Like millions of people around the world, I watched and listened with horror on Monday as the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burned. The first inkling was a breaking news notice on local radio, and it did not take long to find live footage online. It did not only show, in horrifying detail, the devastation being wrought to the 850-year-old structure; footage captured the sound of hundreds of people who had gathered to watch, many of them weeping, praying, and singing.
Many of those offering condolences to the people of Paris in particular, and France in general, were quick to note that while Notre Dame is of symbolic importance to Christians around the world, the cathedral transcended religious boundaries, and was beloved by many as a sublime work of art, instantly familiar even to people who have never visited it. The huge stained glass rose windows — crafted between 1225 and 1250 — appear to have survived, as do the iconic bell towers, familiar to anyone who has seen any film version of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
Hugo’s novel is credited with reviving interest in, and care of, the cathedral. In it, the hunchback Quasimodo, shunned by his fellow human beings because of his grotesque features, finds solace in the cathedral and its other inhabitants:
“He therefore turned to mankind only with regret. His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him — he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him.”
Alone in Notre Dame, Quasimodo finds comfort, blessing, and peace. With 13 million visitors a year, the modern cathedral was a far cry from the tranquil place of which Hugo wrote, yet as it burned people around the world reacted as if they had heard of the death of a loved one. As the sun rose over Paris the next morning, there was pain, anger, and sorrow at the maiming of something so incomparably beautiful, as if a beloved work of art had been defaced.
For while Notre Dame is a place of worship, it is also a work of art; one created not by a solitary artist over the course of weeks or months, but by thousands of people over the span of 100 years. Toiling in obscurity, they created something beautiful, something one person alone could never have achieved, showing that we are at our best and greatest when we work together.
Now people around the world, regardless of race or religion, are coming together again, pledging to restore Notre Dame: a project that will likely take decades. Hugo wrote that “The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.” Many of those who start the work will not see its finish, but they will do it nonetheless, working as part of a larger whole to bring beauty and strength from the ashes. In its pain, the great cathedral shows us all a way to heal.