Dylan Berger: What the Notre Dame Fire couldn’t destroy

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 3:01pm

Like countless people from around the globe, I watched in horror as a terrible fire ravaged the irreplaceable Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15. As the damage unfolded, I found myself transfixed to whatever screen was in front of me, watching the same images of fire and destruction over and over again. At some point during the day, I started to question why I was mired in grief over the devastation of a cathedral I seemingly had little connection to as a non-Christian American.

It’s this universal sense of loss for humanity, however, that illuminates the essence of Notre Dame. The cathedral is a symbol for spirituality and togetherness that transcends time, space and ideology. While part of what was lost in the fire is gone forever, it’s important to remember that the cathedral is more than the sum of its stone and timber. The process of rebuilding Notre Dame gives us an opportunity to renew not only the structure of Notre Dame, but the values it stands for as well.

The Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the earliest and grandest examples of Medieval Gothic architecture, built over a century on the Seine River island of Île de la Cité. Notre Dame has stood out among other Gothic cathedrals, utilizing a revolutionary flying buttress support system to soar to 35 meters high, taller than any Catholic church before it. The cathedral’s Gothic architecture has awed those in its presence for the past 850 years, bringing worshippers closer to the heavens above and minimizing their size in the presence of God. Abbot Suger, one of the earliest proponents of Gothic architecture, described the effects of the jeweled altar as such: “When … the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares … and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

Adding to Notre Dame’s distinction as a cultural monument, the cathedral has played host to a great deal of Europe’s storied history. Among many historic events at Notre Dame, Henry VI of England was crowned king there in 1431, Napoleon crowned himself emperor there in 1804 and Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc there in 1909. It’s these historical events that have solidified Notre Dame’s role in our culture as a place where any person, even the most powerful, stands small before God, acknowledging the inferiority of our world compared with the heavens above.

As part of Notre Dame’s intriguing history, the cathedral has been subjected to vandalism and neglect. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was targeted by vandals and renamed the “Temple to the Goddess Reason” by a revolutionary state hostile to the Catholic Church and religion in general. Additonally, worshippers at Notre Dame paid tribute to a woman posing as the goddess of reason, mocking the Catholic faith. The targeting of Notre Dame by anti-Catholic zealots only solidified the cathedral’s lasting role as a universal symbol for God’s grace on earth.

Even though Napoleon returned Notre Dame back to the Catholic Church following the revolutionary period, the building was in a state of disrepair by the early to mid-19th century. French poet and novelist Victor Hugo brought the cathedral’s dilapidated condition to the public’s attention with his popular historical novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1831. With that book, the enduring legend of Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, was born along with renewed public interest in maintaining the cathedral. The renewed interest led to a major restoration project in the mid-19th century by the French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. It was during this restoration that Notre Dame’s now iconic spire was added on to the structure. This substantial alteration illustrates part of Notre Dame’s physical transformation through the centuries, never losing its core meaning along the way.

With Notre Dame restored to glory in the mid-19th century, the cathedral was again ready to set the scene for history during the liberation of Paris in 1944. The area directly in front of Notre Dame saw heavy fighting during a major uprising of French resistance fighters against occupying Nazi soldiers. When Allied forces finally liberated Paris, crowds rejoiced in front of Notre Dame as the cathedral bells rang, signifying a free France. With the liberation of Paris, Notre Dame again claimed a central role in European history. It’s this history as a place where humanity meets the heavens that makes Notre Dame an icon, irrespective of physical changes to the structure over the years.

Notre Dame’s legendary status as a backdrop to history and monument to the heavens makes this week’s devastating fire difficult to process. While it appears that much of Notre Dame’s religious relics and art survived the fire, the losses are still immense. The cathedral lost most of its roof made of original 13th century timber, known as “the forest” for the sheer number of trees cut down for the wooden latticework. The soaring Notre Dame spire, an iconic element of Paris’ skyline, also succumbed to the flames.

Despite the devastating damage, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral to its former glory in 5 years. While Notre Dame will never be quite the same, its next chapter has the potential to live up to its illustrious history. With societal changes such as globalization and migration roiling the fabric of Western culture, the ideals of Notre Dame are more important than ever. More than a simple structure, Notre Dame is a symbol for what human beings can accomplish when we put our differences aside and work together for a higher purpose. The soaring proportions of Notre Dame remind us all that, no matter our worldly stature, we pale in comparison to a higher power. These universal ideals cannot be destroyed by fire. Instead, we have an opportunity to live up to the meaning of Notre Dame by putting aside our differences and working together as one to rebuild it. In doing so, we will only add to the legacy of Notre Dame as the cathedral rises out of the ashes.

Dylan Berger can be reached at dylberge@umich.edu.