My heart was ripped when flames ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral a week ago. So many memories came flooding back as I helplessly watched images of smoke billowing over the city. As a medievalist and as an art history buff, I’ve never left Paris without visiting the Notre Dame. In fact it usually tends to be my first stop in the city. Standing as a beacon of hope and light on the banks of the Seine with the entire vista of Paris visible from its towers, it is undoubtedly the geographical and cultural center of this beautiful and historic city.
Notre Dame is also a place of pilgrimage in more than one sense of the word. Along with being a place of worship for millions of devout Catholics from around the world, it is also a sacred site for literary pilgrims where Victor Hugo’s novel Notre- Dame de Paris known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes alive. Not surprisingly, Hugo’s book has soared to the top of the bestseller list in the wake of the tragedy.
Published in 1831 but set in 1482, Notre -Dame de Paris is the melodramatic story of the extraordinarily beautiful gypsy Esmeralda who is pursued by several men including Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf hunchback and bell-ringer of the cathedral. It is a touching and tragic story about ill-fated love. Hugo was inspired by the Greek word ‘anatkh’ which he found inscribed on one of the walls of the cathedral and which means Fate. This is a novel with a social conscience like Les Misérables, which he wrote a few decades later. It evokes medieval life in Paris and portrays people from all strata of life from kings to vagabonds and beggars and focuses on the themes of class divisions, social inequality and justice.
Notre Dame Cathedral has been through tumultuous times and has been on the brink of destruction on several occasions throughout its history – it has suffered the ravages of weather and has endured floods, famine and even fire. It has survived rioting Huguenots in the 16thcentury, The French revolution of 1789 and two World Wars which had all resulted in widespread desecration of its statues and relics. It was also the victim of changing fashion trends as from the Renaissance through the 18thcentury, classical architecture was in vogue to the detriment of gothic art.
Notre Dame de Paris is a plea for the preservation of this Gothic architecture that had been subjected to vandalism and neglect over the centuries. According to Hugo, the cathedral is the cultural and political center of Paris and the symbol of the city and its glorious past. Hugo felt that the arrival of the printing press was going to mean the death of architecture while ensuring that the written word would be indestructible. But ironically it was Hugo’s writing that saved the cathedral from further damage.
The novel was instrumental in initiating a massive renovation project by the King in 1844 to restore the dilapidated cathedral to its formal glory with the help of architects Baptiste- Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The project included rebuilding of
the spire, the restitution of statues and the addition of gargoyles and grotesques which interestingly were not part of the original structure. The cathedral represents a 19th century vision of what medieval art is supposed to look like- spires, turrets, gargoyles, chimera and flying buttresses symbolizing ascent towards the heavens gave flight to the imaginations of architects and authors alike.
The English translation of the title doesn’t do justice to the novel. This is not just the story of the hunchback Quasimodo’s unrequited love for Esmeralda but also the story of love for a cathedral. Chapters 1 and 2 of Book 3 are dedicated to the edifice and its architecture. Most of the action of the novel takes place in and around the structure and from the top of its towers. The cathedral sets the plot in motion and offers sanctuary and support to the pariahs of Parisian society including the orphaned Quasimodo:
After all, he turned his face towards men only with regret; his cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures,—kings, saints, bishops,—who at least did not burst out laughing in his face, and who looked upon him only with tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, harbored no hatred for him, Quasimodo. He resembled them too much for that. They seemed rather, to be sneering at other men. The saints were his friends, and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and watched over him. So he was in intimate communication with them. He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it. If any one came, he fled like a lover surprised in his serenade.
And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe, and all nature still. He dreamed of no other shrubs than the stained-glass windows, always in bloom , no other shade than that of the stone foliage which spread out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their feet.
Après tout, il ne tournait qu’à regret sa face du côté des hommes. Sa cathédrale lui suffisait. Elle était peuplée de figures de marbre, rois, saints, évêques, qui du moins ne lui éclataient pas de rire au nez et n’avaient pour lui qu’un regard tranquille et bienveillant. Les autres statues, celles des monstres et des démons, n’avaient pas de haine pour lui Quasimodo. Il leur ressemblait trop pour cela. Elles raillaient bien plutôt les autres hommes. Les saints étaient ses amis, et le bénissaient ; les monstres étaient ses amis, et le gardaient. Aussi avait-il de longs épanchements avec eux. Aussi passait-il quelquefois des heures entières, accroupi devant une de ces statues, à causer solitairement avec elle. Si quelqu’un survenait, il s’enfuyait comme un amant surpris dans sa sérénade.Et la cathédrale ne lui était pas seulement la société, mais encore l’univers, mais encore toute la nature. Il ne rêvait pas d’autres espaliers que les vitraux toujours en fleur, d’autre ombrage que celui de ces feuillages de pierre qui s’épanouissent chargés d’oiseaux dans la touffe des chapiteaux saxons, d’autres montagnes que les tours colossales de l’église, d’autre océan que Paris qui bruissait à leurs pieds.
The cathedral holds a special place in my heart too as it instantly transports me to Hugo’s medieval world of gypsies, gargoyles and grotesques. Every time I saw gypsies outside the cathedral nursing their babies, playing with their children or accosting tourists for money, I was reminded of the captivating Esmeralda and I could visualize her dancing in the square or regaling her spectators with her tricks. And whenever I climbed the belfry, I could almost sense the presence of Quasimodo, the hunchback whose grotesqueness mirrors the cathedral’s own deformities. The hideous bell ringer whispered to the bells and caressed and loved them even though they had made him deaf for mothers often love best the child who has caused them the most suffering. (“les mères aiment souvent le mieux l’enfant qui les a fait le plus souffrir.”)
The Notre Dame Cathedral is not just a touristic spot or a literary haven but a working place of worship pulsating with spiritual energy. Even if you don’t entertain any religious beliefs you cannot help but be moved by the grace and serenity the space emanates. The majestic edifice was engulfed in flames during the most holy week for Christians. Although Hugo ends the book with the grim prediction that the church will disappear from the face of the earth, it is hard to overlook the Biblical symbolism. The miraculous preservation of the relics of the Passion and the Crown of thorns is a prophetic reminder of the resurrection. I sincerely hope that The ‘Grande Dame’ as the French affectionately call their beloved cathedral ,will, as she always has, rise from the ashes.
*The translations are mine.
*The photographs are from my personal collection.