Victor Hugo’s Words Come True as Notre Dame Burns
The following words from Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) seem almost prophetic after watching videos of the grand old cathedral burning.
All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. . .Victor Hugo in Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English)
Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.
Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire, tarasques which sneezed in the smoke. . .
When Victor Hugo penned these words around 1830, the great cathedral was in peril, but not from fire. The construction of the church had begun in the 12th century and continued for a few hundred years – as was common in those days.
It was finished in the 14thcentury and sat in relative peace for the next 400 or so years with alternating times of neglect and refurbishment. But when the French Revolution rolled around in the 18thcentury, the cathedral really suffered. Religion in France was done away with. The church was plundered and many of the statues were beheaded – possibly because they were assumed to be French kings. The Goddess of Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary and the church was rededicated to the Cult of Reason. It was used as a storehouse. The Revolution was long and costly and the building suffered from neglect and deterioration.
In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte brought back religion and Notre Dame became a church again but was not restored. The big change for the medieval cathedral came in 1831 when Victor Hugo published his novel Notre Dame de Paris (Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). At that time, the building was in use as a church but in a state of half-ruin.
Hugo was 29 and wrote about medieval architecture in idealistic terms. He described the ancient structures as books of history that needed to be preserved. His novel, which was set in Notre Dame Cathedral raised public awareness of the state of the building and the necessity of restoring it.
In 1844 the order went out for the restoration. Eugène Viollet le Duc and Jean Baptiste Antoine Lassus took on the project. They restored statues and added the beloved gargoyles. They were responsible for the Notre Dame that we knew and loved. The cathedral became famous worldwide and no visit to Paris was complete without seeing it.
The recent fire brought to mind another bit of French literature that we certainly hope is not prophetic. It’s by Gérard de Nerval published in 1853 before the 19th century restoration of Notre Dame was complete.
Notre Dame de Paris
Many men, from all over the world
Will come, to contemplate this austere ruin,
Dreamers, and rereading Victor’s book (Victor Hugo):
– Then they will think they see the old basilica,
Just as she was, powerful and beautiful,
Stand up before them like the shadow of the dead!
— by Gérard de Nerval – published in Odelettes in 1853
Emmanuel Marcron, the president of the French Republic, promised to rebuild the beloved cathedral even as the fire was burning. Since then millions of euros have been pledged from around the world to help with the reconstruction.
Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris, but it doesn’t only belong to the Parisians: It belongs to everyone everywhere who has a bit of Paris in their hearts.
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