What Notre-Dame Means to the City of Paris

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Writer and resident Parisienne Elaine Sciolino reflects on what Notre-Dame means to Paris and the people who call the city home.

For so many of us, Paris means two things: happiness and beauty. It is the place where we deposit our dreams. No one I know ever dreams of going to Tokyo or London or Hong Kong. It is Paris that grips us and carries us along and sticks with us after we have left.

We have wandered aimlessly on streets that seduce us with history and culture and visual pleasures. We have discovered great works of art and studied in libraries heavy with leather-bound books. We have fallen in love and had more fun than we ever knew possible. We may even have tried to fit in, donning a cloak of anonymity and a look of ennui at the corner café every morning and pretending—even though we knew we might be deceiving ourselves—that we were a little bit French. 

But Paris is more than the memory of experience, of the perfect summer vacation or college semester abroad. Paris holds us so tight because it has been branded forever in our imagination. We have read about Paris in books, studied paintings of Paris, listened to songs about April in Paris and loving Paris in the springtime and fall. We have seen movies, oh, the movies. We feel as if we know Paris, as if we own Paris, even if we have never visited.


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When we say the word “Paris,” it’s likely that the first two structures that spring to mind are the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower is considered the world’s most identifiable monument, and the most distinctive emblem of what it means to be Parisian. But it is a late arrival, a 19th century edifice made of pig iron and painted over in shades of semi-gloss.

Notre Dame, by contrast, trumps the Eiffel Tower as the most-visited tourist site in Paris. And every year, more people—whether French or foreign, religious or not—make a pilgrimage here than to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

So as Notre Dame Cathedral burned out of control for hours, as its roof collapsed and its spire fell, the horror of the loss was mourned around the world. Some American television commentators were quick to declare the monument dead.   


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For some observers, Notre Dame and the Île de la Cité, the island where it stands, form the beating heart of France. The “heart” is there for all to see: an octagonal bronze medallion set into the cobblestones in the open area at the entrance. The Kilometer Zero point on the medallion is the spot from which distances in France are measured, the starting point for any voyage of discovery.  

Others see Notre Dame as much more than a mere structure of chiseled limestone and gargoyles and flying buttresses. In her 1928 documentary “Harmonies de Paris,” Lucie Derain portrayed it as the city’s “soul,” its reflection shining in the iridescent waters of the Seine river surrounding it. The site of Notre-Dame even may have been a holy place in ancient times. Some archeologists surmise that a pagan temple dedicated to the god Jupiter may have stood on the very spot where Notre-Dame was built so many centuries later.


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I see Notre Dame as something else as well: a silent survivor. It took most of the 12th and 13th centuries to build, and the result was an amalgam of different styles of gothic architecture. Since then, it has weathered desecrations, dozens of renovations and violent upheavals.

The most dramatic was the anticlericalism following France's 1789 revolution that stripped churches like Notre Dame of their wealth, transforming them into “temples of reason” in the service of the new secular republic. Notre Dame was so badly damaged and desecrated that by the end of the 18th century, radicals were calling for its demolition.


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Victor Hugo’s 1831 opus, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was a call to action as well as an epic novel. He railed about “the innumerable degradations and mutilations” of the cathedral by both the ravages of time and the hand of man. A massive renovation between 1844 and 1864 by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc followed, including the construction of the flying buttresses and the spire destroyed in the blaze.


Patrick Palem, expert of the heritage restoration, walks by the statues which sat around the spire of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and removed for restoration, stored in SOCRA workshop in Marsac-sur-Isle near Bordeaux, on April 16, 2019. Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Renovations are ongoing. The stained-glass windows of the nave were replaced in the 1960s, some of the bells in 2013.

Even before disaster struck, Notre Dame was a structure in decay. Decorative gargoyles needed to evacuate rainwater and balustrades had fallen, flying buttresses were blackened from car pollution and were crumbling, limestone chunks were falling. $180 million was needed for repairs, but money only trickled in. It took the specter of its destruction before some of France’s biggest corporations and richest families poured in masses of money.  


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Notre Dame will reemerge different, of course. It will remain both a beautiful museum for the masses and a vibrant part of the everyday lives of its community, a place of music, ritual, and prayer where babies are baptized, believers attend Mass and the dead are mourned.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame will emerge stronger. And as heretical as this may sound today—even more beautiful than it was before.

Elaine Sciolino is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, based in France since 2002. Her most recent book, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, published by W.W. Norton & Company, was a New York Times best seller.