Standing in the hotel lobby in Morocco, I hear a gasp and someone say- Notre Dame is on fire. That can’t be. How could it? But I check and there it was. A half hour later, video came across my screen of the central spire falling in the ball of flames engulfing the cathedral. It’s a scene from a surreal nightmare.
The flames are dying down now, but the damage is done. The roof and spire are gone and the interior is gutted. It would be a miracle if any of the beautiful stained glass windows survived. The world is in shock. There are many great French Gothic cathedrals, some even better than Notre Dame architecturally, but it doesn’t matter. This was the queen, presiding over the pounding heart of France from her Ile.It’s hard not to take this personally somehow, and even if I’m not a person that cries often, it’s hard not to feel like I need a good long cry. It’s the loss of a great symbol of our shared heritage. It’s like losing a family member. Maybe for me, that’s because I know it pretty well.
For the past 15 years, I’ve guided tours that hit Paris for a few days. I always try and approach Notre Dame in the best possible way, so that my groups see it dramatically appear. And then I tell stories, as there are so many wonderful stories to tell about this special place.
One of the stories I tell is of resurrection, and I hope it helps at this moment. During the French Revolution, the church became an enemy of the people for a time along with the monarchy. Symbols of subjugation of the masses. Notre Dame was a symbol of both. In the frenzy of the time, angry revolutionaries expressed themselves by destroying parts of the church. For example, the stone kings in a row about halfway up the facade were beheaded, as they were mistaken for kings of France. The church was heavily damaged, and I’ve even read stories about it being used like a barn for a while. As time passed, the structure became decrepit and unsafe.
A local writer thought it was a terrible shame to see the state of the once-glorious church, and decided to write a story that would spotlight the plight of Paris’ great landmark. Perhaps that story could shame the city into fixing the church. You know, I’m sure, that the writer was Victor Hugo, and the story was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The attention brought by this famous story worked, and a restoration project began in the 1840’s.
What you may not know is that the restoration architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was a historian with an artistic flair. While he researched Gothic churches and their elements carefully, his restorations added bits of fancy and folly. That’s not surprising when you consider the Victorian period in Europe as a whole, but his type of restoration would be impossible today, as restorers deeply frown upon addition that is difficult to differentiate. The funny part is, many of his creative additions are the things we like the best about Notre Dame–the cheeky gargoyles on the towers, the stained glass, and a much bigger spire in the center than the original, with a statue of Saint Thomas at the top admiring the work…which was a portrait of Viollet-le-Duc himself.
Tonight that spire is gone. We’ve lost so much that it’s hard to even know what’s left besides bones. The legendary Crown of Thorns was supposed to be in the church tonight, the only time of the year it is on display. It’s heartbreaking. It reminds me of Dresden Cathedral or the fire that destroyed La Fenice opera house in Venice, cultural tragedies where the world loses.
But the point is, Notre Dame has been heavily damaged before. It was reborn in the 19th century, arguably even better than it was before. Dresden Cathedral was rebuilt stone by painstaking stone. Terrible tragedy and gutting loss feel far too common lately and we can give in to feeling this is the inevitable symbol of our times. But that’s not good enough. As La Fenice can tell you, nothing is impossible, we all must be the Phoenix and rebuild, even if it takes a while.
As the faithful stand outside and sing tonight, I am reminded that even as she burned, her heart was still beating in those beautiful voices. She is a house of faith, and we should all have faith that she will be reborn and rise from the ashes.