Paris’s Cathedral of Imagination and Memory

Sacred symbol, tourist attraction, beacon for visitors and locals alike: After the fire, writers reflect on the building that has been both constant and ever-shifting in the life of Paris.

Cherry blossoms bloom near Notre-Dame earlier this month.CreditCreditGetty Images

April 16, 2019

I’m embarrassed by the thought of it now, nearly 30 years later: me busking in the shadow of Notre-Dame, guitar case open for donations as I belted out Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs. I was awful, yet another contributor to a particular strain of noise pollution that has degraded the quality of life in European city centers at least since Bob Marley’s “Exodus” came out. But back then you could make a lot of money in Paris if you sang with a bona fide American accent. So, that’s what I did night after night, planting myself at the edge of the cathedral’s tourist-choked parvis and parlaying an eight-song repertoire from the Liberal Arts College Songbook into a not-insignificant revenue stream.

If you were new to Paris, as I was, Notre-Dame is just where you ended up. It was a lodestar, a known center from which one’s understanding of the city crept tentatively outward. Indeed it was the center of the center, rising in its audacious immensity from the bedrock of the Île de la Cité, Paris’s historical nucleus, and exerting its gravity across the arrondissements with a force that no other structure — not even the Eiffel Tower — could summon. Really, where else was I going to go?

It’s been surmised that the stone carvers tasked with creating the hundreds of figures adorning the portals of the cathedral enlisted drunks and vagrants to sit as models. “Thus,” observes Luc Sante in “The Other Paris,” “the physical trace of the rabble is retained in the oldest, most august, most sanctified monument of the city.” I take comfort in that notion, wincing a little less when I recall the loud, quay side drinking sessions, usually with musicians similarly bereft of talent, into which my nightly balladeering typically descended. I’d seen the rabble, and the rabble was us.

Eventually I stopped busking in front of Notre-Dame and sought out trouble in other parts of Paris, the Île de la Cité becoming in my mind a blandly familiar, anodyne quarter that I’d traverse when traveling from Left Bank to Right Bank or vice versa. Hurrying along the Rue de la Cité, I’d glance at Notre-Dame’s gargoyle-studded towers without giving a thought to the sheer weight of the spiritual aspirations concentrated in those stones, which had been painstakingly placed one atop the other during more than a century of continuous construction by builders whose names were never recorded, in a testament to piety and what the historian William Manchester called “medieval man’s total lack of ego

If only the same could have been said of me. Like countless Paris expats, I fancied myself the antihero of my own romantic narrative, the great cathedral serving merely as a picturesque backdrop. And truth be told, I had become something of a snob when it came to open-air revelry in Paris, my tastes soon inclining toward church squares of more intimate dimensions: St.-Sulpice, say, or St.-Étienne-du-Mont. For all its grandeur, Notre-Dame was for greenhorns.

Maybe it still is, though the last time I paid a visit to the Île de la Cité, I didn’t see any buskers. The city has installed planters and barriers that seem designed to move tourists efficiently across the parvis and discourage the kind of aimless promenading that kept the francs flying into my guitar case all those years ago. I did, however, spot a few questionable-looking 20-somethings passing a bottle in the Square de l’Île de France, the triangular park that constitutes the cathedral’s backyard. The sight was reassuring: Fatuous youth would forever be drawn here, and Notre-Dame would forever accommodate them, as permanent as a mountain of granite. Funny how easily such certainties can be singed. DAVID McANINCH

[Read about the week David McAninch spent walking around the perimeter of Paris.]A photograph of Notre-Dame, circa 1860s, by Édouard Baldus.CreditGetty Images

A photograph of Notre-Dame, circa 1860s, by Édouard Baldus. CreditGetty Images

It always seemed to be there, as much fortress as cathedral, looming over the city. It was a wonderful sight, dominating its little island, reminding me, when I bothered to think about it, of Parisian complexity: tourist attraction, sacred edifice, Victor Hugo and Disney cartoons.

Even as tourists, my wife and I would sometimes have lunch on a Sunday at a little restaurant with a fireplace in sight of Notre-Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris. One evening we took a bateau mouche, passing by the cathedral’s extraordinary stones, its spire lit and imposing.

Once or twice we had dinner at La Tour d’Argent, the ancient and intermittently excellent restaurant, famous for its numbered pressed duck, but more cherished for its tables that faced the cathedral, lit up as only Paris can light up its monuments, sparking a feeling both personal and spectacular.

Notre-Dame was always the backdrop for a nice walk along the embankment to buy our cat pots of grass at a flower shop along the quay. But usually in a great rush to get somewhere — to work, to an appointment — the crowds surging around Notre-Dame were a nuisance, and one rarely looked up at the amazing bell towers and spire.

And, of course, I sometimes went inside Notre-Dame, if rarely, pushing through the tourists to get a sense of the sacral and the holy, to see the magnificent rose windows, to gauge the immense space, to contemplate what some believed to be the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross. And yes, even to light a candle, once, for my dead parents and sister.

