Notre Dame: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future

On Monday, one of Paris’s most beloved landmarks, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, caught fire. The exact cause and magnitude of the damage is unknown as of this writing, but it appears to be extensive. As a lover of history, my visit to Paris about 10 years ago remains vivid, and I was heartbroken to see such a beautiful piece of the past reduced to rubble. In this special edition of #historyfriday, join me as we remember the story behind this beloved landmark.


                                                                                                                                                                                 Photo courtesy of the Author

Construction began in 1163 and was completed in 1345. Its location on a small island in the middle of the Seine was occupied by a pagan temple during the Roman settlement of Paris and later by the Basilica of Saint Etienne in the late 3rd or 4th centuries. When King Louis VII came to power in 1137, he wanted to build monuments to Paris’s significance; to that end, he commissioned Maurice de Sully to tear down the old basilica and replace it with a bigger, grander one. Its design was considered one of the finest and most modern examples of Gothic architecture, including rib vaults and flying buttresses.

The cathedral, however, was not immune to the effects of time and cultural shifts. Riots and exposure to the elements led to damaged and replaced parts throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The original spire, which had been damaged by wind, was torn down. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was vandalized and plundered, its religious artifacts torn down and replaced with relics from the “Cult of Reason,” who used it as a warehouse for food storage.

In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement to restore the cathedral to the Catholic Church. Although he completed some renovation (enough to host his coronation in 1804 and his wedding in 1810), the cathedral remained neglected and in disrepair. It wasn’t until the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 that fresh attention was brought to state of the battered church. Victor Hugo’s depiction of the once-grand structure brought to ruin resulted in a fresh campaign for restoration, one that was granted by King Louis Phillippe in 1844. Over the course of the next 25 years, a team of architects and artists painstakingly restored the cathedral’s original decorations from drawings, engravings, and models. Any new additions, including a rebuilt spire, were carefully constructed in keeping with the spirit of the original design.


                                                                                                                                                                        Photo Courtesy of the Author

The cathedral suffered only minor damage during the course of the First and Second World Wars, as fear of what the Germans might do to the famed stained glass (most notably the Rose Window, the largest glass window produced in the 13th century) led to its removal and subsequent reinstatement after war’s end.

ND-Rose Window

                                                                                                                                                                  Photo Courtesy of the Author

Since then, it has undergone several periods of restoration, including the addition of modern glass to damaged windows and regular cleansing to remove smog and soot from its walls.

Although one could argue that Notre Dame’s walls itself are history, it has also seen its fair share of important events, including the naming of King Henry VI of England as the King of France in 1431and the beatification of the martyred Joan of Arc by Pope Pius X in 1909. In addition to its notable history, the cathedral was still relevant to the modern day Catholic Church. It was a place of pilgrimage and prayer for Catholics, open every day for mass, and was the seat of the archbishop of Paris. During this, the holiest week of the year for Christians, the cathedral displays some of its most priceless relics, such as the Holy Crown, believed by many to be from the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus; a fragment of the Wood of the Cross, which many claimed to be from the actual cross of the crucifixion; and one of the nails the Romans used to drive into Jesus’s hands. As of this writing, authorities have claimed many of the priceless items within the church survived the blaze, although they have yet to name which ones.


                                                                                                                                                                          Photo Courtesy of the Author

Notre Dame has been a Paris landmark for over 800 years. It has survived wind and world wars, riots and revolutions. This week’s fire, while tragic, will hopefully not be the end of the great cathedral but only another chapter in its storied history, one in which it will emerge restored to its former glory once again.

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