In April of 2019, many citizens in the western world let out a collective gasp. One of the most iconic pieces of architecture in western culture was on fire.
Notre Dame cathedral has been part of my psyche since childhood and its most famous resident yelled “Sanctuary!” from its heights.
Quasimodo made Notre Dame synonymous with western cultural history. My early readings in classical literature were a direct result of encountering Victor Hugo’s story of a kind man, alienated by his disfigurement, and his deep desire to simply love and be loved.
I was very young when I read the Classics Illustrated version of the story. (yes, in those days they cost 15 cents). The movie versions featured Notre Dame as the prominent backdrop for the story and the images it evoked have been etched in my and many others’ minds.
Scenes like this one from the 1923 silent version with Lon Chaney are memorable:
So on April 16, 2019, I gasped at the sight of this seemingly indestructible building burning and with it, the real possibility that it would be gone forever.
But a year later, the bell tolled again. The cathedral’s southern belfry where the 13-tonne bell – cast in 1681 and the second biggest in France – is housed, is structurally undamaged. The people of Paris cheered as it rang, symbolizing for many the resilience of Europe and France. (it sounded only once since the fire, in September 2019, in tribute to former President Jacques Chirac who died that month)
The restoration of Notre Dame is well underway, but like so many other endeavors, has been placed in limbo due to the coronavirus outbreak. The goal is to hold a public mass on April 16, 2024.
Whether this goal can be reached is uncertain, as is everything at this time. But the symbolic weight of Notre Dame, both as western cultural history and the passion to rise above the pandemic is a powerful emotional driver.
The desire of so many people who feel that symbolism will ensure that the project is ultimately completed.
Quasimodo will again have his sanctuary.