When we lived in Paris, Notre-Dame was the backdrop for some of the necessary nonsense of everyday life. It sits across from the Préfecture de Police de Paris — imposing in its own way — where we regularly went, mounds of documents in hand, to get our cartes de séjour, which let us Americans live and work in Paris. The experience was never pleasant, exactly, trying to be perfect for bored police officers. My wife was especially good at disarming them, usually by noticing the photo of a pet to comment upon.

But it was uplifting, even in the rain, to emerge from the profane to see the cathedral, the promise of another Paris, closer to the heart. STEVEN ERLANGER

[Read Steven Erlanger’s reflections on living in Paris.]

Depending on where you live and what you believe, a church can become a mirror of your own life. Such holy places suggest the serenity of eternity, which can help you find or repair a sense of perspective when you feel damaged or chaotic or sad.

In Paris, there’s a hard wooden bench on the banks of the Seine below the Quai de la Tournelle in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank that offers a perfect view of the backside of Notre-Dame, my preferred angle, because the elegant genius of the flying buttresses has offered me a recurring visual lesson in the power of fortitude for the 33 years I’ve lived in Paris. I’ve returned here regularly in moments of confusion and sadness. First, because the sweet smell of the dark green waters of the Seine as I descend the stone staircase to the waterside reminds me of the delicious fecundity of France, but also — and perhaps most of all — because the beauty and history of the cathedral on the other side of the river puts my problems in perspective by inducing humility.

The last time I took a good look at Notre-Dame was on a cold, rainy, early morning this past winter when I took the almost-empty Metro to the Prefecture de Police, Paris’s main police station, to collect my new 10-year residence card, my third. I stared up at the two Gothic towers of the facade and remembered the first time I’d ever seen this place, on a hot August afternoon when I was a 15-year-old boy on my first visit to Paris with my family. The city’s sensuality taunted me during our stay, seducing me with pleasures I didn’t completely understand and which were just out of reach.

After a month of traveling in Europe with my mother and brothers, I was frankly weary of visiting churches. I’d had my fill of their big gloomy paintings, those alarming bits and pieces of saints known as relics, and the slightly melancholy smell of candle wax, the eternal scent of the hope found in faith. But on that bright day, this cathedral was different from the others, because it moved me, and not so much in terms of faith, as far as my adolescent mind had any ability to grapple with that concept, but as a place that would come to anchor a dream.

I had fallen hard for Paris, and Notre-Dame, the heart of the city I’d become besotted with, offered hope that — even if I was from Connecticut — maybe one day I, too, could become a Parisian. There was something in the mesmerizing light of the sun streaming through the exultant kaleidoscope of stained glass that made me believe this might just be possible. Sixteen years later, I heaved my big tweed-sided suitcase onto a platform at the Gare du Nord after a long three-part (train, boat, train) journey from London, where I’d been living, and began my new life in Paris.

My first apartment was near the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, and so Notre-Dame amazed me anew every day as I walked to and from work at an office near the Place de la Concorde. The cathedral became a fixture of my daily life. Miraculously, I wasn’t a tourist anymore, but a fledgling Parisian. ALEXANDER LOBRANO

[Alexander Lobrano recently wrote about the affordable dining renaissance happening in Paris.]

To understand the power of the mighty organ at Notre-Dame, all you had to do was stand outside. At night, when the giant wooden doors were shuttered and the cathedral looked like a sleeping giant, I would sometimes be lucky enough to hear the rich but muted strain of music floating from the stone edifice while I was out for an evening stroll.

A talented musician was sitting inside, alone, high above the pews, doing an after-hours practice recital on the great organ’s five stacked keyboards for an upcoming concert. The cathedral’s walls were so thick, and yet pieces of the melody were punching their way from 7,800 pipes into the wider world.

I’ve lived in the center of Paris for years, and one of the things I love best about this city is taking an after-dinner walk to Notre-Dame with my husband just to soak in the Gothic facade, the monstrous gargoyles and the darkened rose windows. We typically make our way through the Marais and toward the Pont Louis Philippe to cross the Seine. No matter how many times we’ve seen the ivory towers of Notre-Dame soar above the tip of the Île St.-Louis, they are always breathtaking.

On summer nights, the area around Notre-Dame tends to be packed with tourists, skateboarders, fire dancers and sidewalk musicians. But especially in the quiet of winter, in the most special moments during these walks, we’d be stopped in our tracks on the parvis by the unexpected tones of the organ rising from behind the statues of saints and kings.

Being inside Notre-Dame while the organ was playing was like being taken to another dimension. Last summer, during a Bach concert, the heavy stone floors seemed to vibrate from the sheer level of decibels created with wood, air and pipes. Notre-Dame’s cavernous interior created a splendid acoustic chamber for the notes to bloom. The organ itself radiated from an ornate carved wooden base supporting a delicate forest of steel pipes, framed by the pinkish-blue halo of the north rose window.

