This week’s fire at Notre Dame in Paris left the iconic cathedral’s timber-framed roof and spire destroyed. But as Associate Professor of Art and Architecture Michael Tinkler explains, the vaulted ceiling, the towers and overall structural integrity are intact thanks to the techniques utilized by builders and masons during Notre Dame’s nearly two-hundred year construction.
Tinkler, who specializes in early medieval European art and architecture and teaches courses at HWS covering the Gothic style of Notre Dame, is particularly interested in structural design and construction, and how and why those aspects of the period’s architecture evolved.
As Tinkler explained to KCEN TV in Texas following the April 15 fire, the cathedral’s “ceiling is a beautiful, heavy stone vault…The thing is, they built those to fireproof those buildings in the middle ages because lots of medieval churches burned.”
The vaulting results in a “fireproofing from both sides,” Tinkler says, to contain fires that could begin from the candles lighting the church from within or from lightning strikes from above.
As he explained in the Houston Museum of Natural History blog post this week, “Before the late 11th Century church roofs tended to be exposed wooden truss systems, sometimes with a flat wooden drop ceiling. Earlier churches began to be rebuilt with stone or brick vaulting or planned with vaulting after 1075. The first 50 years or so of vaulted architecture tends to be identified as the Romanesque style, with early Gothic starting in 1140. Notre-Dame in Paris was begun in 1163, and was planned with stone vaulting.”
In these techniques, and many of its other architectural features, Notre Dame established the standard for church construction throughout Gothic era.
“It was such an important building that it was imitated all over,” says Tinkler. “It was the cathedral of the capital of France, the most unified country of the middle ages, so it set the mold for lots of churches. The South Rose window was tremendously innovative for 1250. As soon as you turn around people are imitating it.”
Preliminary speculation attributes the spread of the fire to the wooden beams (known as “the forest”) that supported the roof structure. “Few of them are younger than 1850 and many date back to 1200s,” says Tinkler, though he adds that the fire was kept from spreading “in large part because of medieval construction.”
He says that in addition to the vaulting and the stonework, “I wonder about the lead, which melts at a fairly low temperature, but I wonder if the weight and thickness of it helped keep the fire from spreading [further].”
As the cleanup continues following the fire, and damage assessments begin, Tinkler suspects that the crews involved will find some features in worse shape “than they thought when they get up close, and some that’s not as bad as expected. Cathedrals that size have a permanent workshop and a permanent architect on staff — things are always being restored, so they’ll have a pretty good baseline of where they were before the fire.”
Even with that baseline for restoration, “it will take a lot of work,” Tinkler says.
“They could open parts of the building as soon as they get the rubble cleared out,” he says, but even before reconstruction, plans will have to contend with European Union and French preservation regulations.
“Going back to the 19th century there have been restorations of church roofs in France with metal, and when they have done work in the last 100 years, the French have been willing to do that. But in some situation, historical preservation codes would require you to use original materials,” Tinker explains.
“I’m not so much of a purist,” he says, noting that the cathedral has changed so much over the centuries that deviation from original materials doesn’t concern him. “I’m not offended by a metal structure inside, if that’s what it takes to rebuild.”
A member of the HWS faculty since 1999, Tinkler earned his Ph.D. from Emory University and his bachelor’s degree from Rice University. His research ranges from medieval art and architecture to 19th century reuse of medieval style buildings in Upstate New York, with a primary emphasis on eighth- to 10th-century Europe and buildings associated with members of the court of Charlemagne.
Tinkler has served as a member of the Committee on the Faculty, the President’s Budget Advisory Task Force, and the Provost Search Committee. He has served as faculty advisor to the Newman Catholic Community and a commissioner on the Geneva Human Rights Commission. He regularly leads students abroad in the Rome, Italy program. In 2012, he was awarded the faculty prize for community service.