International audiences watched with fixed and grim fascination images of Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, engulfed in flames this week. The 865-year-old church has been badly damaged by the fire, but it is too powerful a symbol to be consumed by this tragedy. It will be rebuilt and Notre Dame will reassume its position at the center of France. But this moment is an important reminder of both the power and evanescence of symbols.
Notre Dame is the heart — literal and figurative — of Paris. It is located on the Ile de la Cite, one of two natural islands in the Seine River. A Roman temple is thought to have first stood on the eastern end of the island, its existence dating from the sixth century; other churches were later built on that site. In 1163, construction began on what was to become Notre Dame when Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone. The cathedral was finished just over 180 years later, in 1345.
It quickly became known as one of the most beautiful and inspired examples of Gothic architecture in the world. It witnessed extraordinary moments in European history. In 1558, Mary Queen of Scots married the Dauphin Francis (later Francis II of France) in the church. The coronation of England’s Henry VI as king of France was held there in 1431, as was that of the Emperor Napoleon I in 1804. Joan of Arc was beatified in Notre Dame in 1909, the Mass to mark Paris’ liberation from the Nazi occupation was celebrated there in 1944, and the funeral Masses for Charles DeGaulle and Francois Mitterrand were held in its vaulted chambers.
While millions of people visit the cathedral every year, it is perhaps most alive in the imagination as the backdrop — if not the main character of — Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” whose original French title is “Notre Dame du Paris.”
Part of Notre Dame’s history is a continuing battle with the forces of destruction. It was vandalized in the mid-16th century when Huguenots damaged images and icons they considered idolatrous. Much of its exterior was destroyed during the French Revolution; it was also used as a warehouse to store food during that turbulent time.
The cathedral survived World War II because Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German forces occupying Paris, ignored Hitler’s order to destroy all the historic and religious monuments in the city and turn Paris into a “pile of rubble,” (a fate not unlike that of Kyoto during World War II, spared by conscientious American officials).
The cathedral also houses irreplaceable works of art. Most of those, as well as the most important religious relics, were saved because they had been removed as Notre Dame had been undergoing renovation work. (Ironies abound. It is believed that the fire was accidentally started by that repair work; an investigation has already begun to establish its cause.) It is reported that Notre Dame’s famous stained glass, considered by some to “constitute one of the great masterpieces of Christianity,” survived but would have to be examined by experts.
Images of Notre Dame in flames were a shock because such buildings are thought to be eternal — a permanent and irreplaceable part of the fabric of humanity. That is the idea animating UNESCO World Heritage sites, of which Notre Dame is one. Their size and presence perpetuate a sense of the immutable. That is comforting to think, but it is false. The image of Notre Dame that exists in memory today is the product of continual evolution and adjustment, its most famous spires added only a century ago.
Symbols like Notre Dame can be destroyed — and their destruction bestows power on their destroyers. Entire cities were leveled by the savagery of World War II, yet many of them — Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Coventry, Dresden, Gdansk — have been rebuilt and serve as reminders of the vitality of the human spirit. The sadness and fever that was evident as the tragedy unfolded stems from the same fount that ensures Notre Dame’s reconstruction.
Even as the fire burned, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt within five years and that it would be “even more beautiful.” Within 24 hours, donors had pledged well over half a billion euros for reconstruction. The Japanese government has announced that is ready to provide whatever assistance is requested by the French government and individual Japanese have begun to contribute to the rebuilding effort.
Notre Dame is likely to be closed throughout that reconstruction effort. Yet even in a damaged state, and without opening its doors to the millions of people who visit each year, the cathedral will remain a monument to the human spirit, a source of inspiration, hope and beauty to the world.