I was born about a 30-minute walk from the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. To me, the cathedral, sitting serenely on the banks of the Seine, had always seemed as solid and enduring as the stone it was built from.
At more than 850 years old, the cathedral has been not only the heart of Paris but of France itself. It has been witness to the coronation of an emperor and the making of saints. The years ushered in the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and recent terrorist attacks, and yet still it stands.
And after the fire of April 15, it stands now, even if charred and spireless.
As firefighters battled and the flames quieted and died, bystanders gathered, and the soft sound of their songs and prayers resounded through the night.
From all around the world came expressions of support.
What was it about the fire at Notre Dame that touched us so much?
Transcendent beauty, the symbol of a nation, and connection with the divine—to many, Notre Dame represents all of these.
“It is more than the soul of Paris that has been touched, it’s the soul of France,” said Marion Sigaut, a French historian based in Paris. “The kings of France came to pray at Notre Dame. They were crowned at Saint-Denis but they came to pray at Notre Dame. … This is where they sang ‘Te deum,’ where they came to give thanks to God.”
For anyone who has had the chance to visit the cathedral, the news of the fire brought back vivid memories.
Skye Sherman, a travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida, took in the wonder of the cathedral during her first trip abroad with her husband. “I remember shuffling through the dark, magnificent building when, suddenly and unexpectedly, the bells rang, reverberating through the building and adding to the hauntingly beautiful environment,” she said in an email.
“It was the first time I can remember my husband and I looking at each other in utter awe and amazement at what we were witnessing, with total wonder in both of our eyes as we took in the experience. The music filled the cathedral, and you could feel it all the way through to your heart. It is one of the most visceral memories I have from all of my travels.”
Miami-based architect Kobi Karp visited Notre Dame as a student in 1986.
Buildings are not just buildings, he said. The cathedral was also “the home of the community—a place where people go in a time of celebration, a time of mourning, a time of war, a time of concern.”
He reflected on how Notre Dame survived through the ages and, just in the last century, through two world wars. “You can argue the French gave up Paris so it wouldn’t get bombed,” he said.
“It’s a marvel of engineering, [designed] to make you come down to your knees, literally, to put God in your heart, soul, and mind. So if you didn’t fear God before, guess what? You would have a reconsideration when you walked into this space.
“The sound of it—it’s disengaged from the city outside. It’s quiet, peaceful, intimate. It offers the opportunity for meditation, thoughtfulness, away from what you do on a daily basis.”
The Novel That Saved the Cathedral
As enduring as the cathedral seems, at almost 900 years old, it has met with damage and the need for renovation many times. Just as it does today, it has always needed champions.
Novelist Victor Hugo was one of them. He praised the Gothic style, which was deemed old-fashioned at the time. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which was published in 1831, devotes more than 3,000 words to the description of the cathedral, recalling its beauty and detailing its decay at the hands of time and man.
Book Three, Chapter I, starts thus:
“The church of Notre Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.”
The novel’s main character, the bell-ringer Quasimodo, disdained and physically deformed, was a metaphor for the cathedral itself, and Hugo was able to elicit the public’s sympathy for both:
“His cathedral was sufficient for him. It was peopled with marble figures—kings, saints, bishops—who at least did not burst out laughing in his face, and who gazed upon him only with tranquillity and kindliness. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, cherished no hatred for him, Quasimodo. He resembled them too much for that. They seemed rather, to be scoffing at other men. The saints were his friends, and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and guarded him. So he held long communion with them. He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it. If any one came, he fled like a lover surprised in his serenade.”
The novel’s popularity was a huge boost for Notre Dame; and in 1844, King Louis Philippe ordered its restoration, which included the 750-ton spire that burned and collapsed during the fire this month.
A Human Chain
Thanks to firefighters who formed a human chain, artifacts of inestimable worth were saved, including the tunic of the beloved King Louis IX and the crown of thorns, which was believed to have been worn by Jesus.
Some say it was a miracle that these items were saved. And only days before the fire, 16 copper statues representing the 12 apostles and the four evangelists were removed from the top of the spire and sent to the southwest of France for restoration.
The cathedral’s altar and a sculpture of the Pietà by Nicolas Coustou, which was commissioned by King Louis XIV, also were spared.
Perhaps another miracle, in light of the unrest and pessimism that has dogged France in recent times, is how the hearts of men and women were, in unity, moved to action and reflection.
And yet, the damage to Notre Dame, in a sense, is not just about Notre Dame. As Karp pointed out, it reminds us that there are buildings worth preserving all over the world.
They are a repository of history and meaning. Without care, some decay with time. Others crumble under the weight of war.
A friend of mine, Navy veteran and Epoch Times contributor Amanda Burrill, was once deployed to the Persian Gulf. With the screaming sounds of Tomahawk missiles overhead, she said, “my thoughts were, of course, on the people in harm’s way, but also on the museums and antiquities being destroyed. Those thoughts brought me to tears.”
Years later, she lived in the Marais, down the street from Notre Dame. When the fire blazed on April 15, the sight of firefighters carrying out the precious artifacts brought her untold relief, she said.
In every generation, we have to decide for ourselves if works of transcendent beauty and divine meaning—whether a building or objects—are worth saving.
Just like a human chain, their preservation asks for nothing less than a transmission, made from person to person, of a shared reverence for our heritage—be it for the sacred and religious, or national and historical, significance.
In a suburb about five miles north of the center of Paris, the magnificent Basilica of St. Denis, recently made the news for being vandalized. The incident is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon that is often downplayed. In March, an exclusive from French newspaper Le Figaro mentioned a statistic from the French national police: 877 French churches were vandalized in 2018. Will the renewed interest in Notre Dame add a measure of protection for other churches?
And will other buildings around the world, rich in heritage and history, be looked at differently?
Rebuilding Notre Dame
Martin Soler, a resident of Paris, found hope in how spontaneously French citizens responded to fund the cathedral’s restoration.
“In less than 48 hours, over 1 billion euros has been pledged to the restoration. … That so many people will put the beauty and survival of our worldwide cultural heritage before their own profit or even necessities goes to show that how much people care for making the world a little bit more beautiful,” he said.
To rebuild the cathedral, Karp said, will not be a complicated matter. It will, however, be time-consuming, due to the conversations and debates that will ensue to decide in what manner it should be rebuilt.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced a design competition to rebuild “a new spire that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.”
Karp sees an opportunity to incorporate fire safety standards, but he believes “a historic structure should be rebuilt and brought back to life the way they were before the fire, not repurposed in shape or form.”
“We are smart enough, we have the photographic, digital records of the structure to let us do that,” though there will have to be some “compromise in some shape or form,” he said.
“Notre Dame will never be the same 100 percent, but then again it was never the same. Buildings change, as do people.”
Notre Dame, though partly burned, lives on. And having reawakened the hearts of the people of France, and the world, she will continue to endure.
Sigaut, the historian, said, “Ever since France was France, her heart beat at Notre Dame.”
Channaly Philipp is a senior editor at The Epoch Times.
Epoch Times reporter David Vives in France contributed to this report.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.