Susan Vaughan here. I’d planned a different topic for this post, but fate sent me a different direction. I was horrified on Monday to learn of the blaze and watch the flames that destroyed much of Paris’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. A tragedy and a huge loss to all. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. This is a photo from a 2017 visit, taken from a boat cruise on the Seine.
Notre Dame is an icon to Catholics and other Christians as well as tourists world wide, and the heart of France itself. It occupies much of the Ile de la Cité, an island in the very center of Paris. For us in the U.S., it’s hard to fathom such a large structure being 800 plus years old. Such history there. Construction began in 1163 on the site of earlier churches and was mostly completed in the early fourteenth century. Damage and plunder during the Revolution followed by further construction (the flying buttresses) and other extensive renovations over the centuries have given us the Notre Dame we knew until this week.
I prefer to remember how she was the three times I visited, in 1966, 1969, and two years ago. Dating myself here, but I spent the summer of 1966 studying at the Sorbonne, once the University of Paris and now the location of several higher education institutions. My courses were for Americans studying the French language and French literature. At that time in my life, I planned to be a French teacher. Some of the American students lived in dorms, but I opted for immersion and lived with a family. My courses were in the morning, and most afternoons I toured the city. Three years later, again in the summer, I visited several countries in Europe and returned to Paris and Notre Dame. Back then, the stonework of the cathedral was nearly black, dirtied with centuries of grime and pollution.
And after meticulous cleaning in 2013 restored the light color of the stonework, I knew I needed to see Notre Dame again. My husband and I took a river cruise in 2017 that began with three days in Paris. Not nearly enough time, but I wasn’t disappointed in the cathedral’s brighter façade with its intricately carved doorways. Note the bell towers. They are still standing today, unlike the spire.
Here’s a close-up shot of one of the doorways.
When you enter, the cathedral’s vast dimensions inspire awe. The most spectacular interior features are three rose windows, particularly this one above the organ. I read today (Tuesday) the organ survived, and pictures showed a lot of the stained glass windows did as well. I saw on the news the rose windows, all three, survived, but will need cleaning.
Notre Dame didn’t originally have flying buttresses, the structures on the outside of the walls, in its design. As the cathedral grew high and higher, stress on the thinner walls popular in Gothic architecture meant support, or buttressing, was needed. I think they add a certain flourish to the overall look of the building.
Atop the cathedral are (or were?) grotesque figures called gargoyles that serve as rain spouts and purportedly scare away evil spirits. They look medieval, but were actually additions installed during repairs in the mid 1800’s. My other favorite Paris landmark can be seen in the distance.
At a shop on a side street, on that 1966 visit, I bought a small replica of one of the gargoyles. He’s the one on the right in the above photo. He sits on my shelves today and protects me while I write.
Monuments such as Notre Dame provide humans of all stripes with universal connections. We see them as old friends, something of permanence that will always be there, and we mourn them when they’re gone, whether by accident, as in this case, or by wanton destruction. Over its long history, Notre Dame de Paris has suffered considerable damage, but has always been lovingly restored and continued to attract visitors and worshipers from around the globe. The cathedral has hosted religious ceremonies and historic events. Napoleon was crowned there, and Joan of Arc was beatified there. After this historic and terrible fire, may she continue in this tradition. Oh, and my new heroes? Le pompiers de Paris–the firefighters of Paris!
I hope you readers will share stories and thoughts about Notre Dame.