The fire that engulfed the spire and roof of the Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris on April 8 convulsed a sense of alarm, sadness and loss worldwide. One of the most widely recognized symbols of the city of Paris and the French nation, the edifice engenders a particular sense of wonder – and ownership – across the globe, a cultural reverence that crosses into the spiritual and back again in a way few buildings or places are capable.
University of Georgia senior lecturer in the department of Romance Languages Debbie Bell served as director for the study abroad program UGA en France for 14 years, taking students around the city and leading tours of Notre-Dame itself, experiences that created lasting impressions evocative of the sentiments broadly expressed since Monday’s fire.
Based in Montpelier in the Southwest of France, the program took students to the city to spend a week in Paris at its halfway point. Staying in the Hôtel Claude Bernard Saint-Germain on the Rue des Écoles, the students were just a few blocks across the river from Notre-Dame.
“She was a place everybody wanted to go to, as well as a landmark that oriented students to the city,” Bell said. “They would go inside on their own, where you’re not supposed to talk loudly, but together we took in and discussed the exterior.”
The building has many focal points on the outside, particularly the familiar west façade and its three entries – the door of the Virgin Mary, the last judgment, and the door of St. Anne.
“Then there is the gallery of kings above that, the statues of Adam and Eve, statue of the Virgin Mary right in the middle of the rose window on that west façade. That’s important because if you could see over the top, you would see the cathedral is shaped like a cross, and the west façade be where the feet would go, if you were looking at it from on high and there was a body on that cross, the head would be at the other end. We would talk a bit about the symbolism of going in through the west, which is the sunset, the end of life, and going toward the light.”
Bell teaches the French 3080 topics course, and this semester the topic happens to be French cathedrals. “This past Friday we started talking about Notre-Dame. I had just told the class that Notre-Dame is really different from many of the other French cathedrals because there’s never been a fire at Notre-Dame like there have been in other cathedrals,” she said.
The class was preparing to read Book III chapter one of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris on the afternoon of April 8 when news of the fire broke. A few days later, the structure had been saved with plans already taking shape for an extended rebuilding process; Notre-Dame had also been saved previously, in the 19th century, at least in part by Hugo’s novel, Bell said.
“Saving the cathedral is why he wrote the novel. From the French Revolution, when churches were de-sacralized, until 1830, Paris saw conflict, and Notre-Dame sometimes suffered because of it. Hugo saw the effects that this turmoil were having on the cathedral and set out to save her. This coincided with a new philosophy concerning the restoration of historical places.” Bell said.
“Up until that time people, didn’t restore things. The French architect and author Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, in his dictionary of architecture, uses the word “restaurer – l’idée et la chose sont nouvelles.’ This new approach is an outgrowth of the establishment of the commission on historical monuments, that was led by the author Prosper Merimée, who traveled around France making a list of the monuments that he thought should be saved.”
Restoration was a relatively new concept, but Mérimée had laid out a vision and was given 500,000 francs. “Viollet-le-Duc was 21 or 22 years old, a self-taught architect, and he was the one who was selected to restore Notre-Dame, it took him 20 years. Those gargoyles that we all admire are from Viollet-le-Duc’s imagination, not from the Middle Ages.”
Universal reaction of alarm and panic about the fire has already raised nearly $1B toward its rebuilding, a process that, despite the urgency is still likely to take 20 years.
That outpouring of grief felt worldwide and also on display in Paris and all over France, an explicitly secular society, would seem to be a contradiction. But spirituality and cultural reverence can co-exist.
“It’s part of the myth. Do I think she’s the prettiest of the cathedrals? No. There are others that are even more exquisite – Bourges and Amiens, for example. Rouen is beautiful but injured, and it’s the same for Rheims,” Bell said. “We’re going have the same thing with Notre-Dame, it will be restored, rebuilt, but the carved wooden elements – the choir stalls, the sculpted scenes from the Bible that run all the way around behind the altar – can’t be recreated.”
Whether it is the myth, or the idea, there is just such a place, and even during its rebuilding Notre-Dame de Paris will continue to be the most visited monument in Paris.
Image: Notre Dame de Paris from pont de la Tournelle. Quai de la Tournelle on the left.