It has hosted kings and presidents the world over and survived numerous battles and invasions, but yesterday Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral could not survive a devastating fire. Although the main interior of the medieval Catholic Church is in relatively good shape considering the scope of the fire, its main roof and famous spire both collapsed as millions watched on TV and on the streets of Paris. The City of Love showed its love for its beloved cathedral and it was all so heart wrenching to watch both historically and personally.
I love Paris and just last year my daughter and I visited Notre Dame and I’d previously done so with my husband. Notre Dame was his favorite Paris site and he still uses the keychain he got there. As for my daughter, upon entering the majestic cathedral she was quickly told her uncovered shoulders were not allowed, prompting her to begrudgingly put on the packable and portable rain jacket I had in my purse. Frown and all, she marveled at the architecture and stained glass windows, and afterward she and I grabbed an outside table at Le Notre Dame bar and restaurant that sits directly across from the church. What fabulous memories of one fabulous landmark.
But enough about me. Let’s talk the grande dame herself.
If there can by any silver lining in yesterday’s devastating news, it is that because the structure was undergoing a renovation, many of the statues and pieces of art had been removed and last I heard the main structure and rectangular bell towers were saved. As for relics and works of art housed inside Notre Dame, it was with great relief to learn that first responders and their chaplain priest formed a human chain inside the burning building to save one of the world’s most priceless relics: Jesus Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Can you even imagine? I’m still in awe and in shock. And it doesn’t end there, housed with the Crown in the cathedral’s treasury were also a fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on, one of the Holy Nails used to crucify Him, and the 13th century tunic of St. Louis. It is all a miracle to say the least and what better week to witness miracles of this scale then Holy Week: Christianity’s holiest of weeks.
And this may be my favorite photo taken yesterday. Amidst all the rubble and devastation stands the gold altar cross beaming brightly above the almost untouched pieta:
As travel guru Rick Steves said, it’s hard to imagine the faith of those who built Notre Dame, all with hopes that their great-great-great-great- great- grandchildren may someday attend the dedication mass. They put so much time and labor into the structure; a structure they knew they’d never see finished. That is faith. A faith that in many ways sadly no longer exists today. Magnificently prophetic? Perhaps.
Notre Dame itself sits magnificently on the Ile de la Cite, the island on the River Seine that is the geographical heart of Paris and in the hearts of many Parisian. It’s actually where the medieval city was founded and all road distances in France are calculated from the 0 km point of the square facing Notre Dame’s western side…the very side my daughter and I faced as we enjoyed our rose and cheese plate after our tour.
The name “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady” in French and is a reference to Mary the mother of Jesus. The Cathedral is a symbol of Paris, Catholicism, and Christianity worldwide. It is also the city’s most visited monument, welcoming some 13 million people a year. It ranks in the Top 10 of world destinations and Top 5 of European destinations and is even more popular than Paris’ other landmark: The Eiffel Tower.
Ironically, when the church was built it was considered a “poor people’s book” as it was covered in sculpture and details illustrating biblical stories because the majority of its parishioners were illiterate. Centuries later, both rich and poor, educated and uneducated, marvel at its beauty. Yes, it’s a Catholic church first and foremost, but it’s also an architectural wonder and world treasure.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame took more than 200 years to build and it is said that craftsman no longer exist who could replicate what the original creators built. Its foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III and the cathedral was completed in the 13th century. The building consisted of 52 acres of timber and was nicknamed “The Forest,” a fact that made it distinctive but may have also made it combustible, allowing the fire spread so quickly.
One of Europe’s most notable monuments, Notre Dame is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and in addition to the timber used to build it, it includes other innovative and distinctive features.
The use of the rib vault and flying buttresses are still considered brilliantly before their time in that by using them, the roof’s entire weight was pressed outward and onto the walls, allowing them to be higher and stronger. They also added a stunning exterior to the already striking building.
And those famous gargoyles and other menancing creatures? They too had a practical purpose. Added to the structure in around 1240, they were actually rain spouts, designed to divide torrents of water that poured from the roof during rain storms. Because all aspects of building Notre Dame were labors of love however, they were also designed to be decorative and architecturally interesting.
