Santa Maria Del Mar, Barcelona, 1936

In the late 14th century, the bishop of Barcelona, Pere Planella, consecrated this cathedral. While the basilica withstood different kinds of turmoil through the ages, nothing, per the cathedral’s website, quite compares to July 1936, 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.

a close up of a church: The Cologne Cathedral (High Cathedral of Saint Peter), a Roman Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, between 1915-1920. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ) © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divis... The Cologne Cathedral (High Cathedral of Saint Peter), a Roman Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, between 1915-1920. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division )

Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, 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 World War II, 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.

a man holding a sign: St. Mel's Cathedral restoration. The cathedral, which opened in 1856, was gutted by a fire that began in a chimney flue on Christmas Day in 2009. (Julien Behal/PA Wire) © Julien Behal/PA Wire/Press Association Images St. Mel's Cathedral restoration. The cathedral, which opened in 1856, was gutted by a fire that began in a chimney flue on Christmas Day in 2009. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)

St. Mel’s, 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.

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