On the fifteenth of April, during the year 2019, the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered a catastrophic fire. Flames spread out from a maze of scaffolding built around the cathedral’s spire (nicknamed “the Arrow”), eventually reducing the spire and the roof of the beloved structure to cinders. Fiery debris collapsed inward, and, in some places, punched through the cathedral’s vaulted ceilings to reach the priceless interior of the church. Fortunately, church authorities have claimed that several key treasures (such as Notre-Dame’s Holy Crown of Thorns relic) were whisked away to safety. Yet, numerous cultural and religious wonders that adorned the cathedral have undoubtedly been destroyed or incredibly damaged. The site, however, is no stranger to adversity. Notre-Dame de Paris has faced looting, vandalism and wartime damage over the centuries. In spite of this, it has always proved to be a survivor; even now, the masonry and iconic shape of the Notre-Dame de Paris has survived the fire remarkably well. Someday, the cathedral may possibly be rebuilt in its old image—yet it will never be the same. For now, all we can do is remember Notre-Dame’s historic past and hope the best for the cathedral’s future.
Surrounded by the waters of the River Seine and situated in the center of Paris, the island known as the Île de la Cité has long been associated with religious worship. During the age of the Roman Empire, the site housed a temple of Jupiter, and when Christianity later became the dominant religion in Europe, Christians designated the Île de la Cité as a place worthy of their own houses of worship. At least three Christian churches were constructed on the island, the last of which was the famous Notre-Dame de Paris.
Around 1160, during the reign of King Louis VII of France (r. 1137-1180), the Parisian Bishop Maurice de Sully proposed the project that would become the Notre-Dame de Paris. Construction officially began in 1163, when Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-1181) ceremoniously placed down the first stone of the project. The building effort reached its first milestone step in 1189, when the high alter of the cathedral was consecrated. Yet, the project was still a long way from completion. During the 13th century, much of the building was constructed, including the nave and chapels, as well as its famous rose windows. The cathedral, however, still was not finished. In fact, construction was not officially completed until 1345, during the reign of King Philip VI (r. 1328-1350). Yet, even after that point, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris continued to undergo change, with new additions, decorations and remodeling. Upon completion, the cathedral’s interior measured around 427 feet long by 157 feet wide (130 by 48 meters). The rooftop of the cathedral stood around 115 feet high (35 meters) and the iconic front towers reached even heigher at 223 feet (68 meters) each.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris faced its first major disaster during the French Revolution (c. 1789-1799). As the cathedral was associated with the French monarchy, it was ravaged and mistreated in the course of the revolution. Many of its windows were smashed. Bells were melted down and repurposed. Treasures were looted or destroyed. A reported twenty-eight statues of kings in the cathedral were pointedly decapitated. And, for a final touch, the cathedral, itself, was said to have been utilized by the revolutionaries as a warehouse. Yet, the cathedral found an interesting ally in Napoleon—he returned ownership of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris to the church in 1802, and he later used the site as the venue for his coronation as Emperor of France in 1804.
Although Napoleon brought the cathedral back to a dignified state, it still was in urgent need of repairs. A new wave of interest in repairing Notre-Dame came from an unlikely source—a novelist. The inspiration for major restoration work on the cathedral is attributed to the influence of Victor Hugo, whose novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (published 1831), showcased the cathedral in its 15th-century glory. The novel greatly affected the French population and, as early as 1844, King Louis Philippe of France ordered that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame be restored. The project was spearheaded by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who attempted to repair what was damaged and replace what was missing. To the best of their ability, they replaced the bells, stained glass and statues that had been destroyed during the French Revolution. Additionally, the team used old sketches and illustrations of Notre-Dame as a reference in order to rebuild or repair famous sections of the cathedral, such as the spire and bell tower.
The work of the 19th-century restorers shaped the Cathedral of Notre-Dame back into a structure of such beauty that it drew in tourists and pilgrims from around the world. Yet, on April 15, 2019, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame suffered a level of damage seemingly unprecedented in the history of the cathedral’s existence. Unfortunately, much of the tangible history lost in the fire cannot be replaced. Yet, history is always in the making, and, perhaps, the future of the cathedral will be just as beautiful and inspiring as its past.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Edmund A. Hunt painting of Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1877, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).