Last night, not just Parisians, but people world over were distraught to see the Notre-Dame aflame. Fire engulfed the structure and horrified onlookers gasped as they saw the iconic Gothic spire collapse. The world mourned as fire destroyed the roof of the 850-year old UNESCO heritage landmark and the monument suffered severe damage.
The cathedral with its stunning twin towers, stained-glass windows and gargoyles draws between 12-14 million visitors each year, making it the most visited monument in Paris. In 2013, we had visited Paris and like every other tourist, Notre-Dame was on our list of must-see places. There was some sort of fete going on then, and people were selling cupcakes and cookies.
Notre-Dame de Paris literally means ‘Our Lady of Paris’. This medieval Catholic cathedral is located in the heart of Paris. It is built on a natural island in the river Seine called Île de la Cité. Work on the cathedral began in 1160 and it took over a century to complete the colossal structure. The two towers are 69 metres high, and were the tallest structures in Paris until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.
This heritage building has been witness to several moments of historic importance. Henry VI of England was crowned King of France at the age of ten at Notre-Dame during the Hundred Years’ War. The coronation of Napolean I as Emperor of France was held in this cathedral on 2nd December 1804. Napolean was married to Marie-Louise of Austria in the Notre-Dame in 1810. In 1944, the liberation of Paris was celebrated within the cathedral with the singing of the Magnificat. Funerals of several French Presidents have been held here.
The Gothic cathedral is covered with sculptures vividly illustrating biblical stories. The Last Judgement is illustrated in the central part of west facade. It shows figures of sinners being led off to hell, and good Christians taken to heaven. The sculpture on the right portal shows the coronation of the Virgin Mary, and the left portal shows the lives of saints (especially St Anne) who were important to Parisians. The exteriors of cathedrals are also decorated with sculptures of imaginary monsters such as the gargoyle, the chimera (a mythical hybrid creature which has the body of a lion and the head of a goat), and the Strix (a creature resembling an owl or bat, which was said to eat human flesh). The gargoyles are rain spouts designed to project the torrents of water as far as possible from the buttresses and the walls to prevent erosion.
In the 13th century, the introduction of the flying buttress was an important architectural innovation. A flying buttress is an arch that extends from the upper portion of a wall to a pier of great mass. Before the addition of buttresses, all the weight of the roof pressed outward and down to the walls. With the flying buttress, the weight was carried by the ribs of the vault entirely outside the structure to a series of counter-supports, which were topped with stone pinnacles which gave them greater weight. This meant that the walls could be higher and thinner, and could have much larger windows.
During the French Revolution much of the religious imagery in Notre-Dame was damaged or destroyed. Centuries of time, acid rain and pollution have taken their toll on the cathedral’s exterior.
In 1831, the celebrated French novelist Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” largely to draw attention to the waning attention being given to the glories of Gothic architecture. The original French title of the novel is simply Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), which is a double entendre for the cathedral as well as Esmeralda, the main protagonist. The focus of the novel was the cathedral and not Quasimodo as the English translation would suggest. During Hugo’s time, heritage buildings were often destroyed to be replaced by new buildings. The medieval stained glass panels in the cathedral had been replaced by white glass to let more light into the structure. His novel dedicates large sections to describing the architecture of Paris, which were otherwise unnecessary to the telling of his tale.
Hugo’s novel brought the cathedral into the limelight and sparked popular interest. This led to a major restoration project between 1844-64, which was supervised by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. In 1963, the facade was cleaned of soot and grime to mark the 800th anniversary of the Cathedral.
The cathedral’s spire, which was destroyed in the fire last night, was located over the altar. The original spire which was constructed in the 13th century, was battered and bent by the wind over five centuries, and finally removed in 1786. It was the 31-year old Viollet-le-Duc who added a taller and more ornate reconstruction of cathedral’s original spire. It was built with oak and covered with lead. The spire was surrounded by copper statues of the twelve Apostles. Just days prior to the spire’s collapse, all of the statues were removed for restoration, and are thus safe.
The Notre-Dame cathedral is famous for its stained glass windows. The three rose windows are particularly spectacular.
The cathedral has ten bells. The bourdon called Emmanuel, which is tuned to F sharp, has been an accompaniment to some of the most major events in the history of France. It was rung for the coronation of French kings, for the visit of the Pope, and to mark the end of World War I and World War II. It also rings in times of sorrow, like for the funerals of the French heads of state and for the 11 September Twin Towers incident. It is reserved for the Cathedral’s special occasions like Christmas, Easter, and Ascension.
Relics stored at the cathedral include the supposed crown of thorns which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion, a piece of the cross on which he was crucified, a 13th-century organ, stained-glass windows, and bronze statues of the 12 apostles.
This Easter shall be a grey one for the city of Paris. Victor Hugo wrote:
“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers”.
As President Emmanuel Macron vows to rebuild the Notre-Dame, it is heartening to see the world rise together to restore the beauty of the Notre-Dame. This is an unfortunate accident which reminds us that some of these iconic specimens of architecture need to be treated with a little more respect.