How From the Ashes of Notre-Dame of Paris, European Cultural Heritage Revives

More than a French symbol, the monument represents a part of European cultural heritage

April 18th, 2019
Elisa Vallette, News from Berlin
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Sadly, a piece of French history and culture went into smoke on Monday April 15th. However, together, the French are writing a new page of their history. After sadness, a sentiment of hope and unity revives from Notre-Dame’s ashes.

First, a quick overview of the history of Notre-Dame will remind us its importance in French and European culture. The construction of the cathedral started in 1163 under the bishop Maurice de Sully and the King Louis VII, and was completed only after a century of collaboration between architects, stonemasons, sculptors, carpenters, glass-makers, etc, in 1272. The cathedral is devoted to Mary, Mother of Jesus, with 37 representations of the Virgin Mary.

For many centuries, the biggest cathedral in Europe is also the highest monument in the capital of France, and become a symbol of Paris. Under the French Revolution, the religious site, as many others, was partially damaged (the arrow is dismantled, and sculptures of the Kings are destroyed). Despite hosting the consecration of Napoleon 1st in 1804, the site still deteriorated further. Against demolition projects, in 1831, Victor Hugo wrote a book that personifies the cathedral, and linked it to the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo, the gipsy dancer Esmeralda, and the priest Claude Frollo. This story of compassion and heroism saved the cathedral. Restoration begins. This impressive monument has inspired many other artists such as painters, poets, writers, and even the singer Edith Piaf. The story from Victor Hugo has been adapted into a Disney cartoon, movie and a musical comedy titled Le Bossu de Notre-Dame.

The cathedral, beyond a religious site, hosted major French historical events. It is under its vaults that a Te Deum was sung at the end of the first World War and during the Liberation of Paris in 1944. It also hosted the funeral ceremonies of several Presidents such as De Gaulle (1970), Pompidou (1974) and Mitterrand (1996). Therefore, Notre-Dame is rooted in French history and also tells a part of European history witnessing many kings, Catholicism, citizen uprisings, wars, etc. Therefore, Notre-Dame is not only a French symbol, but is part of a broader European cultural heritage.

The rapid reactions and donations after the fire, expressed European solidarity, unity, and pride. The president of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker said "Notre Dame belongs to the whole of humanity. It has inspired writers, painters. philosophers and visitors who have come from all round the world." Indeed, Notre-Dame is the most visited monument in France, with approximately 30 000 people per day, with a peak during Easter. EU Council president Donald Tusk added: "Notre Dame of Paris is Notre Dame of the whole of Europe. We are all with Paris today." After the images of Notre-Dame de Paris burning went around the world, many international head of states shared their emotions and expressed their support.

The general director of UNESCO, and former French Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, said “UNESCO stood at France's side to save and restore this priceless heritage”. Notre-Dame de Paris is not only a colossal architectural monument, it also houses many works of art, crafts, and relics venerated by Catholics. In 1789 during the French Revolution, and in 1831 and 1871 during popular uprisings, the cathedral had been attacked and looted, losing part of its treasures. But this treasure had been gradually reconstituted. The fire has put once again some of its masterpieces in danger. However, most of them have been saved and transferred to Paris City Hall. The rest of Notre-Dame's treasure will be secured in the Louvre.

The arrow and the roofing of the cathedral collapsed on Monday, April 15th around 8pm. The two towers seem safe. Now, the question remains: will the structure resist. A group of experts, including architects « des Bâtiments de France » are examining if the structure made of a thousand-year-old wood is stable, and whether what is called “the forest” should be restored identically with wood, or with another material such as metal, deemed more solid and safe. Many of the stained-glass windows of the cathedral have been damaged or broken. However, glass-makers assure they can restore with the exact previous design the windows.

Already, 880 million euros have been collected to rebuild the cathedral. The French President Macron launched a national subscription, inviting all citizens to participate. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo released 50 million euros, and suggested to organize an international conference of donors. The region Île-de-France also released 10 million as emergency aid. The rich family Pinault announced it would give 100 million, and the family Arnault, holding the LVMH society, 200 million euros. The NGO Fondation du Patrimoine created an online international platform to donate (link : ), in addition to citizens’ initiatives on other online crowdfunding platforms such as Leetchi or GoFundMe.

This generous amount of fund rapidly collected demonstrates that when it comes to preserving their cultural heritage, French show solidarity, they are proud of their monuments, which are the expressions of their cultural identity.


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