People’s eyes were glued to their TVs, mesmerized by the images of flames pouring through the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. TV commentators were mostly speechless. One came out with an involuntary “Oh God!” when the 300-foot high spire fell to the ground. One of the most beautiful buildings in the world was being destroyed while we watched helplessly.
Architecturally, the Cathedral is a stunner. It has been called the greatest example of the French Gothic building style. The flying buttresses which support the building’s weight from the outside are seen as an ingenious engineering solution for its time. Add to the Cathedral’s treasures the beautiful Rose Windows, the floor design in the shape of a cross, the many great works of art and the relics, claimed to be a piece of Jesus’ cross and the crown of thorns he wore. Amazing!
Experiencing this loss becomes even more poignant and dramatic when we learn about the great cathedral’s backstory. In a sense, its history reflects the backstory of western civilization, with the emergence of Europe (and ultimately, the United States) as a major force in the shaping of the modern world. It was built over a century between AD 1160 and AD 1260, a time when the feudal system still controlled society, which locked people into defined castes and roles. The poor had no opportunity to improve their lot. Meanwhile, royal families and church leaders were involved in constant struggles to hold onto the land and power they had inherited. During certain periods, the armies of these kingdoms stopped fighting each other long enough to join forces in the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land and other areas that had been under Muslim control for several centuries.
By the time of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, Notre Dame had been standing as a proud symbol of Roman Catholicism for more than two hundred years. At one point, the French protestant Huguenots sacked the Cathedral, desecrating statues of Biblical figures and saints, which they saw as idolatrous. But France remained Roman Catholic, even as other European nations embraced Protestantism.
The French Revolution, however, changed everything. In 1790, the royal line was overthrown and replaced by a republican form of government. This movement also involved affirming human self-determination in place of the church’s divine authority. During the frenzy of revolutionary celebration, a mob attacked Notre Dame Cathedral as the symbol of the Church’s abuse of power. They posted a sign which renamed the sanctuary “The Temple of Reason” and replaced statues of the Virgin Mary with images of the “Goddess Liberty.”* Some of the activists thought statues of Old Testament kings of Israel were images of French kings, so they beheaded them. When Napoleon usurped the revolution, he restored the Cathedral to the Roman Catholic Church as a peace-keeping measure. He even selected this as the location for his 1804 coronation as Emperor of France.
However, France was more and more becoming a secular society, and Notre Dame Cathedral was neglected and not properly maintained. Its revival came from a surprising place; an 1831 novel by the great French writer Victor Hugo, which in the English translation, is entitled The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmeralda is a gypsy dancing girl whom men find irresistible. Quasimodo, the “hunchback,” is a shadowy, misshapen young man whose job is to ring the Cathedral’s bell. This story of love and lust, social status and tragedy became very popular all over Europe and the United States, and the image of the deformed man who finds meaning in his life only from daily ringing the church’s great bell created a renewed legendary aura around Notre Dame Cathedral.
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So, I was thinking about the house our family lived in from 1972 until we sold it in 2017. As we emptied closets and drawers, everything brought back memories. Our children were 9 and 4 when we moved in, and all the episodes of their emerging development as persons happened there. We could think of happy moments, angry moments, painful events and celebrations. And then we realized the house also had several owners before us, since it was built in 1947. We could read some of those families’ histories as we researched additions that had been attached to the back of the house.
The greatest Cathedral has a backstory, but so does the humblest wood-frame house.
The most powerful world leader has a backstory, but so does the most-insignificant person on earth.
Esmeralda had a backstory, and all the men were fascinated by it.
Quasimodo had his own sad backstory, but nobody cared about it. Except God, who loved hearing his bell-ringing every day.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* This depiction of the Roman goddess also inspired French sculptor F. A. Bartholdi in creating the Statue of Liberty, which was given by France to the United States in 1886