Impermanence is a shock, even in a faith that makes clear it’s the way of the world. Yesterday’s terrible fire in Paris was jarring and sad, but all shall be well: Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.
Throughout the day I heard many melodramatic and sentimental pronouncements, most of them by commentators who don’t know much about the history of Notre-Dame. You don’t have to be an expert on the cathedral to appreciate that its survival since the Middle Ages is itself a marvel. By the 18th century, many of its gargoyles had disintegrated or were worn into stumps. Statues over the lintel depicting the dead rising from their graves came down in the 1770s, allowing royal processions to fit more easily through the doors; revolutionaries then denuded the cathedral of statues and artwork that had enshrined cléricalisme and féodalité. Ham-handed attempts to “fix” Notre-Dame in the early 1800s by attaching new stone with quick-rusting iron pins only made the building less structurally sound.
The late Michael Camille tells the story in The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity:
One can hardly recognize Notre-Dame as we know it today from the early daguerreotype made by Vincent Chevalier just before 1840, an image in which the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile. In their 1843 project for the restoration, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus described the structure not as a church, but as a ruin. The second part of their forty-page text is a chronological account of the gradual destruction of this once magnificent Gothic edifice, not only by neglect and time but also by the violence of human hands.
Thanks to Victor Hugo’s efforts to lobby the July Monarchy in the 1830s, the French state agreed to fund restoration efforts, and architects Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus began to rescue the building in the 1840s. They turned a husk back into a cathedral, and their work was so convincing that the world largely forgot that Notre-Dame had ever been in shambles.
The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as “chimeras,” the most famous being “le Stryge,” the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to “look medieval,” but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them.
When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.
Vincent Chevalier’s daguerrotype of Notre-Dame, circa 1840. Note the absent statues and empty niches.