Notre Dame burned, and I cried. And the world cried with me.
On Monday, 800 years of history began to vanish. A raging fire engulfed the renowned Gothic cathedral, destroying its roof and soaring central spire.
The skyline of Paris changed. Smoke darkened the sky for hours, darkening the hearts of Parisians and citizens of the world who have visited and care about the iconic cathedral.
“This is our history and it’s burning,” said President Macron.
The images of the fire were painful, searing. They seemed almost impossible to believe. How could such a thing happen? Against this horrific tableau, Parisians lined the streets in heartbreak, singing Ava Maria to their beloved “Our Lady of Paris.”
French journalist Nicolas Delesalle eloquently wrote of the battle to save the cathedral: “Firefighters circulate on the balconies above the rosette, we see their torches illuminate the stone of the façade intact. Behind, the fire continues to ravage. But the glow in the left Tower is gone.”
I wish I could have been there in solidarity. Notre Dame has a special place in my heart after so many visits to the City of Light. And I’ve been flipping through the pages of my memories with bittersweet nostalgia.
I first heard the roll of the great organ on my visits as a scruffy backpacker in my college and grad school era. I escaped to Paris with my husband on a therapeutic geographical cure during the throes of babies and parenting. In 2017, I sought solace in Paris after major surgery. I last saw the beautiful cathedral, so delicate and elegant, in June 2018 before a trip to southern France. I strolled along that Seine that night, lingering, taking in the tranquil sentinel.
Notre Dame is entwined in my heart, woven into the chapters of my life, like the city itself. I can’t imagine how desolate Parisians, many of whom pass it every day, must feel.
Located on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine River, the Gothic cathedral with its dramatic flying buttresses is 859 year old. The first stone of the cathedral was laid in 1163. It was completed in 1345.
Since then, it has been the toast of Europe, a utopian symbol of western civilization, of literature, and of culture.
Notre Dame has a storied history. Louis IX deposited the crown of thrones there in 1239. Henry VI was crowned king there in 1431 after the 100 Year War. Mary Queen of Scots was married there. Napoleon was coronated as emperor there in 1804. He was married there in 1810. In 1909, Joan of Arc was beatified by the pope. History pours from its now charred limestone.
Not only is the cathedral an irreplaceable piece of architecture, it is filled with valuable art and relics, many of which may be lost. There are statutes, paintings, a historic organ.
The three famous rose windows survived, but suffered damage, melting, and micro fractures. Other treasures may have water or smoke damage.
President Emmanuel Macron said, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche.” He pledged that the iconic cathedral will be rebuilt and restored.
It’s been rebuilt before.
After the French Revolution, the cathedral was an eyesore, crumbling and half ruined after the excesses of the French Revolution. Anti-clerical mobs looted statues adorning the cathedral, bells were melted into cannons, the roof was pillaged. The gargoyles were eroded and unrecognizable.
After Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris, also known as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1831, things changed. The Hunchback was a bestselling potboiler, but it was also a a historical-sociological event.
Hugo devoted nearly two chapters to describing the beauty of the cathedral. He made it the hero of his book, and tried to touch readers’ imaginations.
Hugo’s conservation efforts were clear. Hugo galvanized the public and won over their hearts. He set in motion a massive rescue operation.
It was led by famed gothic revivalist architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who would also go on to save the magnificent walled city of Carcassonne from ruin. Hugo sat on the board that hand picked him for the restoration project. Viollet-le-Duc lived and breathed the building. He restored the western facade and rebuilt the mighty iron and lead spire that just lurched and fell in the flames.
The fire is a graphic reminder that civilization is fragile. You’d think a massive stone building would be eternal. But, it’s not. It’s vulnerable. Like everything else.
Parisians have been through worse than fires, I guess. They been occupied, besieged, suffered through revolutions. An aggregate of historical pain and angst has no doubt taken up residence in their collective souls. There is no such thing as closure.
A piece of Notre Dame and a piece of France’s heart may be taken. But what is torn apart and damaged can, like other things in life, be pieced back together. Since the 14th century, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” has been Paris’ motto.
It means: “she is rocked by the waves but she does not sink.” As the ashes settle, the scars from the fire will be welded to Note Dame’s long history. While the fate of some relics is unclear, the past predicts the future.