In 1831, the great French poet, novelist and dramatist of the Romantic movement Victor Hugo wrote his epic ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’, better known to us by its title in English, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’
The French title ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is a double entendre. It refers to the central location of the novel, the eponymous medieval Catholic cathedral (its construction began in 1160) on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris; and also to Esmeralda, “our lady of Paris” at the centre of the human drama in the story.
It is worth remembering that Victor Hugo began writing ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ largely to make his readers aware of the value of the Gothic architecture, which was neglected and often destroyed to be replaced by new buildings or defaced by replacement of parts of buildings in a newer style. For example, the medieval stained glass panels of Notre-Dame de Paris had been replaced by white glass to let more light into the church. To elaborate his point, Hugo incorporates large descriptive sections which far exceed the requirements of the story. He is quite scathing in his writing: “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows”; “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds”.
A few years earlier, Hugo had already published a paper entitled ‘Guerre aux Démolisseurs’ (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture.
Architecture is Hugo’s major concern in the novel, not just as embodied in the cathedral itself, but as representing throughout Paris and the rest of Europe an artistic genre which he felt was about to disappear, especially with the arrival of the printing press.
‘Ceci tuera cela’ (“This will kill that”), says Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre-Dame as he looks from a printed book to the cathedral building.
The book reference is interesting, because the Notre-Dame was itself considered a ‘liber pauperum’, a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures graphically illustrating stories from the Bible for the benefit of the vast majority of the faithful who were illiterate. The most iconic of them all is The Last Judgment in the tympanum over the central portion of the west façade;
and styrges, gargoyles and chimeras abound, either as ornaments or partly functional (many gargoyles are actually rainspouts).
The latest tragedy to befall the Great Dame of Paris this Holy Week, on Monday 15 April, however, was something that even Hugo might not have foreseen. It was neither the printed word nor les Démolisseurs (ironically, it could have been accidentally brought on by ongoing restoration work, so the very antithesis of demolition) mais le Feu! Fire in all its horrific, devastating consumption.
I’ve visited Paris only twice, the first time in 1996 during a twelve-hour stopover between flights, where I hastily took in as many of the famous landmarks as I possibly could. The second was much more relaxed, during a long glorious sunny weekend that included 14 July, the Day of the Bastille. I remember spending most of my birthday at the Notre-Dame cathedral, lingering after morning mass to take in an afternoon recital featuring its famous pipe-organ, originally built in 1403, but replaced and modified several times over the centuries to its present-day avatar, with 115 stops (156 ranks) on five manuals and pedal, and more than 8,000 pipes.
It is not just a musical, but an architectural and mechanical marvel. The whole building (and the listener in it) becomes part of the instrument when it is played. It is an unforgettable experience. When news of the fire broke, there were understandable concerns regarding the fate not only of the building itself, but also all the priceless art treasures within, and this included its magnificent organ. Thankfully, the latest update is that it was not consumed by the fire, although it is too early to comment whether the water used to extinguish the fire, and the ash and debris have affected the instrument.
It is really quite tragic and ironic, that a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, survived the worst ravages of the French Revolution and the turbulent years after it, and two World Wars, should be brought low in our time by an out-of-control fire. The investigation into its cause will be thorough and lengthy, but it should give pause to guardians and stakeholders invested in the protection of other precious buildings and monuments around the world, especially those with a preponderance of wood and similar flammable material.
And fire safety should be a consideration for all of us in our homes. If you will forgive the awful pun, this has come to light in our vaddó in just the last few months, with two separate fires in two adjacent restaurants barely a few weeks apart.
And less than a decade ago, in 2013, another devastating fire burnt an old building in our own block, just two houses down from us, to cinders.
Some months ago, it was reassuring to watch a fire safety drill taking place in the Inox courtyard one early morning for all its employees, before the box-office opened for business. One hopes that other corporate and commercial enterprises also have fire safety measures and drills in place. But what of private homes? And of heritage buildings, churches, chapels, temples, mosques?
Antiquated buildings with stairwells and poor ventilation can actually be fire traps, inducing the spread rather than containment of a blaze. It is well worth re-examining how fire-prepared wherever we are, in our homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship and elsewhere.
The timing of the Notre-Dame fire during Holy Week was commented upon by several sections of the media, including the Catholic press. An article written literally hours after the outbreak titled “Commentary: Holy Week and the Notre Dame fire” on the Catholic News Agency website by M. Jean Duchesne asks “Why did God allow this?” and attempts to answer his own question in the concluding paragraph: What is decisive is the knowledge that Jesus Christ the Groom will never abandon his bride the Church – which does not mean that her faithfulness will never be tested… What ultimately matters is not the signifier (the cathedral), but the signified (God’s glory) which remains forever fertile and will forever inspire those who long for it.”
Perhaps ‘L’Ange de la Résurrection’ (The Angel of the Resurrection) atop the roof of the cathedral is a now unwitting embodying metaphor of our firm belief that Our Lady of Paris will rise again.
Something to think about, and hope for, this Easter Sunday. Happy Easter, everyone!
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)