There’s a small park behind Notre Dame where pink flowers grow. They crawl up the wrought-iron fences, and rose bushes pop up like spires from the ground. Couples sit and take breaks from the crowds, and parents stop to let their children play. Despite its central location, the area around the church tends to be still and quiet, and serve as a respite for locals.
When I first visited Paris in 2004, it was to move there for college. It was early spring, and there weren’t many tourists yet. My apartment wasn’t anywhere near Ile de la Cité, but my flâneur tendencies kept me walking past the park. Notre Dame, like the Eiffel Tower, is such a Parisian icon that its existence barely registers in conscious thought. Architectural monuments like this are so ingrained in a city’s identity that it’s as though they are as unmoving as the sky itself.
Which is why watching Notre Dame burn Monday was especially painful. The Lady of Paris is no stranger to ruin. Through its 800 years, destruction has been an important and regular part of its story. In the 1790s, at the height of the French Revolution, the group of rebels who had been influenced by the Enlightenment declared Notre Dame a church no more, and the Christian iconography inside was destroyed. Notre Dame was ransacked and taken to a point of almost total ruination: The religious statues were decapitated, the guts of the cathedral emptied. For many years afterward, Notre Dame was just a building — used as a warehouse, even at one point to store wine. Then, in 1804, the cathedral was handed back over to the Catholic Church. And upon an order given by Napoleon, Notre Dame would not only be repaired, but he would hold his coronation there.
Two hundred years after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, I walked by Notre Dame, sat on a bench at the back of the church and studied for an art history test I had the next day. It was just weeks before Easter, and my exam featured the Gothic cathedral in front of me. Tall, back-bending buttresses stood like stacked giraffes. Or like Atlas holding up the world. When Notre Dame was constructed, only a few buildings in the world had this innovative feature. The flying buttresses meant that they could raise the walls higher and add large rose windows, making it the church we know today. They work like the release of a pent-up valve: The cathedral is so massive that the stone walls and the immense roof would begin to buckle without additional support for the weight. So the buttresses come in and absorb and remove some of the energy from the building. Then, like blood moving from the heart down through the arms, they take a continuous bearing load and push it down into the ground. Notre Dame is rooted where it stands.
I flipped the pages of my textbook, memorizing images while the gargoyles and chimera looked down on me, scowling. Even after just a couple of months, it was easy to take for granted how these buildings have stood for centuries, bearing witness to the most unspeakable things, and the most beautiful.
Our Lady of Paris survived the bombings of the Prussian War and both world wars. Over centuries, random places in Paris have seen violence, natural and human made. Nearby bomb blasts rattled the church, damaging its windows. Strolling tourists and locals were replaced by troops, sandbags and tanks. It’s seen swastikas on the arms of German soldiers standing guard before its doors. Its roof has been injured by lightning strikes and fires, and experienced the simple fatigue that comes with age. But it stood still amid a churning chaotic world. Notre Dame survived. And it did so again Monday.
We still don’t know what caused Notre Dame to catch fire. I felt helpless watching as the blaze started near the spire of the cathedral and over the day spread across the rooftop, slowly, torturously, devouring everything in sight. The City of Light was illuminated in a ghastly way.
There is no doubt that this fire is the worst destructive force Notre Dame has suffered in its history. The comments online displayed a variety of pain — for those who have been there, watching it nearly destroyed, and for those who have dreamed of going, who were mourning never knowing Paris as it was. But the city is never constant. No city is.
Paris is an unspeakably beautiful city. It is like home to me. It’s not just the artistry, or that it looks like a postcard or a painting — there are cracks in the cobblestone, to say the least. Like any true love, I didn’t fall for its aesthetics — I fell in love with its character. So many times, the City of Light has been darkened, but it never stays dark for long. There is something unspoken and unidentifiable about the place that houses such an icon. Some things are too beautiful to be named.
Now, a huge portion of one of the world’s most beloved works of architecture has been damaged, gutted from the inside. If the heat had lasted much longer, it would have begun to crack the limestone structure that was dug up from quarries around Paris. The church is not just of Paris — it is made from Paris.
The French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” Like any thing that survives merely by existing in this world, there are marks left behind. Proof of existence. Whole parts that have been replaced. Like our cells that regrow over and over again during our lifetime. The cells you die with are not the ones you had when you were born.
As I watched the videos of the flames, dissolving the cathedral in real time, I couldn’t help but look at those buttresses. They weren’t originally supposed to be there, but in the 13th century the builders realized there was too much weight on the walls, and the buttresses were added. I watched those arches, the spine of the queen, trace along the sides and the back, the flowers blowing from the force of the flames. I wondered how many other people had sat on that bench outside of this (Technicolor postcard, movie backdrop, am I in a dream?) church and stared at that point where that last small stone of the buttress meets the wall of Notre Dame. That point where the atoms touch and the pressure lived. That place between the Gothic legend and the arms that reached down, digging their roots deeper into the city, to survive — again.