Why the Notre-Dame inferno moved so many to tears

by Ruth Barnard / 17 April, 2019

A brief history of the iconic Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and why the fire – which was thankfully put out before destroying the entire structure – captured the world's gaze. 

The spectacle on April 16 of Notre-Dame (Our Lady) engulfed in flames has brought many onlookers to tears. But what makes her such a treasure? Why was her falling spire engulfed in flames so moving?

People who have been lucky enough to stand in her presence have not only seen her but been seen by her. As you gaze at Notre-Dame as a tourist or local spectator on the Île de la Cité, or even at an image of her on the news, you become part of her story that spans back 850 years.

Her life has always been bound to the people. During her early construction in the 12th century her scale, her centrality to the city, and her position facing the Royal Palace, echoed the commercial and intellectual expansion of Paris. There was a strong connection between her and the neighbouring palace as the King and Bishop had dual authority over the city. Along with the grandeur of power and sovereignty, her early story of creation is bound to the arduous labour, strength and endurance that brought her into the world. Although her early construction began in the 12th century she wasn't completed until the 14th century, in 1345.

Just as human hands built and protected her, human hands have also destroyed her. In 1790 she was attacked, with statues beheaded by mobs during the French Revolution. Neglect has seen her deterioration. When Victor Hugo's epic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published in 1831, it brought attention to the deteriorating cathedral. Hugo's novel was written as a tribute to all that she is and it changed her fate; many people came to see her which prompted her restoration.

Hugo, a novelist, poet and playwright, remains a national icon today. His novel not only saved Notre-Dame but his words continue to speak to us of humanity and how people, like cathedrals, may not be as they first appear. In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the protagonist's relationship to the cathedral brings her saints and monsters to life. He writes:

“The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him” – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

The cathedral's French Gothic architecture is a combination of saints, gargoyles and towers which together, create a silent symphony. She is also a body in which the sound of bells and choirs resound throughout time. In the 12th and 13th century, Notre-Dame's school of composers are said to have influenced the development of polyphonic compositions. In more recent history, to mark the end of the Nazi occupation in 1944 and celebrate the liberation of Paris, her bells rang out and the Christian hymn Magnificat (The Song of Mary) was sung. Until the recent fires, she had continued to be used as a place of worship, and was alive with hymns. 

Notre-Dame on fire. Photo/Wikimedia Commons.

Victor Hugo described Notre-Dame as a “symphony in stone.”

“Every face, every stone, of this venerable monument, is a page not only of the history, of the country, but of the history of science and art.”

As Notre-Dame's silhouetted spire fell, engulfed in flames, hymns spontaneously broke out among the spectators. She still inspires and moves something in us all. Her structure is filled with light and shadow that give us hints of all that she knows, all that she loves and all that she is.

It's described in the preface of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that the book was founded on the word 'ANArKH' which was inscribed on the wall in one of Notre-Dame's towers. The word itself means 'fate'. Perhaps more interesting is that the word is also said to have been whitewashed over. Demonstrating, perhaps, that the fate of places or people may be altered with human hands.

Notre-Dame de Paris, the heart of the city of love, is both fragile and strong, monstrous and magnificent, she is rooted in the past with eyes on the future and she knows both pain and joy. The recent image of her burning tower bought despair and sorrow which is now being met with a resounding symphony of hope.

Follow NOTED on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our email newsletter for more news.

Latest

The new robotic surgery helping vaginal mesh removal
108377 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

The new robotic surgery helping vaginal mesh remov…

by Ruth Nichol

Women with complications caused by deeply embedded vaginal mesh are being aided by a pioneering surgical technique.

Read more
A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can teach us
108544 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can…

by Fergus Riley

North Auckland farmer Fergus Riley has uncovered many important lessons in caring for his father Peter, who has Alzheimer’s.

Read more
When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegradable
108562 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Planet

When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegr…

by Isabel Thomlinson

A study on biodegradable plastic bags found they were still intact after three years spent either at sea or buried underground.

Read more
Brexit-torn England needs the Cricket World Cup more than we do
108521 2019-07-18 10:26:20Z World

Brexit-torn England needs the Cricket World Cup mo…

by The Listener

Amid the agony of defeat, we must remember that the UK is in such terrible shape politically that it deserves to cherish this flickering flame of...

Read more
Trades Hall bombing case re-opened, evidence released
108515 2019-07-18 00:00:00Z Crime

Trades Hall bombing case re-opened, evidence relea…

by RNZ

Caretaker and unionist Ernie Abbott was killed almost instantly when he picked up the suitcase containing the bomb.

Read more
Where to celebrate the Apollo 11 moon landing
108504 2019-07-18 00:00:00Z What's on

Where to celebrate the Apollo 11 moon landing

by The Listener

On the big screen, the small screen, the page or the ceiling, here's where you can toast the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

Read more
Why we need to plant more native trees than pines
108089 2019-07-18 00:00:00Z Planet

Why we need to plant more native trees than pines

by Jane Clifton

We do need more trees, but native species may be a better long-term choice than pine trees.

Read more
How to eat a New Zealand forest, and other secrets
108277 2019-07-18 00:00:00Z Planet

How to eat a New Zealand forest, and other secrets…

by Sally Blundell

Our native forests provide food and natural medicines, support jobs, hinder erosion and play a major role in climate-change mitigation.

Read more