Is Paris Burning?
Shortly before Paris was liberated by the Allies in August 1944, Adolf Hitler ordered the total destruction of the City of Light. It’s been claimed that the German army placed explosives in readiness around transportation areas, under bridges and around famous monuments and landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower. Hitler is believed to have sent several angry dispatches from Berlin demanding – ‘Is Paris burning?’
The last Nazi commander of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, stated that he was personally responsible for saving Paris from destruction, because he’d disobeyed Hitler’s orders. However, several French historians have discredited the general and insist that it was the French Resistance and the Allies who saved Paris.
The controversy has never been resolved and General Dietrich von Choltitz’s son, Timo, informed The Telegraph in 2002, ‘If he saved only Notre Dame, that would be enough reason for the French to be grateful.‘
The telling thing about Timo’s statement is that the magnificent 856 year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral – built on an island on the Seine – is perceived to be the heart and soul of Paris. Following the fire of 15 April 2019, the French President Emmanuel Macron stated, ‘Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of us burning.‘
Fortunately no lives were lost and most artefacts, art and holy relics were rescued by a human chain of firefighters aided by officials, a Reverend, church caretakers and the Chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. As the fire was being fought Parisians wept, prayed on their knees, sang hymns or stared fixedly at Notre-Dame in stunned silence.
Notre-Dame – known as Our Lady of Paris – has been a source of inspiration, controversy and mystery ever since the first stone was laid in 1163. The initial construction was completed in 1345 but the famous Notre-Dame gargoyles were not installed until 1831.
The first time I visited Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cité, it was not the flying buttresses, the 13th century stained glass masterpieces or the sublime beauty of the church that captivated me. It was the outstanding French Gothic architecture and the extraordinary gargoyles.
Gargoyles were part of my childhood. My European mother treasured the gargoyles she’d purchased in Paris on her honeymoon. We had gargoyles looming at us from the bookshelves and a larger gargoyle – gnawing on a human shin bone – dangling a mellow light over the fireplace. It was their bulging eyes that killed me – I suspected that they knew my deepest, most secret thoughts.
Seeing the real Notre-Dame gargoyles transfixed me and once again their knowingness unnerved me. Gargoyles can appear frightening because they’re monsters, wild beasts and fantastical creatures. Many folk believe that the function of gargoyles is to keep evil forces and demons away from the church and to protect its sanctity.
Not all of the fantastical Notre-Dame creatures are called gargoyles. Some are chimera or grotesques depending on their purpose. Many are both decorative and functional, as they conceal the pipes that drain away rainwater, thereby protecting the stone walls from damage.
The fire at Notre-Dame shocked the world but there’s talk about restoration and philanthropists are already offering generous bequests. It will take years, but Our Lady of Paris will once again rise up in the oldest part of Paris, as the cultural centrepiece of the Ile de la Cité.
Image above: detail from Victor Hugo’s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, illustration by Luc-Olivier Merson 1881. The laconic gargoyles seem to be observing the male figure desperately clinging to the building.