Wednesday 17 April 2019


Notre-Dame de Paris - Wikipedia

What can one post about today? 

There's only one image in my mind: the beautiful  Notre Dame de Paris, wrapped in that gigantic cage of flame, and then the fall of that delicate spire.  

I visited the cathedral of Notre Dame a year or so ago, on a rare weekend away with my daughter, so the image of the cathedral and the Isle de France are mixed up, for me,  with the pleasure of that trip. Like so many, I am feeling real sadness about such destruction and was pleased to hear the President, among others, declaring that the cathedral will be restored to glory.

Notre Dame has known neglected during her life. Begun in 1163 and completed in 1345, the church was damaged during the reign of Louis XIV, when the rood screen was torn down and some of the stained glass windows replaced by plain glass. After that, during the French Revolution, many of the statues were defaced and destroyed. The original spire fell down after a windstorm, the bells taken down and melted and the lead from the roof used to make bullets. Even when, in 1802, Notre Dame was returned to the Catholic Church, the ancient church was left to decay.

However, Victor Hugo stepped forward. He was an architectural preservationist and, in 1825 , wrote an ardent pamphlet in praise of the art of Gothic architecture and promoting the restoration of Notre Dame. Hugo followed this by his great passionate novel, originally titled NOTRE DAME-DE PARIS, set in the fifteenth century and setting the language of ecclesiastical sculpture against the rise of the revolutionary printing press.

Hugo's readers identified with the emotional bond between Quasimodo - a hunchbacked foundling based on the chimerical street  - and the cathedral's over-arching. maternal protection. The novel soon became known as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Hugo writes, of Quasimodo:
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.

And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe, and all nature beside. He dreamed of no other hedgerows than the painted windows, always in flower; no other shade than that of the foliage of stone which spread out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their bases.

What he loved above all else in the maternal edifice, that which aroused his soul, and made it open its poor wings, which it kept so miserably folded in its cavern, that which What he loved above all else in the maternal edifice, that which aroused his soul, and made it open its poor wings, which it kept so miserably folded in its cavern, that which sometimes rendered him even happy, was the bells. He loved them, fondled them, talked to them, understood them. From the chime in the spire, over the intersection of the aisles and nave, to the great bell of the front, he cherished a tenderness for them all. The central spire and the two towers were to him as three great cages, whose birds, reared by himself, sang for him alone. “

 Hugo's novel led, in 1841, to a significant period of restoration and right now, there seem to be rumours of the fire springing from underfunded restoration and the State's responsibility for the French cathedrals. 

Yet there seems to be a wish for Notre Dame to be rebulit and restored. In the face of all the other world problems, recreating an ancient church seems almost a kind of folly but there is no doubt that her iconic and spiritual status matters in what had been seen as a secular, European age.

I cannot help wondering if there is any piece of  British architecture which, if caught in such a fiery inferno, would stir such strong emotions? Or, in a period when councils and companies are divesting themselves of bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, could such a project reap financial support?

Penny Dolan


Mike Hall said...

Well, for what it's worth both York Minster and Windsor were lovingly restored after similar - though I think less extensive - fires. Maybe there wouldn't be the same outpouring of emotion in the UK but if say, Westminster Abbey or Saint Paul's were to suffer the same fate would the reaction really be so different?

Penny Dolan said...

York Minster and its restoration after the fire, Mike, was popular and done well. Windsor Castle - being the Queen's home - had to be done.

I'd go with St. Paul's too, but only for the architecture and dome, but I am not sure there'd be so much love for Westminster Abbey? Again, is that the architectural style?

Also, I note that Notre Dame, supported by the French State not the church, is a "national monument" that is free to enter (which may also be behind someof the renovation problems) Does free access affect people's response to such places?

Thanks for commenting.