By Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher, Clarion Herald
“Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,” writes Victor Hugo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Throughout the novel, Hugo’s descriptions of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are painstakingly detailed. The narrator characterizes the cathedral as a living, breathing entity. The monument is something to be revered, in part because it catalogs the innovation and transformation of history and culture.
As I walked out of my 19th century literature class, I instinctively checked my phone to monitor the time left on my parking meter. It wasn’t my parking that drew my immediate attention; it was my iPhone’s notifications of the ravaging fire that had spread across Notre Dame Cathedral.
I looked in horror at the images of destruction, the ember-filled skyline of Paris. And I thought of my literature class: in the following period, we would be discussing Victorian medievalism.
Notre Dame is always an excellent example of the 19th century’s return to medieval architecture and art. In the mid-19th century, the Cathedral underwent reconstruction. At this time, the famed spire – now fallen – and gargoyles, and other notable architectural features, were added to the exterior.
As I emphasize to my students, the 19th-century’s revival of medievalism points toward a larger preoccupation with a return to beauty and art as a means of reform.
Art becomes a means of redemption from the ugliness of mechanized production and environmental pollutions generated by the Industrial Revolution.
But, more than that, Notre Dame stands as a symbol of the beauty and majesty associated with the Catholic Church.
Cathedrals were initially built to inspire awe, to draw our gaze upwards to heaven. These massive monuments were, in fact, the “work of centuries” and, importantly, their majesty is derived also from the laborious nature of the construction for the glory of God.
Notre Dame remains a central monument of Parisian life. The circulating narratives of the decline of Europe and the growing conspiracy theories surrounding what has been largely acknowledged as an accident due to current restoration attempts get in the way of recalling that seminal fact.
What struck me were not only the images of the cross and Pieta in the midst of rubble or the magnificent rose windows continuing to shine in a place of darkness, but the images of the people of Paris.
People lined on the Seine River gazing in horror and sorrow at the collapse of the spire and roof as the fire leaped into the sky. The line of firefighters salvaging the relics and religious art as smoke and fire billowed around them. The chaplain of the fire department who risked his life to recover the Blessed Sacrament and the crown of thorns.
In the midst of horror, people come together. Religious or secular, they unite for a greater cause – their belief in the larger good of humanity, beauty and the preservation of history.
The church is grounded in all of those things, serving as a reminder to the world of the majesty of God, of his promise to return and provide everlasting life.
Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.