France mourns, the world weeps, but Notre Dame still stands!

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Despite the terrible fire which collapsed the roof and destroyed large parts of the fabled Gothic Cathedral, despite the collapse of its iconic spire in the midst of the inferno, and despite the near apocalyptic pyre which engulfed the medieval church, Notre Dame de Paris still stands as a stunningly beautiful testament to Civilization, Culture and to Christianity.

The world watched and wept as the media covered the conflagration as almost surrealistic images of the beloved medieval cathedral poured fourth with billows of smoke and flame. Can this happen? Is it true? Memories of September 11th darted through the embers to the melancholic soundtrack of fire brigade sirens as the dry wooden roof exploded into the dusk.

Notre Dame Cathedral / Creative Commons

This writer was stunned and saddened to see this tragedy unfold on TV; only later did the depth of the event really process. Yes, it happened. This was real.

Notre Dame de Paris was the first European cathedral I visited as a child; this grand Gothic structure on its island surrounded by the Seine River and standing as a beautiful and enduring symbol of Paris and France. The pole star of Paris, the beating heart of France, the sanctuary of the Spirit. The great French author Victor Hugo called it a “vast symphony in stone.”

I’ve visited many of the great Cathedrals of France; Rheims, Chartres, Bourges, but Notre Dame stands in Paris and None stand above her. Over the years I have been privileged to see and visit this landmark many times.

French President Emmanuel Macron pledged, “We will rebuild this Cathedral all together.” He stated, “our history, our literature, our imagination…We will rebuild it because it is what the French people expect, because it is what our history demands. Because it is our profound destiny.” Bravo!

Notre Dame Cathedral is viewed as the premier example of French Gothic architecture; Construction of the church began in 1163 and continued for over a century. For over 850 years Notre Dame as a product of the medieval imagination, piety and genius, has witnessed the tides of history as the Seine flows round her.

Magnificent stained glass windows, with their refinements of light, color and parables to the saints, have largely been saved. Henry Adams, the notable 19th century American author and chronicler of French cathedrals wrote, “Like all great churches, that are not mere store-houses of theology.” He spoke of the architectural flying buttresses supporting the structure, the stained glass windows, the grotesque gargoyles leering over the sides and of course the sacred interiors.

Notre Dame remains a sacred symbol in a profoundly secular France. It represents cultural and historic patrimony as much as sacred structure. The UNESCO Director Audrey Azoulay stated, “Notre Dame represents a historically, architecturally, and spiritually, outstanding universal heritage. It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination. Heritage of the French but also of humanity as a whole.”

Bishop Matthieu Rouge of Nanterre outside of Paris conceded, “I think France may be one of the least religious countries in the world.”

Notre Dame is more than a Church, but a symbol. It’s bells signaled the history of Paris and indeed of France. During the French Revolution after 1789, the Cathedral was desecrated and defaced; Victor Hugo wrote his iconic 1831 novel Hunchback of Notre Dame to help revive interest in the deteriorating cathedral, General Charles de Gaulle visited Notre Dame on the Liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944, its iconic bells tolling the freedom’s rebirth.

During the recent inferno, Notre Dame’s flames were extinguished by the tears of the Parisians and the bravery of the Paris Fire Brigade. Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, Brigade Chaplin, ran into the burning cathedral to save priceless relics, such as the Crown of Thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus at the Crucifixion, as well as tunic of St. Louis, the French Crusader King.
The main altar with the Pieta and Cross survived too amid the collapsed roof.

Massive donations from the French business community and throughout the world have been pledged to rebuild; President Macron wants to see the job completed in five years but this task appears optimistic given the challenge of rebuilding the steep vaulted roof and reinforcing the long crumbling structure.

Macron’s call for artistically Creative reconstruction? No thanks! The original was just fine.

Notre Dame has suffered and has been damaged, but after 850 years, the masterpiece of architecture and hope endures.

France mourns, the world weeps, but Notre Dame still Stands!

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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