The Notre-Dame (Our Lady in French) cathedral is no stranger to destruction or fire. During the peak of the French Revolution, when French royals were being regularly executed, the crowd had stormed and gutted the cathedral, dubbing it as a Temple of Treason.
In 1804, when Napoléon Bonaparte’s coronation ceremony took place at this same place, the parts of the church, which is worldwide hailed as a fine example of flamboyant gothic architecture, were in such a bad shape that large parts of the structure were covered up for the ceremony. At one point of time, French authorities had almost decided to pull it down. But Victor Hugo’s classic Hunchback of Notre-Dame aroused so much love and emotion for the old cathedral among the Parisians that they resisted any more destruction.
This year on February 11, I saw the Notre-Dame for the first time. The bone-chilling weather was no deterrent to hundreds of other overwhelmed visitors as well. It’s the original symbol of Paris built 544 years before Gustave Eiffel completed the Eiffel tower to commemorate hundred years of the French Revolution. Notre-Dame is also the centre of France. For, just before one enters the gothic cathedral, a plaque on the ground says, “point zero”—marking the spot from where distances of all places and cities were calculated in the old days. And even as the city of lights has expanded manifold, Notre-Dame, on the small island of Ile de la cite, continues to be its geographical centre.
If the height of a Paris trip is a ride to the top floor of Eiffel Tower, invariably its starting point is Notre Dame. According to National Geographic, 12 million visitors come to Notre-Dame every year making it the most visited monument in Paris. It is arguably the most significant cathedral after the St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican City. While St Peter’s was built under the patronage of the Pope and designed by Michelangelo, Notre Dame showed the sheer will of the inhabitants of Paris who crowd funded and offered free labour for the project.
We spent a few hours to carefully observe the façade and the dimly-lit interiors before we walked out to the sideway that offers a clean view of the wooden spire (now gutted in the devastating fire) and the bare-bone flying buttresses that adds to the architectural glamour of Notre-Dame. Right in front of those buttresses is a small park where Parisians regularly come and sit to watch how time flows along the Seine river.
I consider myself luck to have seen the majestic cathedral in all its glory. As the news of the devastating fire shook the world on Monday night, I joined the millions of optimists who are confident that the gutsy French, who care and love art and culture more than others, will revive the old glory of the cathedral. Their inspiration possibly lies within the devastated cathedral: A transept with a Joan of arc’s statue to remind how she was beatified right here even as she was burned alive by the ruling class.
And as Victor Hugo said, “Every stone of this venerable pile is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and art.”
First Published: Apr 16, 2019 18:44 IST