The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris weathered over 850 years, enduring multiple wars, religious strife, anti-religious sentiment of the French Revolution and decades of neglect, before a rooftop blaze severely damaged it.
When King Louis VII of France sought to build a church on the central island of Paris, Bishop Maurice de Sully tore down the old basilica of St. Stephen and began construction of Our Lady of Paris in 1163. The high altar of the church was consecrated in 1182, but it took until 1345 for the cathedral itself to be consecrated as complete.
The church was adorned with many reliefs depicting Biblical stories, as well as statues of both Christian saints and its trademark gargoyles and other monsters. Some of the statues were damaged in the 16th century during the era of religious strife in France: clashes between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots claimed an estimated three million people lives between 1562 and 1598.
Notre Dame underwent extensive renovations and upgrades in the 18th century, during the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV, replacing many of the original stained glass windows, rearranging the sanctuary and removing the spire.
Revolution and ‘Cult of Reason’
Following the 1789 French Revolution, the cathedral was looted and damaged. The republican government was officially atheist and rededicated the cathedral in 1794 to the Cult of Reason. Statues of biblical kings located on the western facade were beheaded, and much of the statuary was destroyed. The Virgin Mary was replaced on the altar by the Goddess of Liberty, and the great named bells of the southern tower were almost taken down and melted. The cathedral was eventually turned into a warehouse.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who came to Notre Dame’s rescue, restoring the cathedral to the Catholic Church in 1802. Two years later, he was crowned there as Emperor of the French.
1800s: Renewal and rebirth
Following the demise of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, France – and Notre Dame – lapsed into neglect and turmoil. The half-ruined cathedral languished for years until Victor Hugo wrote a novel about its hunchbacked bell-ringer (Notre-dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), published in 1831.
King Louis Philippe ordered the restoration of the church in 1848, and entrusted the task to architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The 25-year project saw the restoration of the spire and the re-creation of the stained glass windows. Artisans remade the original decorations if there were drawings or engravings to go on, and if not, created new ones that were considered fitting.
The result was a work of such beauty that when revolutionaries of the Paris Commune wanted to destroy the cathedral in 1871, several artists talked them out of it.
Some of the medieval stained glass on Notre Dame was damaged during the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944, and was replaced by more modern, abstract designs. In 1963, eight centuries after its construction began, the French government cleaned the facade of the cathedral and restored its original color. Another cleaning and restoration project started in 1991, focusing on the towers and the western facade.
By 2017, however, structural problems have piled up to the point where André Finot, the cathedral’s spokesperson, told the New York Times the situation was “spinning out of control.”
The French government has owned the church since 1905, and pays about €2 million a year for its upkeep. The Catholic Church, which has the rights to use the cathedral for religious purposes in perpetuity, has recently sought to raise tens of millions of euros for its renovation.
By 2018, some 12 million tourists a year were visiting the church – more than the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. While Notre Dame did not charge for general admission, tourists who wished to see the bell tower or the crypt would need to pay €8.50 or €6, respectively.
Comes the fire
The April 15 blaze reportedly began in the scaffolding surrounding the spire, quickly spreading to much of the cathedral’s roof. Some two thirds of the roof have caved in and the spire toppled over, causing further damage to Notre Dame’s interior.
The holy relics kept inside the church – including a piece of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, kept there since 1238 – are reportedly safe, but much of the interior has been gutted. Finot told several news outlets that “everything is burning, nothing will remain but the frame.”
In the early hours of Tuesday, French firefighters said they might have managed to save the towers, however, leaving open the possibility that Notre Dame may rise from the ashes and be restored to its splendor once again.
“Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,” Hugo wrote in his 1831 masterpiece. “Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending… they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can.”
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