There have been at least five sacred buildings on the site where Notre-Dame stands today. The cathedral has had numerous alterations and incarnations, reflecting a turbulent history of its own and has been a symbol of continuity and radical disruption. Wikimedia Commons

Far from being a single author’s definitive text, the beloved cathedral’s history is a palimpsest.

As television crews captured the fiery pillar of smoke billowing from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral, the collective feeling seemed to be curiously personal. Reaching beyond religious and national boundaries, so many people spoke of an overwhelming sense of grief. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “I am sad to be watching this part of us burn tonight.” The “us” felt not just French or Catholic but universal and intimate. The story of Notre-Dame, of how it has changed and survived for centuries, reveals why we care about the survival of buildings and why even that may not be enough.

Cities are temporal as well as spatial, and iconic architecture can be seen as a form of time travel. The oldest buildings accumulate memories and meanings that are crucial to collective identities and in connecting us to long-vanished generations and eras. So much of who we are is tied to storytelling and as Victor Hugo, the literary protector of Notre-Dame, claimed, “Architecture is the great book of humanity.” Speaking at a televised conference as the cathedral burned, Macron agreed, “Notre-Dame is our history, it's our literature, it's our imagery. It's the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations.”

Far from being a single author’s definitive text, Notre-Dame’s history is a palimpsest. On that one site, there have been at least five sacred buildings including a temple to Jove and a Frankish cathedral dedicated to St. Etienne. Notre-Dame itself had numerous alterations and incarnations, reflecting a turbulent history. It has been a symbol of continuity and radical disruption. It has been the crowning place of kings, the setting of royal marriages, and the seat of wealthy clergy. It has hosted the licentious Feast of Fools, a thanksgiving ceremony after the troubled Charles VI survived the infamous Ball of the Burning Men, and the beatification of Joan of Arc.

As a center of power and prestige, it has also been the scene of cruelties (the burning of the Hermit of Livry for example) and the target of resistance. In the 1540s, its idols were attacked by dissenting Huguenots. Throughout the 19th century, sections of it came under assault from anti-clerical factions, and the entire structure was threatened by arsonists of the Paris Commune. It was with the earlier French Revolution that it faced its greatest opposition with fanatics cleaving the heads off statues and melting the bells down to make cannonballs. As members of the Ancien Régime met violent deaths via the guillotine, the churches of the capital were shut down and 20,000 priests gave up the holy orders. Notre-Dame was transformed into a Temple of Reason, with a disreputable opera singer employed in the resulting festivities as the Goddess of Liberty. As the Revolution descended into all-out terror, it was rededicated to Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, before the tyrant faced the guillotine to which he’d sent many of his compatriots. Two years after outlawing the Cult, Napoleon Bonaparte had himself coronated emperor at Notre-Dame. 

All the while, Notre-Dame survived the ebb and flow of power and ideology, right into the modern era. During World War I it endured only minor damage from German bombers, who also dropped leaflets recommending surrender. It remained intact when the occupying German general Dietrich von Choltitz refused to incinerate the city during the Second World War (with Hitler famously shrieking “Is Paris burning?” in rage). When Charles de Gaulle led a march marking the liberation of the capital, he did so from the Arc de Triomphe to the Notre-Dame, with Nazi snipers still firing down on the streets of the city.

It was not just the clash of ideologies that endangered Notre-Dame. Development and neglect has proved perilous throughout. In 1741, Pierre Le Vieil was employed to extract the medieval stained glass, excluding the rose windows, and replace it with clear glass; an act that caused him to pause mesmerized by the dazzling blue from a lost age. Before the end of that century, numerous changes had resulted in the loss of statues and unsympathetic alterations to the entrance. Exposed to the elements and beginning to lean, the spire had dismantled. Following these alterations, the cathedral fell into a state of relative disrepair, a condition only rectified by the heroic efforts of Hugo, who protected it by giving it a guardian spirit, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. By writing the book, he succeeded in making Parisians, and the world, see what a treasure they possessed and how close they’d come to losing it. It was a resounding success and extensive restoration efforts were undertaken.   

New stories were added to the palimpsest, the “poor people’s book,” that is Notre-Dame. Before the age of mass literacy, worshippers could read biblical stories in the stone, for example, Notre-Dame’s Gallery of Kings or the Portal of Judgement. These were joined by Viollet-le-Duc’s Galerie des Chimères, the gargoyles and grotesques who became famous through the etchings of Charles Meryon and the early photographs of Charles Nègre. Joining the Hunchback as a protective “household god” of the cathedral was the pensive stone vampire Le Styrge. Viollet-le-Duc even had the admirable audacity to smuggle himself onto Notre-Dame, disguised as a copper statue of Saint Thomas.

French firefighters are seen outside the Notre Dame cathedral after the fire in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Thibault Camus/AP)

It is with relief but trepidation that we consider how close Notre-Dame, and our physical connection to past centuries through it, came this week to obliteration. The ancient wood of 13,000 oak trees burned as its timber roof was engulfed. The spire of Viollet-le-Duc collapsed in flames. A minister of the French government has estimated that the structure was 15 to 30 minutes from complete destruction. Yet Paris awoke to find the iconic shell surviving, along with the twin belfry towers, the rose windows, the great organ, and relics such as the Crown of Thorns. This is a testament to the ingenuity of builders over 850 years ago as well as the bravery of firefighters today.  

A catastrophe is gradually being recast, unconvincingly, as a victory. Macron’s rallying words of unity and destiny have temporarily given respite to the beleaguered president. The radiant cross that survived within the charred interior offered a symbol of hope and even resurrection. The recovery, ambitiously set for five years, is aided by well-publicized donations from billionaires. Yet difficult questions remain. One is why the cathedral was left in such dire need of preservation before the fire (which occurred during renovations). Another is the matter of its authenticity. Inevitably, a different incarnation of Notre-Dame will arise, even if it is as close a facsimile as possible; the old Ship of Theseus dilemma that entirely rebuilt cities like Dresden faced remains. Perhaps there isn’t a completely authentic version of Notre-Dame because there have been several Notre-Dames, evolving throughout the centuries. With the announcement of the spire design being opened to competition, there is a real danger of the rebuild being botched and unsympathetic, either in terms of historical pastiche or jarring hyper-modern intervention. At the time of Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Notre-Dame, the inspector-general of historical monuments, Prosper Mérimée warned, “A restoration may be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.” It is a lesson that remains apt.

Victor Hugo wrote his tale to celebrate Notre-Dame but also as a lament and a challenge, “The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.” Ignorance, malice, and dogmatism threaten countless structures around the world. Ancient mosques are being demolished in China. A series of fires have devastated black churches in Louisiana. The World Heritage Committee lists 54 iconic historical sites as being in danger through excessive development, neglect, and conflict including the Minaret of Jam, the settlements of Potosi, Timbuktu, Hatra, Ghadamès, the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. If Notre-Dame is a deep and ever-changing text, it is simply a chapter in a much wider story that demands our attention.  

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