So it was with horror that we watched the flames of Monday’s terrible fire spreading toward Notre-Dame’s massive towers, marching ever closer to the giant bells and the cathedral’s musical heart. The organ was installed in 1868 during Notre-Dame’s last major renovation at the direction of the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who erected the spire that melted away in Monday’s flames. And now, it is an immense relief to see that many of Notre-Dame’s most precious treasures — including the organ — had been saved.

But when will it be played again? LIZ ALDERMAN

[Read Liz Alderman on the city she loves.]

I was visiting Paris on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s hard to describe how incomprehensible it was to return to a hotel room at the end of the day, blithely unaware, and see the images of destruction flicker across the TV screen. When I finally understood what had happened, it still didn’t make sense.

So it was yesterday, as I fielded texts, watched video clips and stared at photos, goose bumps rising on my arms. How could Notre-Dame be on fire? How could history be crumbling before our eyes? Once again, it didn’t make sense.

When I lived in Paris, eight years after that 2001 visit, Notre-Dame was naturally on my circuit to take visiting friends and family. With my mother and stepfather, my nephew and niece, my four best friends from high school, I went. We admired the stained glass, climbed the towers, took countless photos. Each time, I had that sense of pride you get when you show something off that you really have nothing to do with.

More than a tourist stop, Notre-Dame was part of the fiber of my everyday life. I zoomed by it on Vélibs, working my way from the Île St.-Louis to the Left Bank. I saw it from the roof of my office on the Champs-Élysées. I sipped wine in the cafe across the street, willfully absorbing its grace.

What we all love about Paris is that time seems to stand still. So many buildings and landmarks have been preserved through the generations. It is unfathomable that anything could change that. Seeing Notre-Dame’s roof and spire engulfed in flames, I couldn’t help but see how frail everything really is.

But then I saw the pompiersworking the canvas hoses in the streets, and the crowds thronging the bridges. I heard the spontaneous singing and, finally, the decree that the fire was under control. At the end of the day, Notre-Dame’s spirit remains strong. The heart of Paris keeps beating. AMY THOMAS

[Read Amy Thomas on chocolate and Paris.]François Jousse, on the south terrace of Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2006.CreditEd Alcock for The New York TimesImageFrançois Jousse, on the south terrace of Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2006.CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times

The rooftop of Notre-Dame Cathedral had already closed to the public on the night I came to visit many years ago. But my guide was François Jousse, the chief lighting engineer for the city of Paris, and he had his own set of keys. He led the way up a winding, private stone staircase to the south roof to show off the new lighting system he had designed.

We walked a long, lead-covered stretch of roof flanked by a line of flying buttresses so close that I could touch them. Then we waited. Ed Alcock, the New York Times photographer who was with us, called it the hour “entre chien et loup” — between the dog and the wolf — the bewitching interval between sunset and darkness when it is difficult to know exactly what you are seeing.

We were deep into December, and the cold burned into my gloveless hands. Mr. Jousse paced back and forth to keep warm, smoking one French cigarillo after another as he anticipated the moment when darkness would come.

Then, as if touched by an angel’s wand, the entire southern facade of the cathedral lit up, its pillars, gargoyles and flying buttresses bathed in bright white. Giant electric light canisters worthy of a theater stage framed the walkway — too hot to touch. A second set of spotlights, beamed from same bottle-green boxes used by the booksellers who have plied their trade on the banks of the Seine for hundreds of years. A third set bolted into the Hôtel-Dieu hospital across the street completed the coat of light.

Notre-Dame, said Mr. Jousse in solemn tones, “is much more than a monument. Victor Hugo called it a vast symphony in stone, the colossal achievement of a man and a nation.”

The rooftop on which we walked is gone. The rage-filled fire on Monday engulfed it.

For me, standing on the roof of Notre-Dame that night was to stand on Paris’s history. I learned a lot about that history in researching a book about the Seine. The cathedral is the jewel of the Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine called Lutetia in ancient times. A crypt under the square in front of the cathedral holds precious remnants of the city’s past, including stones from a fourth-century B.C. wall built around the island, gold and bronze coins and amphoras.

The site of Notre-Dame even may have been a holy place in ancient times. Some archaeologists 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.

As evidence, they point to the oldest Gallo-Roman monument ever discovered in Paris — a 17-foot stone pillar made from four blocks of stone carved with bas-reliefs. The pillar, which honored Jupiter, was discovered in 1710 during the construction of a burial vault for the archbishops of Paris in Notre-Dame.

Then came a church dedicated to Saint Stephen, a Merovingian basilica and Carolingian and Romanesque cathedrals. Perhaps that explains why Notre-Dame seems to hold within it a quiet spirituality, even for nonbelievers, and attracts even more worshipers and tourists than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Mr. Jousse is retired, but still revered in Paris as “the king of light.” When Notre-Dame is restored to life — as it has been so many times over the centuries — I hope that he will be there to adorn it once again in pure white. ELAINE SCIOLINO

[Read Elaine Sciolino on Paris at night.]What Does Notre-Dame Cathedral Mean to You?April 16, 2019

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