Notre Dame was once new about a thousand years ago. Its cornerstone was laid in the year 1163, and the final carvings were completed in about the year 1300. It took nearly two hundred years for Notre Dame to be officially complete. Yet, the Notre Dame we see today is not the same Notre Dame of the year 1300. The original Notre Dame was brightly painted. Today’s Notre Dame is colorless. The original cathedral had blue stained glass windows like that at Chartres. The windows we see today are 17th-century grisaille creations, which are plain white with only a touch of color. The original Notre Dame was dark, moody, and filled with incense and noise. Today, the cathedral is lit, full of tourists, and the most common noise is the sound of a camera flashing. Well, at least it was before it burned.
Yet, Notre Dame is still a church. Believe it or not, there was a time when it wasn’t.
The French Revolution was a very strange era. It was in 1792 when it was declared that there was no more religion. Notre Dame could no longer be a church because churches no longer existed. Instead, Notre Dame was “A Temple of Reason.” Her spire, that large stretch of metal that pierced into the sky, was torn down. Every statue that lined up to make her “gallery of kings” was pulled down and smashed to pieces. Her interior was stripped bare of every valuable object. Her bells, those glorious bells that would ring throughout narrow cobblestone streets and govern everyone’s daily lives, were robbed from their bell towers and melted down for their metal. All the contents of the treasury, which included reliquaries and precious religious vessels, were sent to the foundry.
Notre Dame looked like a shell of herself, but it was thoroughly modern.
After those initial atrocities, she only worsened. Reverted to a church once again by the decree of Napoleon, her statues were restored, but she herself was neglected. Her many statues were all but broken and falling off the walls, her gargoyles were weathered so much that they looked worse than gargoyles should, and inside, her ceiling threatened to collapse. The cathedral was decaying. Unloved, unworshipped, it looked as though she would silently die without anyone shedding a tear. Notre Dame was ready to succumb to the soil from which she sprung.
Notre Dame was walking on the precipice.
But, lo! The Victorian era sprang from the soil like a flower in the spring and they were going to save her. No other era so loved the Gothic Age and tried to emulate it as much as theirs did. It was the pleas of Victor Hugo who rallied support for Notre Dame cathedral. It was his book Notre Dame (or, as the American audience knows it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that drew attention to the decaying edifice. It was he who demanded that it was society’s responsibility to save it. And it was Viollet-le-Duc who did the actual saving. It was he who put the spire back on, replaced all the decaying statues, fixed all the gargoyles, and repaired the falling ceiling. It was he who gave us the Notre Dame we have today which looks remarkably similar to the Notre Dame of the past. Yet, the two are not the same, and they never will be.