In the crypt of Notre Dame cathedral, there is a commemorative plaque honouring an archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was born into a Jewish family from Poland that emigrated to France. His mother Gisèle was deported from Orleans in 1943, to be murdered in Auschwitz.
Three years before this tragedy, her young son Aaron had felt drawn to the new testament, and had converted to Catholicism during holy week. After the war, his distraught father had sought the help of Paris’ chief Rabbi to have his son Aaron Jean-Marie’s baptism annulled, but failed.
This diaspora teenager, who would come to preside over mass at Notre Dame Cathedral for almost a decade, saw himself as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. He often said that he remained a Jew who had found fulfilment in Christ.
When the head of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described the cathedral as very much a European monument, I was reminded of that single Ashkenazi convert remembered in its crypt.
Notre Dame does indeed symbolise the continent’s culture and majority religion, but it also embodies historical enmity between Christianity and Judaism.
Notable on its façade are the figures of Jewish synagoga (represented as a defeated woman with a sinister snake for a blindfold) and her foil Ecclesia (symbol of the triumphant thrusting force of the Catholic church).
Though the marriage of the Jewish grandparents of Jesus is highlighted above Notre Dame’s entrance with a Torah scroll apparent in the depiction, highlighted too are contemporary figures of France’s local Jews, in the pointed hats they were forced to wear by royal decree (foreshadowing the yellow stars that Hitler imposed on this religious minority, and which archbishop Lustiger’s own parents were forced to wear during the occupation).
The building of the cathedral coincided with medieval turbulence in Europe. Tens of thousands of talmuds were burnt in the square outside Notre Dame; Jews were rounded up, arrested, then deprived of all their possessions before being expelled en masse from France. It was a time when European popes were obsessed with both crusade and the reconquista - those existential catastrophes for Jews and Muslims.
Intriguingly, it is also worth noting that the spectacular rose window and double-towered main structure of the building are a blueprint brought back from Syria by returning crusaders.
The 5th century original prototype that had so impressed these zealots was the church of Qalb al-Lozeh. It still stands in Idlib, which the world has cynically abandoned to bombardment and death. The stunning stained glass and towers of its Parisian descendant, meanwhile, were saved by firefighters.
The competitive French billionaires who rallied around president Macron as he called for the rebuilding of this European monument, may not have known the the origins and history of the architectural gem they dug into their pockets to rescue. But the restoration will be a chance for Notre Dame to build something new.
In the popular imagination, Notre Dame has a special place in the hearts of those moved to tears by Quasimodo’s hopeless love for Esmeralda, as described by the great French author Victor Hugo. The pull of the breaking news cycle helped to deliver his novel to the top of the Amazon rankings.
Notre Dame is a metaphor of sublime beauty, of course, but also of the ugliness of human bigotry. And not just towards the heroic hunchback.
The bells of Notre Dame rang out at Paris’s liberation from the Nazis. A mass of thanks was held there that had deep significance for the traumatised city. The restoration can now be a moment for symbolism that rejects Europe’s drift towards an era when religious and racial hate crimes and the depraved ideology they spring from, are being normalised once again.
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