It is hard to know where to begin with describing Notre-Dame de Paris. How can one not feel the sadness of loss that impacted a monument known the world over for centuries?
For me, she is a monument that sings of Paris. When I first learned of the fire as the news was breaking, I immediately thought of the artwork that filled the church. Paintings, statuary, stained glass. These works, produced from the hands and minds of artisans hundreds of years ago, are simply irreplaceable. Fortunately, many of the precious artworks were relocated because of the current renovations that were taking place.
I first visited Paris, France in 1985. My visit included, of course, Notre Dame. I remember this first visit well. I had the opportunity not only to go up and look upon the city of Paris from high above perched with the gargoyles, I got to go down into the underground catacombs where the ancient ruins of Paris lay.
The Parisii tribe of Gaul (after whom the city is named), lived on the Île de la Cité around 2,000 years ago from approximately 250 BC until the Roman era began in 27 BC. I learned about the Parisii when I went into the archeological crypts below the cathedral where the ruins were on exhibit back then.
For over 800 years, Notre-Dame has stood on earth on this ancient section of the city. On April 15, her existence was threatened with the fires that managed to consume a portion of the interior and roof structure. In fact, 2/3 of the roof and the famous spire were its first casualties. The structure of the roof was made of ancient timber. Called “The Forest,” the ancient trees that made up the structure of the roof are no more. The iconic spire, located in the rear of the structure, succumbed to the heat and toppled over while the firefighters bravely fought the blaze.
Notre-Dame is more than an old building. Notre-Dame represents generations of living history.
I have always been amazed by the ingenuity of buildings built by hand of a grand scale and artistry prior to the modern era of cranes and automatic tools. Almost a thousand years ago, the architects and artisans and craftsmen and patrons that began the work did not live to see the end of the finished product. The first cornerstone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163. The towers were completed between 1225 and 1250 and the building was finished some 85 years later in 1345. The work was passed on to other generations to continue and to finish. Centuries later, it is as though the generations that went before, many of them anonymous to history, live on in the artistry.
Victor Hugo memorialized the cathedral in his classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1831. By the time the book was written, Notre Dame was in serious decline due to an unfortunate renovation under Louis XIV and later having been ransacked by revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Set in the 1400s, Hugo dedicates chapters of the novel just to describing the cathedral. The book was hugely popular in its day and directly affected the people of Paris to take care of the building once again. I really want to read this book for the purpose of rediscovering this historic building.
In 1841, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc began the work that would bring back the former gothic glory of Notre-Dame into the modern era, which included reconstructing the iconic spire that was destroyed in the April 15 fire.
The city of Paris rose and fell around the cathedral. The city we know as modern day Paris, the City of Light, is only a recent iteration of its former self. Old Paris having been completely torn down, commissioned by Napoleon III, was renovated under the direction of Georges-Eugène (Baron) Haussmann from 1853-1870. The Paris we know today is the result of this grand vision of Haussmann.
Yet while Old Paris was being torn down, the massive gothic cathedral stood fast on ancient grounds.
When I was in Paris last June, the reconstruction that was in progress before the fires was also underway on my visit. Large scaffolding could be seen in parts of the rear of the cathedral.
And the bees survived! 60,000 bees kept in three boxes on one of the roofs of the cathedral made it. If anything can be a good omen, it is this. The fact that the bees were not harmed is an indicator of the heat of the fires. The boxes containing the bees did not get hot enough to melt the wax hives inside where the bees were collected in protection of their queens. Also, bees are critical to the food chain and their numbers world wide have been threatened. The fact that the bees made it is great news for so many reasons.
For all the destruction and disrepair Notre-Dame de Paris has seen in the past, she has been cared for over the centuries. And she will be cared for again. Because the building is about the the psyche of the people. The human spirit is elevated by the architecture and the artistry that serves to enlighten.
The renovation Notre-Dame has been undergoing will continue, and in ever more sense of urgency buoyed by a billion philanthropic dollars dedicated to her rebuilding. One of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, renovation is important not only because of its significant history. Tourism dollars attracted by Notre-Dame generate revenue for the local economy of shop keepers, cafes and restaurants, and hotels and for the city and region. Central questions for the architectural teams that will vie for the project will be whether the iconic spire should be rebuilt and if so how—traditionally or something completely different? My first reaction is to rebuild the spire as it was. However, I am starting to imagine what a new approach might offer symbolically. Also, the French people are fond of pairing vision with tradition which is generally breathtaking in scope and beauty.
What I do know, because history has shown, Notre-Dame de Paris will rebuild again and her existence preserved.
Mary Lamery is a lifelong resident of Seattle, Washington, USA and native of the Pacific Northwest. Lamery paints regional landscape in a manner that leans towards 19th century French Impressionism. Her landscapes invite the viewer to add to the backstory of the composition through personal identification with the paintings and story telling of the experience.