“Notre-Dame is now deserted, inanimate, dead… That immense body is empty. It is a skeleton. The spirit has left it, the abode remains, and that is all. It is like a skull; the sockets of the eyes are still there, but sight is gone.” So wrote Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris, a timeless tale known to millions of readers as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
When a fire devastated the old cathedral on Apr. 15, the building did indeed seem dead, deserted and skeletal—but new life may yet be breathed into the church that has meant so much to so many during its more than 800 years of history. People from France and around the world already have pledged nearly $1 billion to rebuild the Paris landmark. Leaders in France have vowed that the cathedral will be rebuilt within five years. Let’s hope that dream comes true.
When I watched the coverage of the Notre-Dame fire on television as it happened, it was like watching the death of an old friend. For all of my life, I have been fascinated by Paris, and when my wife, Joy, and I visited that storied old city for the first time back in 2007, Notre-Dame was at the top of our must-see list of attractions. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe are symbols of Paris, but Notre-Dame is iconic in the truest sense of the word. Construction of the building that Hugo called “the aged queen of French cathedrals” began in the 12th Century, predating the 19th Century Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe by nearly 700 years. The cathedral is more than three times older than the United States.
Joy and I were amazed and awestruck when we approached the ancient cathedral and viewed the ornate exterior of the historic structure with its soaring spire, sturdy bell towers, arching doorways and statues of kings and saints that have gazed down upon Paris for centuries. We saw the gargoyles and chimera that decorate the building and viewed the majestic stained glass windows that are among its most salient features. As stunning as the outside of the cathedral was upon our first view of Notre-Dame, the inside of the building was even more thrilling. As we entered Notre-Dame, our eyes turned heavenward toward the vaulted ceiling of the venerable Gothic structure. We were transfixed by the sunlight streaming through the ancient stained glass windows. The voices of a choir filled the church with song as churchgoers at a morning mass heard a message that we could not understand—except for the hopeful words “justice” and “reconciliation.” Joy and I were both humbled and exalted by our visit to Notre-Dame, and we hope that future generations will see what we saw and feel what we felt when we visited an ancient edifice so appropriately called “Our Lady of Paris.” (Our photos of Notre-Dame and other sights in the French capital can be viewed on the Paris Pix photo page of my website, edtant.com.)
After leaving the cathedral, we strolled down the Left Bank of the River Seine that runs beside Notre-Dame. Stopping at a sidewalk cafe, we drank hot chocolate served by a friendly young waiter and gazed at the view of Notre-Dame under an azure sky. Leaving the cafe, we watched a street artist painting a fine picture of Notre-Dame, then perused the many booksellers whose stalls seemed to go on for miles beside the river. Always in view was the cathedral in all its timeless majesty, making the Left Bank an area of Paris that combines the spiritual and the secular. People of any religion or no religion at all can be inspired and uplifted by the Left Bank and its most famous feature, Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Paris has had more than its share of problems over the span of history and in recent times. Terrorist attacks like the massacre of journalists at a satirical magazine there in 2015 have shaken the city and the world. Protests by citizens in the “Yellow Vest” movement continue to roil the capital. Still, Paris prevails, and the city continues to inspire, delight and surprise those who live there and those who visit. Notre-Dame is a symbol of civilization that transcends time, nationhood and the tenets of any one religion.
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