Our Lady of Paris
On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. ‘Tempus edax, homo edacior,’ which I would be inclined to translate: ‘Time is blind, but man is senseless.’
Victor Hugo 1831 ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’
Notre Dame Cathedral is widely perceived to be the heart and soul of Paris. The first time I visited Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité, it was wasn’t just the cathedral’s sublime beauty that captivated me. It was the fabulous French Gothic architecture, accentuated by the most extraordinary gargoyles, mythical chimeras and artworks.
During the devastating fire at Notre Dame in 2019, the distressed French President Emmanuel Macron stated, ‘Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of us burning.’
Later as the smoke receded and distraught Parisians attempted to deal with loss of their cultural symbol Macron firmly stated, ‘We will rebuild this cathedral.’
After numerous setbacks and pandemic complications, the cathedral is being painstakingly restored to its former magnificence. The reopening date is currently set for December 2024.
The restoration has been an incredibly expensive business. Unfortunately many donors reneged on their pledges to assist in the cost of the restoration. So to help raise money an international fundraising group offered ‘adoption’ of a Notre-Dame art piece. Alternately you could donate to the restoration of the cathedral itself.
I ‘adopted’ a gargoyle in memory of a British woman, a lover of all things French. She was devoted to Notre Dame Cathedral and its louche, wicked gargoyles. During her honeymoon in Paris, she sought out sculpted reproductions of Notre Dame’s gargoyles.
Gargoyles can appear frightening because they’re monsters, wild beasts and fantastical creatures. The myth is that gargoyles keep evil forces and demons away from a church and protect its sanctity.
Many fire damaged sections of the cathedral were made of wood. Over one thousand trees from all over France have been selected for the reconstruction. The spire’s base which is made of oak measures 15 metres on one side. It will support the new lead-covered spire which is over 90 metres tall.
French general, Jean-Louis Georgelin – who’s been overseeing repair work to Notre Dame since 2013 – has also been overseeing the current restoration project. It’s been a divisive, messy business with church representatives, architects, citizens, journalists and politicians all feverishly arguing about what the rebuild should look like.
Known as Our Lady of Paris, the cathedral has been a source of inspiration, controversy and mystery ever since the first stone was laid in 1163. It was also one of the first buildings to feature magnificent flying buttresses. The initial construction was completed in 1345 but the famous Notre Dame gargoyles were not installed until 1831.
My English mother purchased several gargoyle reproductions in Paris and they sailed with us from London to Australia on a P&O ship. Gargoyles became a big part of my childhood. They loomed at me from our bookshelves. It was their bulging eyes that killed me. Especially when the open fire was crackling, incense burning and the room dimly lit. My mother was very keen on red and orange light shades, which effectively meant only the kitchen sink was brightly lit.
As a child I thought one of the most exciting places you could possibly visit was Hell. I also suspected the gargoyles knew my deepest secret fears. Sadly in my mother’s absence the gargoyles and other valuables were later removed from her home. Who knows, perhaps the gargoyles will exert their strange mystique over those who took them?
The largest gargoyle – gnawing on what appeared to be a human shin bone – dangled a mellow light over the open fireplace. Our landline telephone was situated just below him. In high school I liked to imagine he was listening in as he thoughtfully chewed on his bone. He had a very cynical expression, especially when the local lads rang up seeking dates.
Seeing footage of Notre Dame’s restoration in progress is quite cheering. For as Bogart murmured in the film Casablanca. ‘We shall always have Paris’.
And it seems we shall soon have Our Lady of Paris.
Image above: detail from Victor Hugo’s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, illustration by Luc-Olivier Merson 1881. The laconic gargoyles appear to be observing the male figure desperately clinging to the building.