On Monday just before 8 p.m. local time, an audible gasp rippled through the streets of Paris as bystanders watched the spire that towered above the Notre Dame Cathedral topple over in a fiery rush. The steeple had served as a symbol of cultural achievement, national pride, and faith for generations in France and the world over, and it was now gone.
It wasn’t the first time that the spire had been forcibly separated from the cathedral, but it was the most devastating. Since the very first stones were put in place for a grand church that would rise on the banks of the River Seine over 850 years ago, Notre Dame has not just borne witness to history, it has had parts of that history inscribed into its very architectural bones.
As the centuries passed, Notre Dame has garnered attention from forces both good and evil. There were the insurgents during the French Revolution who took issue with the church’s symbol of authority and decided to do some painful redecorating, and then their ideological descendants less than 100 years later, whose attempt to burn it down was thwarted. There were prominent cultural figures whose misguided aesthetic judgements resulted in painful losses, and those who came after to right the damage with a little extra editorializing. And then, of course, there were the everyday challenges of a massive cultural monument—maintenance, upkeep, and extreme weather.
Each time Notre Dame Cathedral has been imperiled, whether by acts of human or God, it has risen stronger than before and as an even greater beacon for the universal hopes of humanity. But after suffering a devastating fire on Monday that began in the roof and quickly spread, “Our Lady in Paris” faces its greatest challenge yet.
Construction on Notre Dame began in the 1160s and didn’t stop until well into the 14th century. One could say destruction was built into its foundation—a Romanesque church was torn down to make way for the cathedral, as had been done to a pagan temple before that. But on this patch of the Île de la Cité that had been selected for worship by prior generations, a magnificent French Gothic cathedral rose from the rubble.
It was a towering achievement and one that continued to evolve for over 100 years as new advancements were made in the field of architecture. By the end of the 14th century, the grand Notre Dame Cathedral was complete—for now—and it had taken its place on an island in the Seine in both the heart of the Catholic Church and of the city.
“Paris in the Middle Ages is a very international, cosmopolitan place, probably much more multicultural than most people today tend to assume,” Jacqueline Jung, associate professor of art history at Yale and a specialist in medieval art and architecture, tells The Daily Beast. “People are coming from all over to study at the university there and, while they are there, they’re seeing this Cathedral because it’s visible from all over the place.”
For over 300 years, the cathedral was largely left alone to be admired. Then, in the 1770s, the first misguided attempts at improvement began. Apparently, clear glass windows were all the rage at the time, and the beautiful, stained glass masterpieces that filled the cathedral were deemed déclassé. So the glassmaker Pierre Le Vieil was hired to remove some of the latter and replace them with the former.
As he smashed the rejected, “very crude” panes to bits, he “paused for a moment to admire the ‘brilliance of the colors, particularly the blue,’” according to a 1963 article in Life Magazine.
Around this time, it was also decided that the Portal of Judgement on the Western facade of the church, the one that has become the iconic photograph prized by tourists, wasn’t sufficiently large enough to stage grand processions. So, the entryway was widened, sacrificing some of the original masonry and at least one major sculpture.
But the real trouble for the cathedral began with the 18th century rumbles of revolution. Before the tragic fire of 2019, it was during the French Revolution that the cathedral took its biggest hit.
When the commoners rose up against their class overlords, they not only took down the rulers of the country, they also wanted to do away with the symbols of their oppression, including the Catholic church. No king was safe and in 1793, the sights of the new government turned on Notre Dame. Nine months after King Louis XVI was introduced to Madame Guillotine, 28 stone sculptures depicting the Kings of Judah were removed from the facade of the cathedral and beheaded by the fearsome lady. Nearly 200 years later, 21 of these heads were discovered. (Only fragments of their other remains were found.)
The revolutionaries renamed the cathedral the Temple of Reason, staging festivals that pilloried its religious roots and promoted the ideals of the Enlightenment. During the course of the merriment, the treasures inside were fair game and much of the interior was looted. While the spire didn’t seem to engender any specific ire in the revolutionaries, it had fallen into disrepair and was starting to loll. In the interest of safety, it was removed.
Notre Dame might not have been respected by the leaders of the French Revolution, but its star had not dimmed in the eyes of the world. Almost immediately after Napoleon seized power, he set about the rehabilitation of the church namely by staging his 1804 coronation in the cathedral.
