Under the bewildered eyes of the world’s tele-viewers, the spire of the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, collapsed in the middle of a burning roof. Early evening on Monday, April 15th, the most visited monument in Europe with more than 12 millions of visitors a year start burning. More than just a religious building, it is also one of the most remarkable symbols of France.
“It’s unbearable! Can you imagine? This is the image of our country. It’s something that touches us in the heart! It’s more than a symbol, we all feel bruised, hurt” Stéphane Bern said in tears. The TV host, one of the country’s favorite French and Monsieur Heritage of the country summed up the state of mind of a nation. “It’s something dreadful! I did not think I’d ever see that in my lifetime. Nobody has seen such a tragedy since the 13th century and now it has happened.”
The proof of the importance of this sequence, can be seen by how president Emmanuel Macron postponed a very important speech supposed to be presented as answers to the social movement of the yellow vests. In the streets of Paris, the people were serious and the fire created an atmosphere like a déjà vu” which reflected reactions after terrorist attacks that plunged the capital in violence 2015. Yet this time no human victim was to deplore. But the fire – presumably of accidental origin, had ravaged one of the jewels of France. A symbol of the rich history of France that transcends times, political opinions and beliefs.
Pic courtesy: indianpublicmedia.org
With the brilliance of the stained glass windows, the delicacy of its pillars, the height of its towers and the length of its nave, the Notre-Dame cathedral, dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Its construction began in 1163 AD under the inspiration of Bishop Maurice de Sully, at a time when Paris was – outside Italy – one of the most populous cities in Europe. The churches were too small, Christianity had to see grandeur. The search for height and the concern of the beautiful had the ambition of pleasing God and magnifying him.
On this construction site that lasted more than a hundred years (hence the French expression “wait 107 years”, which means wait a very long time) several generations of craftsmen of genius toiled in sweat: masons, carpenters, glassmakers. They came from all over France to say with pride: “I build cathedrals, sir!” Located on the Île de la Cité, in the heart of Paris, Notre-Dame with its towers of 69 meters, was for several centuries the highest construction of the city, until the construction of the Hotel des Invalides by Louis XIV.
Being the seat of the Archbishop of Paris, the cathedral almost missed being demolished during the Revolution, at the end of the 18th century. When Catholic worship was banned in Paris in 1793, it became for a few months a temple of Reason, before serving as a warehouse. Returned to the Catholic cult, in its bosom, the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804, under the title of Napoleon I, gives a new dimension to the building, somewhat dilapidated. The previous kings of France had been crowned at Reims. The scene of the coronation of Napoleon is immortalized by the painter Jacques-Louis David.
An illustration based on ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, Victor Hugo
In 1831, Victor Hugo somehow saves Notre-Dame from destruction. With his novel, “Notre-Dame de Paris”, a huge literary success, the French rediscover this Gothic building, as a symbol of the unity of the country.
Large renovations were undertaken under the direction of the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc between 1845 and 1864. It is to him that we owe the construction of the big arrow, which collapsed more than 150 years later. Represented on many iconic paintings including “The Freedom Guiding the People” by Eugène Delacroix in 1830, Notre-Dame has inspired many artists including Chagall, Picasso, Matisse, Buffet, Marquet, Signac, etc.
This is also the case of the writer Paul Claudel, who even testified that he found faith in hearing the Magnificat (a religious song also known as the Canticle of Mary): “In a moment my heart was touched and I believed.” This same Magnificat, General De Gaulle and General Leclerc intoned in the cathedral on August 26, 1944, the day of the Liberation of Paris of the German occupation, a further sign of the importance of this place in the history of France.
Notre-Dame de Paris is also highly visible in popular culture. In 1952, Edith Piaf, sang like this: “In the garden of Notre-Dame where one makes good friends, there is only to walk every morning, a little corn in the palm of the hands. The pigeons, I like them”. In reference to Victor Hugo’s character Quasimodo, Bob Dylan glided in 1965 in his song Desolation Row: “All except for Cain and Abel / The hunchback of Our Lady / Everybody is making love. the Notre-Dame de Paris musical, still inspired by Victor Hugo, revealed many French singers including Hélène Ségara, Garou, Patrick Fiori and Julie Zenatti, 20 years later, this musical continues to be performed and has more than 5000 performances.
More recently, in 2014, the video game Assassin’s Creed Unity put the building in the spotlight by modeling with remarkable realism the cathedral. The digital replica of the building could also be used to rebuild the stone one. President Emmanuel Macron announced his wish to see the cathedral rebuilt by 2024, the year of the Olympic Games in Paris. That would be, once again, a whole symbol.
– David Metreau