The Historical and Spiritual Importance of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris

Dr. Peter Baltutis
Associate Professor, St. Mary’s University
April 16, 2019

Like most people, I was shocked when I first heard the news about the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on early Monday morning. I quickly found a live feed of the fire on the internet and I watched in disbelief as flames enveloped the massive medieval church. Tears welled up in my eyes as I witnessed the spire collapsing. Why?

Photo credit: Jenna Rene

First, as a professional historian of Christianity, with a specialization in Catholicism, I lamented the potential loss of one of the world’s great masterpieces of Gothic architecture. Built from 1160-1260, Notre-Dame de Paris was truly awesome – in that it was built specifically to inspire awe in those who walked through its majestic doors. The most striking feature of the Gothic style is its emphasis on verticality. Innovations in medieval engineering (pointed arches and flying buttresses) allowed constructions to be taller and walls and columns to be more slender. Since walls no longer had to bear such heavy loads (as they did in older Romanesque churches), they were fitted with huge decorative stained glass windows. No longer dark and gloomy, Gothic churches were filled with colourful windows that presented images from the Bible. These vivid images retold the story of salvation history for the vast majority of the population that was illiterate. With more light entering the church, Gothic churches were richly decorated with ornate statues of the saints, elaborate wooden pulpits, and lavish pews and choir screens. Walking into a Gothic church like Notre-Dame was to be bombarded with sensory impressions. Believers experienced the beauty of God’s creation, such as the stunning series of three rose windows that offered a vision of heavenly paradise on earth. But Gothic cathedrals were also decorated to evoke fear, as medieval artists enthusiastically depicted devils and hell’s torments (perhaps most famously illustrated by the decorative gargoyles that fiercely guard Notre-Dame’s exterior). Regardless of one’s faith perspective, Gothic cathedrals like Notre-Dame serve as spectacular monuments to the medieval religious worldview. They provide unique depictions of how medieval Christians understood their relationship to God. Sadly, these monuments are becoming fewer and fewer and our connection to the past is becoming weaker.

Second, as a historian of Modern Europe, I am profoundly aware of how central Notre-Dame is in the psyche of France. Major events in French history happened in this building. For example, in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself “Emperor of the French” in Notre-Dame de Paris. By choosing this location, he was consciously snubbing the cathedral in Reims, where French kings were traditionally crowned. Napoleon was rebuilding the French nation and he chose Notre-Dame as its symbolic center. In fact, Notre-Dame is literally “Point Zero” for the French, in that it is considered to be the exact center of Paris and the French nation. Catholics and non-Catholics alike all measure their locations in France from how far they are from this great building. It is no wonder that in 1944, thousands of Parisians gathered at Notre-Dame to celebrate their liberation from Nazi occupation.

Photo credit: Jenna Rene

Finally, on a personal level, from January-May 2000, I studied for a semester abroad in Rennes, France. During this time, I visited the great cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on several different occasions. Each time I entered this church, the energy of the building was tangible. Whether I was attending a live concert with thousands of people or finding a quiet corner for my own personal prayer, I felt that I was experiencing the soul of France. Notre-Dame de Paris is not only an historic relic of a time passed, but it continues to creatively engage the spiritual seeker. It still attracts millions of tourists and pilgrims each year. For saint and sinner alike, walking into the great cathedral of Notre-Dame is truly awesome in the fullest sense of the word – it brings us into an encounter with an historical and a spiritual force that is greater than any of us. Let us hope that Notre-Dame can be rebuilt and continue its mission to inspire awe in those who visit its hallowed grounds.

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