But it was the French author Victor Hugo who sealed its fate. In 1831, he published The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was in many ways a love letter to the cathedral and a call to action to right the cultural wrongs of its neglected state.
“Victor Hugo used it as a kind of rallying cry for people to look at these monuments like Notre Dame that seemed to represent a sort of old order that was really dead, but now to look at it as a historical monument, as a sign of French ingenuity, French pride, French history, European history, human history,” Jung says.
It worked. A massive renovation was undertaken under the guidance of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 1860s. While the architect deserves commendation for the work he did, he went far beyond bringing the building back to its former glory. As Jung explains, the project became a “showpiece of the restorer’s art” and he rehabilitated the building and its decorations according to what the then-modern day view dictated a medieval showstopper should be. The gargoyles, for instance—those are a Viollet-le-Duc original.
Jung says that it is nearly impossible for a casual observer today to distinguish between the original medieval features and the restorer’s additions—the original and the restoration have been intertwined and the latter masked to look like the former as was Viollet-le-Duc’s intention.
“The things that he did were imposing much more of the individual 19th-century man’s craft onto the building that today we wouldn’t really like to see. But on the other hand, you know, it’s a pretty good job,” Jung laughs.
In the centuries following Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of the Cathedral to its original glory (and beyond), Notre Dame has become more than just a beacon of the church; it is a global symbol of humanity and our feats of cultural heritage. This high profile has helped to protect the building through the tumultuous waves of history, though there have been a few near misses over the decades.
During the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, left-wing revolutionaries took over the streets of the city and set their sights on important landmarks including Notre Dame. Historian Robert Tombs writes in The Paris Commune 1871 that they began to set buildings on fire “partly to block the way of the advancing troops, and also as symbolic acts of defiance.” Notre Dame stood as a symbol of the “superstition” of the state, but when a group of revolutionaries tried to set the cathedral on fire, a fire brigade intervened.
The World Wars that ripped apart the global fabric and stitched it back up with new boundaries and new ideologies in the first half of the twentieth century also managed to largely bypass one of the most recognizable landmarks in Paris despite the City of Lights becoming a key battleground.
Powerful black and white pictures attest to the vulnerability of the cathedral: sandbags packed tall and dense in its doorways during WWI; machine guns stationed in the Square Jean-XXIII; and armored tanks flanking the building and filled with American soldiers and celebrating locals following the city’s liberation at the end of WWII.
The church didn’t survive completely unscathed—in October 1914 a German bomb struck the roof of the church—but the damage was relatively minor. This escape was perhaps miraculous given that, as scholar Ronald C. Rosbottom wrote in 2014, the Germans dropped over 200 bombs on Paris in early 1918 in a desperate attempt to make inroads in the city, and a large portion of these fell on the neighborhoods surrounding the cathedral. It turned out, the Germans were using Notre Dame as a guiding landmark from the air.
But the cathedral was not so lucky a century later when a fire that authorities believe started in the roof broke out. While the blaze was eventually extinguished, and some of the art is believed to have been saved, a few aspects of Notre Dame’s history have been lost forever.
Some of the medieval stained glass that escaped Le Vieil’s hammer is thought to have been lost (though the stunning Rose windows are believed safe). Jung says that the deeply saturated colors of these 800 year old works, the texture and thickness of the glass, the compositions that tell of sacred history, and the medieval artisans’ hours of labor and unique talent that they represented are irreplaceable. Also, much of the timber work that sat between the stone vaults and the roof was part of the original 13th-century construction, a very rare find in Gothic cathedrals today. All of it is thought to have gone up in flames.
But still, there is hope. Pledges are already rolling in from both the French government and wealthy donors committed to helping Notre Dame rise from destruction once again. While there will be features that cannot be saved, the restoration will add a new mark of tragedy and survival onto the bones of the church.
As Jung says, the history Notre Dame Cathedral has witnessed has mapped itself onto the building, often in physical ways. In return, “It’s played a role in all of these [historical events] and, along the way, it’s become this symbol of Frenchness, of great design, of intelligence, of religious devotion, of politics. Every aspect of human culture is embedded into this building…[Notre Dame] has shaped this place and it has shaped people’s thinking and imaginations in a way that few other buildings have.”