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Notre Dame: An Evolving Symbol Of France Is Bound To Live On

The events that have marked the 800-year history of the Notre Dame cathedral bear witness to the monument’s eternal meaning and national symbolism.

Notre Dame burning on April 15
Notre Dame burning on April 15
Xavier Kawa-Topor

-Essay-

PARIS — It is not only a monument that burned, it is Notre Dame de Paris. A major place of worship, a masterpiece of Gothic art and an eternal witness to the history of France was partially destroyed by fire through Monday night.

Renowned French historian Jacques Le Goff once noted that this wonder of the Middle Ages has traversed the long history of Paris, as it transformed repeatedly over the years, all the while preserving its defining social and symbolic characteristic: being a place of devotion and emotion for all. It is a statement that is truer than ever, as this very emotion, like the fire, has spread across the capital, throughout France and around the world.

"The cathedral seems eternal, and yet few buildings have been as subject to the changes of historical evolution as it has been," wrote Le Goff in his 2005 book Héros et merveilles du Moyen Age ("Heroes and Wonders of the Middle Ages'). In fact, the history of these buildings are often older than their stones, not only because they were often preceded by places of pagan worship, early Christian buildings or Romanesque churches on their very locations, but also because of the transformations, destruction and restorations that they have undergone.

Notre Dame is no exception to this rule. Its construction began in 1163, under Bishop Maurice de Sully, and spanned more than two centuries. It was initially part of the great period of Gothic cathedrals, between 1130 and 1280, at a time when, in French historian Georges Duby's own words, "the horizons of European civilization changed profoundly."

Notre Dame, circa 1860 — Photo: Edouard Baldus/David Hunter McAlpin Fund

Like its sisters in Chartres, Reims, Amiens or Troyes, the Parisian cathedral is not only the product of the economic and urban development of medieval France, it also testifies to the revaluation of religion during the Gregorian reform. Driven by a spiritual, economic and architectural momentum, ever taller and taller buildings were being built in the heart of cities, awe-inspiring in their size. The symbolic strength of the cathedral lies in its its inscription in time and space.

But the strengthening of royal power also explains this "time of the cathedrals." Le Goff explains that these "were linked to States and nations in the making. From being the monument of a city, the cathedral became the monument of a state. The great events that have marked the history of the cathedral over the past centuries bear witness to the monument's eternal and powerful national significance. After it was transformed into a temple of Reason in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the cathedral was, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, a venue for great ceremonies: Napoleon I's coronation in 1804, the celebration of the Liberation of Paris in 1944, the funerals of Presidents Adolphe Thiers, Sadi Carnot, Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand ... Eventually overshadowing the places where royal power was most sacred, like the cathedrals of Reims and Saint-Denis.

The symbol of French nationality and the most powerful attempt at unity.

This movement coincides with Romanticism, a great period of resurgence of the Middle Ages and its myths. The cathedral became one of the places of the romantic imagination, thanks in large part to Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), in which the writer raises public awareness of the degraded state of the monument and creates a myth: From now on, the image of Notre Dame is inseparable from that of Esmeralda and Quasimodo. "How can we count our beautiful 13th-century churches?" said Jules Michelet, supposedly offended, in French History. "I meant to talk about Notre Dame de Paris. But someone has marked this monument with such a lion's claw that no one will dare touch it anymore. It is his thing now, it is his fief; the stronghold of Quasimodo. He built, next to the old cathedral, a cathedral of poetry, as firm as the foundations of the other, as high as its towers."

This mysticism developed in the wake of Victor Hugo, who associated the monument with the genius of the French people. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc — the great restorer of Notre Dame and builder of the cathedral's spire, destroyed by Monday night's fire — replied to Hugo in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française (1854): "The cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries are, in my opinion, the symbol of French nationality and the most powerful attempt at unity."

What remains of Notre Dame de Paris today? In view of all the treasures that were reduced to ashes, the material disaster is significant, irreversible. But the myth is greater still, as evidenced by the international outpouring of emotion. Yes, Notre Dame is that unique convergence of spirituality, history and imagination that belongs to everyone. It will continue to live through the centuries, even if it must be rebuilt piece by piece, like the ancient ship of Theseus.

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