Notre Dame de Paris

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. . . 

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. . . 

Victor Hugo in Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English)

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.

Heads of decapitated “kings” from Notre Dame – can now be seen in the Musée de Cluny

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. 

How we hope to see Notre Dame de Paris once more

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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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

16 comments

  1. Sorry to hear the bad news. Thanks for your interesting information. “Notre Dame Cathedral was on an island in the river just ⅓ mile south of City Hall. Construction started in 1163. Like many churches of its day, its congregation faced southeast, towards Jerusalem and the rising sun, which filled with light the stained glass over the alter. It was finished almost 200 years later in 1345, just before building started on the Bastille (1357). The Hunchback of Notre Dame story took place in 1482, 10 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But more on sailing to America later! Now back to the action at hand….”

    Bahr, William J.. “George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key – the Mystery and Magic of Its Body, Mind, and Soul (Page 87).” IBEX Systems. Kindle Edition.

    1. Thanks for the extra info from your book, Bill.
      It’s such a loss, but hopefully it can be rebuilt.

  2. You are right Margo, it was really upsetting to every lover of Paris and of beauty. In Australia, we woke up to the news and the terrible pictures. I am sure it will be completely restored with financial assistance from around the world. But, it will take a long time – I might not see it completed. I count myself lucky to have been in and around such beauty many times in the last 20 years. Thank you for reminding me of the extract from “Notre Dame de Paris”. Victor Hugo’s book saved it from demolition then, let’s hope it is saved again. Best Wishes, Paula

    1. Hi Paula. It seems like many people around the world are offering their financial help. It just goes to show how many people love Paris. You’re right, it will be quite a big job but hopefully it will be restored and many more generations will be able to enjoy its beauty.

  3. Thank you, Margo for giving us a heartfelt history of the majestic Notre Dame. I am imagining a beautiful reconstruction with the the collaboration of some of the world’s most gifted artisans.

    1. Keep sending those positive thoughts, Rose. I’m sure many people around the world are joining in with you. So many people love Paris.

  4. Victor Hugo’s quote was unbelievable…and yes, prophetic! I have been to Paris many times and so hard to believe such an iconic building was on fire. At least it can be saved , once again. Thanx for this article. Well done as usual!

    1. Thanks, Margaret, It really did seem surreal watching it on TV. It’s hard to imagine that such a monument was destroyed (at least partially) in such a short period of time. Hopefully the restoration will be quick.

  5. This was so very sad to watch! I am always disheartened when I see pieces of history lost. Monuments like Notre Dame are pieces of the story of humanity. I hope to watch a complete renovation and visit someday!

    1. I know, watching history go up in smoke is just awful. But, like you, I’m hopeful for a beautiful restoration.

    1. Yes, it’s very sad – and such a shock. But there are plenty of people who want to see it restored, so I think chances of that happening are pretty good. Fingers crossed.

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