Reflections on the Cathedral of Notre Dame
On Monday, April 15, 2019, we were far from Paris when we first saw online footage of the beloved Cathedral of Notre Dame in flames. Short video clips showed the roof ablaze and its spire collapsing, and like so many people around the world we felt a deep sense of sorrow and apprehension over the devastating damage.
Only the night before, I had been reading to Sean from my daily travel notes of a year earlier, when we enjoyed a picnic together as a family in the shadow of the cathedral on the second full day of our month living in Paris. Ever since the fire, news outlets and social media feeds have been flooded with updates, investigations into its cause, and no shortage of personal memories. We’ve likewise been reflecting on what the Cathedral of Notre Dame has meant to us.
Sean and I traveled to Paris together in May 2012, as our first big trip as a couple. Almost seven years ago now, we walked miles around the city and found ourselves in front of Notre Dame at night. It was warm and muggy and entirely entrancing. As other tourists from all over the world milled around the plaza and posed for photos, we did the same and then took turns seeing who could jump higher against such a spectacular scene.
We visited Paris again during our honeymoon a few years later. Although we didn’t make a point of visiting Notre Dame, the cathedral was always in the backdrop as a kind of central compass for how we understood wherever else in the city we found ourselves. Then, last year, we rented an apartment in the Paris neighborhood of Montmartre and fell even more deeply in love with the city, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame seeming less of a destination and more of a fixture.
I vividly remember us walking around the Île de la Cité, the island that houses Notre Dame and visited the Shakespeare and Company book company across the River Seine. There, I picked up a copy of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame having been mesmerized by the scale and the detail of Notre Dame itself. After finishing Hugo’s masterpiece months later, I became even more fascinated with the cathedral. Many pages of the book are dedicated to how the building was built with such detail that it might even serve as a blueprint for those now turning their attention to rebuilding.
Despite the tragedy, I’ve been amazed by the heroism of stories like this one: “Paris’ Deputy Mayor for Tourism and Sports, Jean-Francois Martins, told CBS that he and others on the scene jumped into action to try and salvage the trove of art and artifacts housed in Notre Dame as the fire spread. ‘We made a human chain, with our friends from the church…to get, as quick as possible, to get all the relics,’ he said, noting that the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ was among the items rescued.” This significance feels only greater during Easter Week, and it’s difficult to be reminded that even something that seemed to be a timeless treasure may not be so timeless after all.
When I think about one of our most memorable visits to Notre Dame, I remember the trees were in bloom as we held Eliza up against them for a joyful photo shoot. We spoke with other parents visiting from all over the world. One family we met from Bangalore reached out this week, after the fire, to ask how we were doing. Such a small and welcome gesture reminded us that even the slightest of connections can be forged in places of such significance.
When The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published in 1832, the cathedral was in disrepair, as the Washington Post notes. I was surprised to learn that the book served as a catalyst to revamp and improve the cathedral that is so well known today, and I can’t help but hope that this fire similarly can serve as a catalyst to help rebuild an even more resilient structure for future generations to appreciate. Whether it takes the five years that President Macron has indicated or many decades as experts have estimated, the rebuilding of Notre Dame will be a triumph.
I’ll end with a quote from the Hunchback of Notre-Dame (or Notre-Dame de Paris in French):
The human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper. No doubt, when one contemplates these two Bibles, laid so broadly open in the centuries, it is permissible to regret the visible majesty of the writing of granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated in colonnades, in pylons, in obelisks, those sorts of human mountains which cover the world and the past, from the pyramid to the bell tower, from Cheops to Strasburg. The past must be reread upon these pages of marble. This book, written by architecture, must be admired and perused incessantly; but the grandeur of the edifice which printing erects in its turn must not be denied.