In July of 1801 the Notre Dame of Paris Cathedral was returned to the Catholic Church in a state of disarray. Seven months later, the savior of this now glorious building would be born: Victor Hugo. Hugo was able to save the Cathedral by means of his popular book Notre Dame de Paris or as known to most English speakers The Hunchback of Notre Dame. One might even argue that Hugo’s main purpose of writing the text was the save the church, for it was set for demolition and or possible sale in the early 19th century.
However, the church about which Hugo wrote, the church that attracted
thousands of visitors in the 19th century after the book’s publication in January of 1831, the church that when fans of Hugo’s book arrived in Paris and sought out the beautiful building that was described in text they did not find for what they hoped. Instead, they found an eyesore ready for destruction. This is not to say that Hugo lied in his book or to his audience. He does spend chapters describing the dilapidated condition of the church as he knew it; however, he compares it to what it was in the 15th century and how he envisioned it in its greatest grandeur. The tourists wanted the 15th century version and not the blight upon the city of Paris that it had become.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris has a tumultuous history of alteration often for the worse. In the 16th century the Huguenots, French protestants inspired by the writing of the reformer John Calvin, rioted and purged Notre Dame of all things they considered pagan or idolatrous. During the 18th century the church underwent a “modernization,” which some might call vandalism. The gothic style had fallen out of fashion and was deemed to be barbaric, very ironic indeed, so several architects worked to make the church into a more modern building. Stain glasses were dismantled and replaced with clear glass in order to let in more light, and the stunning gothic style choir screens were replaced by a more plain style of screen. Also occurring during the 18th century was the famous French Revolution. Much damage was done to Notre Dame in the name of reason: the bell tower and spire from the 13th century was removed, some of the bells were melted down and repurposed, 28 statues in the Gallery of Kings were destroyed, the church itself was made into a Temple of Reason, and finally the church was made into a storage hall and stable.
The Restoration of Notre Dame began in 1844 with a decree from King Louis-Philippe I. It took some 20 years for restoration to be completed and the church rededication by Archbishop Darboy of Parish. However, the lead-restoring architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, lamented the restoration process. He said, “to restore is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it, it is to re-establish it in a complete state that my never have existed at a given moment” (notredamedeparis.fr). In other words, the Notre Dame of past beauty is not the Notre Dame of today’s beauty.
Today Notre Dame is still undergoing renovations and preservations, the last completed in 2010. It houses several relics of Christ (the crown of thorns, a fragment of the true cross, and others) and play host to some 12 million visitors a year. After centuries of mistreatment, additions, vandalism, and purgings, the visitors find a beautiful Cathedral that was not as it is today. Fortunately, this is not a bad thing, for Hugo was able to bring about the salvation of a most magnificent building because he was able to capture the once forgotten and lost beauty of a church with his prose. In other words, he inspired in the heart of his reader the eternal longing for beauty. When the readers could not find the beauty in the way Hugo described, they set about trying to reestablish what once was, not for the sake of preservation or posterity, but because beauty and majesty speaks to the human heart in a way that no other things can.