During World War II, it was rumored German soldiers were going to destroy much of the church and its beautiful stained glass windows, which were removed and then reinstalled after the war. During the liberation of Paris in 1944, the cathedral suffered damage but was soon used to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Germans in a Catholic mass attended by General Charles De Gaulle and other dignitaries.
Prior to that and in the 1790s, Notre Dame suffered ruin during the French Revolution and much of its religious imagery was destroyed including large statues on the façade. The only statue that remained intact was that of our Lady, the Virgin Mary. It was at this time that the cathedral became a warehouse of war goods and food and not until Napoleon Bonaparte made Notre Dame a church again did Notre Dame again celebrate mass. Fittingly, the 800-year-old treasure was the site of Napoleon’s crowning in 1804.
“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” Victor Hugo
In 1831, the gothic masterpiece was forever immortalized with the publication of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and popularity began to soar. It’s never looked back.
Notre Dame is undeniably one of the world’s most recognized structures and was home to priceless art and historic relics and artifacts – in addition to the Crown of Thorns – and as Bishop Robert Barron said, it is also one of the most spiritually charged places in the world. It’s where France’s beloved Joan of Arc was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1909 and her statue inside is adored by many.
Photo credit: Michelle Campbell Davila
Then there are the windows; those fabulous stained glass windows of which The Rose Windows are the most famous. One of them is said to be the world’s largest glass window. The trio of ginormous and glorious round windows over the cathedral’s three main portals were salvaged, but apparently others were greatly damaged. If you’ve ever walked inside Notre Dame and gazed up at the windows, you know what a colossal loss this is.
That spire that so tragically collapsed yesterday? The original one was constructed in the 13th century but was battered and weakened by wear and tear of the weather and was removed in 1786. It was recreated in the 19th century and weighed 750 tons. In another twist of fate…or faith…the spire was surrounded by copper statues of Twelve Apostles, which were removed for the current restoration just days before yesterday’s fire.
Photo credit: Karen Sonleitner
Also famous are the basilica’s bells and bell towers, which when completed, were Paris’ tallest structures until the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889.The cathedral has a total of 10 bells, including the main bell called Emmanuel, which weighs in at 13 tons. It rang for every 9/11 victim in 2001 and marks significant moments in French history, including the coronation of kings, Papal visits, heads of state funerals, and Catholic occasions like Christmas and Easter.
Equally impressive is the church’s 17th century grand organ, considered one of the world’s most famous musical instruments. The organ boasts 115 stops and more than 8,000 pipes. As I write this, there is no word as to the condition of this irreplaceable and historic instrument.
Until yesterday’s tragic fire, Notre Dame was still in use by the Catholic Church for Sunday mass as was the seat of the Archbishop of Paris. While the building itself is owned by the state, the Catholic Church is the designated beneficiary and has exclusive rights to use it for religious purposes.
Plans are already in place to rebuild Notre Dame but where do you even begin? And how? It’s not like you send out bids to contractors to refurbish oh, just Notre Dame. But French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to see Notre Dame rebuilt within five years and nearly $700 million has been pledged by people and corporations across France and even the world. The president of The University of Notre Dame said the school would give $100,000 toward the renovation.
Paris officials were expecting more than 100,000 people to walk through Notre Dame’s doors Easter Sunday, many of whom will now pay their respects outside like the thousands did yesterday. Young and old showed up with rosaries, singing hymns, and praying as one. That’s how important Notre Dame is to Paris, but why does it always take a tragic event like this to bring people together in faith and hope?
It is said that during the Middle Ages, when a fire struck, Christians took it as a sign to renew their faith and rebuild their church. Maybe this is a sign that we need to, yes, rebuild Notre Dame, but also our faith as a whole.
I’m sure I’m not the only one remembering a visit to Notre Dame and being in total awe of all its history and glory. I can’t even imagine what the people of Paris and all of France are feeling but many are comparing it to their very own 9/11. Yesterday’s tragedy at of one of the world’s most sacred places perhaps can best be summed up by Camille from Normandy who watched as flames blazed through the frame of one of the cathedral’s smaller stained glass windows and told “The Guardian,” “There’s a feeling of total sadness and also anger. It’s our heritage. Whether you’re Christian or not, part of our history is going up in smoke.”
We’re with you Paris. Today, we are all Parisians.
As I wrote this blog, I was struck by the photos used in it as well as these I leave you with: