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.

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