In 1831, Victor Hugo made the cathedral the key character of his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, largely contributing to the building’s position in the hearts of Parisians and the French. Under the pen of the writer, Our Lady comes alive and touches people around the world. Here are some extracts.
Almost two centuries before Disney, musicals and Netflix, Victor Hugo restored nobility to the cathedral. It’s no coincidence that the novel bears the name of the cathedral, which embodies much more than the ‘love theatre’ of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. 850 years after its creation, far beyond its status as a religious and architectural symbol, Notre-Dame has followers around the world, as the fire of 15 April brought to light. It’s an opportunity to rediscover the book of the writer, which has been flying off store shelves since the tragedy.
Notre-Dame facing the ravages of time
“Without doubt, Notre-Dame de Paris is still a majestic and sublime edifice today. But as beautifully as it has been preserved, as it gets older it is difficult not to sigh, not to be indignant at the degradations, the countless mutilations that both time and man have subjected to the venerable monument, without respect for Charlemagne who laid the foundation stone or Philippe-Auguste who laid the last.”
Our Lady: so beautiful in the spring
“It was one of those spring days of such sweetness and beauty that all of Paris, spread across squares and promenades, celebrated like a Sunday. Especially on those days of clarity, warmth and serenity, there comes a time when we must admire the portal of Notre-Dame. It is the moment when the sun, already heading for the horizon, looks almost directly opposite the cathedral. Its rays, more and more horizontal, are slowly withdrawing from the pavement of the square, and rise along the steep façade, with the thousand round bumps protruding from their shadows, while the great central rose blazes like the eye of a cyclops inflamed by the reverberations of the forge.”
A light in the heart of darkness
“The cathedral was already dark and deserted. The counter-naves were full of darkness, and the lamps of the chapels were beginning to twinkle, the vaults becoming black. Only the great rose of the façade, whose thousand colours were engulfed by a horizontal sunbeam, shone in the shadows like a jumble of diamonds and echoed their dazzling spectre at the other end of the nave.”
The façade: principal treasure of Notre-Dame
“It is certain that the archdeacon had fallen passionately for the symbolic portal of Notre-Dame, that page of riddles written in stone by Bishop Guillaume of Paris, which was probably damned for having tied such an infernal frontispiece to the holy poem that the rest of the building eternally sings. (...) But, what everyone could have noticed, were the endless hours he often spent, sitting on the parapet of the forecourt, contemplating the sculptures of the portal, sometimes examining the foolish virgins with their inverted lamps, sometimes wise virgins with their lamps straight (...)”.
A devastating fire
“All eyes had risen to the top of the cathedral. What they saw was extraordinary. On the top of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, was a great flame rising between the two steeples with whirlwinds of sparks, a large, disordered and furious flame whose wind occasionally carried off a flap in the smoke. (...) Above the flame, the huge towers, each of which we could see two raw and sliced faces, one all black, the other all red, seemed even bigger than the immense shadows they projected into the sky.”