Notre-Dame: The life of Our Lady

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Around 860 years ago, the centre of Ile de la Cité, in Paris, was occupied by the ruins of pagan temples and a basilica. It might have remained that way, had the Bishop and King Louis VII of France not decided to build a monument to embody the power and culture of Paris, as well as their faith in God and the Catholic Church. The Gothic period had just started. It was the perfect time to build the grandest Cathedral possible, and in 1163, Pope Alexander III arrived in Paris and laid down the cornerstone of one of the city’s most iconic monuments, if not its heart: Notre-Dame.

Building the cathedral was a long process; King Louis VII never saw the finished cathedral he had ordered to be built. When it was completed, almost 200 years later, it did not look like the icon I and many others came to know: its stone façade was painted in bright colours, so as to resemble the pages of medieval manuscripts, and instead of being in a square, it was surrounded by houses.

When it was completed, almost 200 years later, it did not look like the icon I and many others came to know

Over the first hundred years, although the paint faded, the Cathedral was not forgotten, but remained beloved by both Parisians and European royal families. For illiterate citizens in medieval Paris, the many sculptures in the cathedral served as a source of Bible stories and messages, helping them affirm and develop their faith. King Henry VI of England was crowned inside it as King of France during the Hundred Years’ War. Kings and queens held their weddings in Notre-Dame, and parts of the cathedral were remodelled over time, until the revolution arrived.

For illiterate citizens in medieval Paris, the many sculptures in the cathedral served as a source of Bible stories and messages, helping them affirm and develop their faith.

After the revolution, the Cathedral fell into disrepair and came close to demolition. Much of the monarchy-related iconography was destroyed by revolutionaries, such as the statues in the Kings’ Gallery, which were decapitated in the square (it was later found that the statues depicted not the kings of France, but of Judah). Luckily for Parisians, Napoleon Bonaparte had developed an attachment to ‘Our Lady,’ and decided to restore it to the Catholic Church in time for his coronation to be held inside the Cathedral in 1804, as well as his wedding in 1810.

However, although Notre-Dame was functional, it remained in a state of tragic decay until it found an unlikely saviour in Victor Hugo, who loved medieval and especially Gothic architecture. It was his sadness at seeing Notre-Dame being so neglected and his worry that it might be torn down that prompted him to publish The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831. His plan worked, reviving Parisians’ love for their Cathedral, and in the mid-19th century, Notre-Dame was repaired and made into the iconic building millions of us know and love.

It remained in a state of tragic decay until it found an unlikely saviour in Victor Hugo, who loved medieval and especially Gothic architecture

Remembering how grand and solemn the Cathedral felt to me when I first saw it, even as a young girl visiting Paris for the first time, and also as a Catholic, it has been heart-breaking to watch the fire consuming Notre-Dame yesterday. Few buildings have witnessed so many events of their country’s and indeed of humanity’s history. However, I have faith in Notre-Dame and Parisians’ love for it. It has been shut down and allowed to decay and yet made to come back through the force of this love, and I have no doubt that it will do so once again.

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