Notre Dame cathedral: A Gothic masterpiece that shaped a city – and an era

Architecture writer Oliver Bennett mourns an irreplaceable cultural landmark

Oliver Bennett
Monday 15 April 2019 23:58
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Paris fire department confident they can save Notre Dame from total destruction

One of the most affecting scenes in cinema history comes at the end of the 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Charles Laughton, playing the hunchback, reflects to a gargoyle on seeing Esmeralda leave with Gringoire: “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

That sense of permanence was denied to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on Monday, as the fire raged. It seemed as if, when the spire fell, that the very world was falling in. Parisians wept in the street; indeed, the world wept. “To watch its devastation is excruciating,” said the curators for The Met Cloisters in New York, finding the mot juste.

It is deeply jarring to see an important historic building go up in flames. In 1992, Windsor Castle was one such calamity, but the scale of Notre Dame eclipses that. Not for nothing does this edifice attract more than 30,000 visitors daily.

The western front is the absolute world-beater, the bucket-list photograph with those two 13th century towers framing that fateful spire – a symphony of line, geometry and proportion rising from Parvis Notre Dame or place Jean-Paul II.

Inside are the three rose windows; many fear the stained glass windows will melt. Behind are the 14th century flying buttresses, like muscles holding it from behind.

Then there are the multifarious gargoyles, so hard at work in the various films and a magnificent cast of characters designed originally to ward off evil spirits but also, one suspects, to add a note of humour and high camp.

As a visitor up in those vertiginous walkways, one could really start to commune with these spirits – particularly the famous Styrga or Strix, the church’s most famous and sinister mascot with beak, wings and horns.

Perhaps it helped to see off the threat to the cathedral by the Nazi invasion, when Parisians feared the stained glass would be destroyed.

Some of those demons may now be consumed by the conflagration, just as others were razed by the French Revolution.

Then the cathedral was in massive disrepair and was even to be demolished, only to be saved by Napoleon who saw its potential as a great venue in which to be crowned emperor in 1804. Even by 1831, the edifice remained in disarray and it’s said that Victor Hugo’s book was partly written to motivate its restoration.

Then the fanciful French Gothic revivalist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc undertook a 25-year restoration including that spire, making it into the perfect Romantic-Gothic blend.

It is praise indeed to point out that Notre Dame is the only cathedral in an animated Disney film.

It’s not just the building itself. Notre Dame occupies what has to be one of the most picturesque locations in the world – on the Île de la Cité in the river Seine, a medieval survival in a planned 19th century city.

It is terrible that, despite being surrounded by water, this very situation has made it hard for the pompiers to access the blaze. As French president Emmanuel Macron lamented: “Our lady of Paris is in flames.”

The theories will start to flood in. At Windsor, the fire started in banal fashion – in the Queen’s Chapel when a curtain too close to a spotlight caught fire.

Or perhaps the fire is a problem arising from the current £5m-plus renovation project. Let’s hope that the Notre Dame fire has as innocent a cause.

That there has recently been a spate of vandalism and arson in French churches doesn’t bode well. But while we pray that the devastation is contained, we know that this eternal building will return.

Oliver Bennett is the author of Amazing Architecture: A Spotter’s Guide (Lonely Planet £7.99)

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