Eight hundred and fifty years ago, a building was commissioned on the Ile de la Cité in the IVth arrondissement, the island jutting out into the Seine like the prow of a boat, with the marshland, artisan shops and markets of Le Marais to the north and the fledgling University of Paris on what is now the Left Bank. It took a hundred years to build her. She survived desecration during the Revolution, a Nazi plan to destroy her during WW2 and she was damaged by stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944. Her twin towers, the calves of a giant, have stood guard for centuries.
She is home to Emmanuel, a gigantic medieval bell weighing in at over 13,000 kg, three massive thirteenth century rose windows on three sides and an organ of incomparable beauty with over eight thousand pipes. The great west entrance shows the Last Judgement, sinners transported into hell and the righteous to heaven. All around were visual messages for illiterate worshippers, symbols of the evil and danger that threatened those who did not follow the teachings of the church.
On April 15th 2019, during Holy Week, she burned.
The wooden ceiling and spire collapsed, folding gracefully like a mournful ballerina into the nave. The crown of thorns relic, the Roman nail and the splinter from the Cross were saved, as was the cope of St Louis – the saintly king who set out from Poissy for the Crusades.
The French journalist and historian Franck Ferrand wrote in ‘Le Parisien’:
“Notre-Dame, c’est la paroisse de la France, la paroisse mère de Paris. Elle est à l’épicentre de toute notre histoire. C’est là que tout se passe et au-delà du symbole religieux, c’est un symbole de civilisation. Lors de chaque événement national, comme la Libération, c’est à Notre-Dame que le ‘Te Deum’ est chanté. Voir flamber Notre-Dame, c’est toucher la France en ce qu’elle a de plus sacré, de plus universel. C’est d’abord le chef d’oeuvre gothique de notre pays.”
“Notre-Dame is the parish of France, the mother of the parish of Paris. She is at the epicentre of our entire history. This is where everything happens and beyond (all) the religious symbolism, she is a symbol of civilisation. At every national event, such as the Liberation, it is at Notre Dame that the “Te Deum” is sung. Seeing Our Lady ablaze is touching France in that she is (the) most sacred, most universal (symbol) It is the pre-eminent Gothic masterpiece of our country.”
Paris holds a special place for me. Wandering its streets, listening to the thrumming engine of the city, finding quiet, unadopted corners far from madding crowds, the unique smell of the Métro, the grandeur of Haussmann…
I have spent many hours peeping around serendipitous corners, finding little parks where flowers bloom in spring and eating bavette saignante at the tiny, family-owned restaurant a stone’s throw from Place Vendôme.
To witness the media frenzy as the world watched the destruction of her beating heart is ineffably sad. People sang the “Ave“, some, perhaps many, quietly weeping.
This image reminded me of the morning in November 1940 after German bombing destroyed St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. An unknown man found two charred beams in the shape of a cross in the smoking rubble and he bound them together. It now forms the altarpiece of the ruins. I was married there.
Yet all is not lost. The roof may be gone, but the towers survive and the glory of the latter will undoubtedly be greater than the former.
This, in conclusion, an excerpt from Choruses from ‘The Rock’, by T S Eliot.
“I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary,
I have swept the floors and garnished the altars.
Where there is no Temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s;
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”