One of the joys of living in Paris has been to hear the tolling of the great bells of Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, their festive peals echoing through elegant streets festooned with the blooms of spring. The bells survived what is likely to become known as the Great Fire of 2019, thank Heaven. But they have fallen silent.
Below them, one of the world’s most majestic and familiar monuments to faith, beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded. Photographers have been inside since the fire was extinguished, and their images show Gothic pillars soaring to an ugly hole through which the flaming spire had plunged. A cross, illumined by sunlight streaming through the jagged wound, glows over a tangle of charred timbers.
The fire erupted about 6:30 p.m. on Monday, and within what seemed like minutes, flames were leaping into the twilight, instantly spreading horror and disbelief through Paris and far beyond. Huge crowds, united in shock, gathered as the consuming flames grew brighter against the darkening skies. Some began to chant hymns, some cried, others just gazed in silence. All raised their phones in what has become an instinctive gesture of witness.
Words don’t work too well at moments when something so obviously terrible, fateful and awesome is happening. Thoughts come almost randomly, picking among visual details, questions, analogies. The etchings of St. Paul’s Cathedral engulfed in flames in the Great Fire of London in 1666 came to mind, until now probably the best known images of a cathedral in the clutch of an inferno.
The destruction of a cathedral that defines the ethos of a great nation, a great city, seems almost a personal affront.
Notre-Dame is far more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower or the grand boulevards ever could be. It was here, on the Île de la Cité, that this beautiful city was born, and the cathedral raised in the center of the island in the 12th century was meant to proclaim the glory of God and the political, economic and cultural might of a rising kingdom. Notre-Dame is still the point from which all distances are measured in France.
In Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” written in 1831 in part to promote flagging appreciation for Gothic architecture, the cathedral is an active participant, the place where the Gypsy Esmeralda can find temporary refuge under medieval laws granting asylum in places of worship. The laws have changed, but many of the 13 million visitors who pass through Notre-Dame each year no doubt experience a spiritual retreat in “the House of God and the abode of men,” as I do whenever I visit. That it was savaged on Holy Week, when the church follows the passions of Jesus leading to his resurrection, seemed especially profane.
These soaring pillars and buttresses survived the destruction of the French Revolution and Hitler’s mad jealousy. Why could they not defend against some silly accident? Officials are quick to say there is no evidence of foul play.
The fire is finally extinguished in the small hours of the morning. The diminished profile looks sad against the gray morning sky, but the towers stand tall and unscarred. The word from the archbishop, the rector and Paris’s mayor is that many treasures are also intact. The full toll is not yet known.
Will we in the 21st century be capable of restoring an edifice that took an army of artisans and laborers almost 200 years to erect? President Emmanuel Macron declared that Notre-Dame will rise again, saying, “It’s part of the fate, the destiny of France, and our common project over the coming years.” French billionaires have donated the first large gifts. The rest of the world will also help — this was our common heritage.
As the embers die, any doubts I had that Notre-Dame will be healed dissipate. I know now that Emmanuel, the grande dame of the cathedral bells, which has marked so many events great and tragic — it tolled when the twin towers fell on Sept. 11 — will lead the majestic chorus of bells again in celebration. Maybe not on this Easter. But soon.
In the evening, exactly 24 hours after the fire broke out, more than 100 cathedrals across France tolled their bells in solidarity, their peals echoing across a country unified, only now in determination.