For the people of France, the iconic building is both a symbol of their country’s complicated religious history and a testimony to the power of art.

By Alexandra Marshall
Updated: April 16, 2019
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As last night’s harrowing fire at Notre Dame burns up this morning’s headlines, much is being made of the medieval cathedral’s iconic status. Notre Dame is one of the most visited monuments in all of Europe. It’s the geographical heart of Paris, the point zero from which all of the country’s distances are calibrated. (Seriously, there’s a plaque.) But because icons only become icons by being bigger than all of us, they don’t engender uncomplicated love. For all the thousands who gathered at Notre Dame last night to shed tears and sing hymns as fire brigades fought the flames, some others rolled their eyes and laughed and said, "Let it burn."

Last night I was in a café just off the Place Edith Piaf, in the 20th arrondissement, when news of the fire broke. It was before the dinner rush, so I was alone with a few groups of my fellow locals, fiddling with a bowl of minestrone as they drank their apéritifs. Naturally we started talking. The images of the 19th-century spire falling into ash had just rolled out over social media and soon I was in tears, my face glimmering in the reflected blue light of my phone.

Whenever I cross into central Paris, my route takes me over the Pont Marie, the bridge that crosses the Ile de la Cité behind the cathedral, and I’m treated to a view of the towers, the roof, and the spindly flying buttresses. I’m always floored by its strange combination of grandeur and humility. In the 12th century, those buttresses liberated architects to create ever-larger windows and ever-taller spires. As the Gothic period progressed, churches became obsessed with height. Cologne, Chartres, the Duomo in Milan — these cathedrals are all thrusting to the sky, the better to show the might of human ingenuity, and the power of the Catholic Church to bankroll such glory. But Notre Dame is more discreet, its aesthetic power centered in the harmony and balance of its volumes. From a distance, those proportions and the perfect scale of its lacy sculptural ornamentation make it hard to tell just how huge it is. It’s only when you’re in front of Notre Dame, or better yet inside, that you understand its heft.

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The café owner saw my distress and struck an optimistic note, pushing aside his trucker cap to wipe sweat off his brow. “Notre Dame has survived fire before,” he said. (Actually it hadn’t suffered a fire of this scale. Happily, it turns out it will survive this one.) He continued: “I have stonemason friends who are 35 years old. The art of masonry still lives in France. They will rebuild it, and fast.” Across the room, an older man in a Peruvian cap and a windbreaker cackled. “Who cares?” he said with a shrug. “Let’s move into the modern age. Screw the Church!” His companion and I looked at each other in horror. She said, “Maybe it’s cheesy, that church. I’m certainly not a Catholic, but it’s a symbol of our history.” Cheesy? This transcendent building whose 13th century stained glass windows — also miraculously saved — glitter like rubies and sapphires and emeralds in the late afternoon sun? But hang on: If I grew up in Paris, and shared my city with hordes of foreign tourists trafficking in trinket-sized reproductions of the building and t-shirts with its likeness, maybe I’d roll my eyes too. Maybe.

As we were talking, I simultaneously scrolled through Twitter, where my American follows were expressing their heartbreak. I asked my fellow diners if the only people who were mourning unreservedly weren’t French. The café owner replied, “Maybe. We grew up with this thing. In this city. It’s been occupied. Maybe we’re just more pragmatic and factual about it. And we’re kind of anticlerical here.”

Ah yes. Even for those in our impromptu debate society who defended the cathedral last night — and there were more of us than there were detractors — “I’m not Catholic at all, but…” was almost always the opening gambit to a pro-Notre Dame sentiment. It was yet another reminder of the vexed history so many in France have with the Church that dictated its affairs until 1905, when the country officially separated church and state. (That law is today the nexus of an ongoing debate about national identity and Islam in France.) Last night, the historically oppressive role of the Church was clearly still fresh enough in these people’s thoughts that the members of my left-wing corner of Paris still had to reflexively distance themselves from it, in 2019.

I was under no such pressure. “Monsieur, your notion of modernity is itself old-fashioned,” I said to M. Windbreaker as I got up to leave. “The last time people thought it was modern to erase the past was the 1950s, with the International Style. That hasn’t left such a good footprint here. Do you want them to put up another Opéra de la Bastille?” I asked, referring to the severe 1980s building almost everyone considers the city’s most egregious eyesore. A woman one table over piped up in agreement. “Notre Dame is a symbol of human history, of beauty divorced even from any system of power,” she said. “We don’t progress by burning down the past. We incorporate it for everything that it gives us. We learn from it. It’s part of us.”

I first experienced Notre Dame as a tourist, when I was 10 years old. And then as an immigrant, seven years ago, when I met my Mormon cousins for an Easter service. In French, you could say we were émerveillés, awestruck, by the afternoon. The diversity of the congregants, the might of the organ. Attending mass at the cathedral is a rite of passage whatever your actual faith, or lack thereof. The history of the institution that built it is complicated and dark. But Notre Dame has always welcomed me, as it has so many countless millions of others. It’s part of all of us, too.   

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