Reflecting on What Notre-Dame Means to Us After It Burned

As the world mourns for the Gothic cathedral in Paris, AFAR’s editors reflect on what the cathedral means to them.

Why We Wept for Notre-Dame as It Burned

It is unclear how badly the fire damaged Notre-Dame’s famed rose windows.

Photo by Artem Nedoluzhko / Shutterstock

The photos are staggering, the videos even worse: an 800-year-old icon, not just for Paris but for the world, ablaze. As several hundred firefighters struggled to contain the fire that consumed the wooden roof and spire of Notre-Dame yesterday, Parisians lined the Seine and circled the Île de la Cité, weeping. They took pictures and videos, hoping—and openly praying—that these wouldn’t be their last. The devout clutched rosaries as they sang “Ave Maria” within sight of the seeming hellscape atop their beloved cathedral: “Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes.” You are blessed among women.

At the lowest of lows, when all hope was lost, a Notre-Dame spokesman told French media: “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame.” Thankfully, the latest news from the French capital is that Christian relics, including the crown of thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis, as well as the double rectangular towers of Notre-Dame are safe. The fate of the famed rose windows and the cathedral’s main organ is less certain, while the spire and wooden roof of the church are gone.

What is it that inspired such an outpouring of grief and adoration? Was it because Paris feels it has been through so much already in the past few months—in the past few years—with the terror attacks and Yellow Vest riots, that to see this symbol on fire was too much to bear? Or the fact that it was Holy Week for Catholics, already a time of reflection, passion, and pain in the days before Easter? Would people shed tears for the Eiffel Tower? The Louvre?

But Notre-Dame isn’t just an icon. That would make it superficial—a simple facade, a postcard photo.

To understand the reaction is to understand the outsized role Notre-Dame has played in the city’s past and present. Construction started in 1163, in the midst of the Middle Ages, when France was gaining status as a world player; some 200 years later, the completed Gothic marvel would represent the financial and religious coming of Paris. She would be dedicated to the Virgin Mary on a site that long ago had housed pagan temples.

And for centuries, Notre-Dame would serve as a backdrop to history, taking a beating during the French Revolution, and enjoying a rebirth following the release of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The chiming of the south tower bell, the 13-ton Emmanuel installed in 1685, marked both the rise of emperor Napoleon and the collective exhale at the close of World War I and II.

But Notre-Dame isn’t just an icon. That would make it superficial—a simple facade, a postcard photo.

And Notre-Dame isn’t just an attraction, drawing 12, 13 million tourists a year. That would make it impersonal, a check box on a traveler’s to-do list.

Lest we forget, Notre-Dame is a sanctuary, for the weary and humpbacked among us, to seek refuge within the glow of the late-day sun through its rose windows. It’s where I go on every trip to Paris, be it for Mass on New Year’s Eve or just to admire the stained glass and flying buttresses, to remember how lucky I am to be in such a city, such a place.

There are many simple stories like that. . . . Here are a few from AFAR.

“The last time I stepped inside Notre-Dame was for the memorial service following the terror attacks in November 2015. It took place two days after the deadly events at the Bataclan theater and other venues. The city was still in shock. The interior walls of the cathedral were bathed in red, white, and blue light and the entire congregation stood up for “La Marseillaise” at the end. [It was] an incredibly moving moment.” —Tim Chester, senior editor

“My two sisters and I lit candles for my father at every church on our first trip to Europe, but something about Notre-Dame made the process—slipping coins into the metal box, finding the unlit votive, kneeling before the flickering bank of candles—feel like our words just may reach him.” —Ann Shields, managing editor, travel guides

“My Notre-Dame memories are not so much of the building itself, but of the church as a gathering place, a place with people and energy. One memory that comes to mind is when we took our six-year-old son on his first trip to Paris. He sailed toy boats and rode ponies in the Luxembourg Gardens, got his portrait drawn in Montmartre, looked down at the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and ate a lot of ice cream and pain au chocolat. We were still learning how to be parents of an international traveler, and one afternoon, we realized we needed to slow down. We happened to be by Notre-Dame, and we came upon a children’s musical group doing a concert in the park behind the cathedral. They were from Ireland, as I recall. So we sat and watched and listened to Irish music in the shadows of Notre-Dame, and it was just what we needed.” —Jeremy Saum, executive editor

“I can still recall the musty smell of the vestibule, intermingled with the scent of melting candle wax. All is not lost.”

“On difficult days and in the alternate universe of my mind, I live in a garret apartment on the top floor of a creaky old building on the Île de la Cité, with small windows that open wide to a view of Notre-Dame. When I first traveled to Paris as an eye-rolling 11-year-old, my mom and I housesat on the Left Bank for an old friend of hers, then the European cultural critic for the New York Times. I remember getting my bearings from three places: the shop in the Latin Quarter that sold cassis ice cream, the Musée d’Orsay, and Notre-Dame. Later, as my familiarity with Paris grew with each return trip to include the Luxembourg Gardens, the Tuileries, Place des Vosges, Sacré-Cœur, and so many more, Notre-Dame remained the dependable beacon, as it was for so many travelers and Parisians alike. From my current perch at the edge of California overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I can still recall the musty smell of the vestibule, intermingled with the scent of melting candle wax. All is not lost.” —Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief

“The first place I ever traveled to in Europe was Paris the summer I turned seven years old. If you asked me back then what my favorite part about that trip was, I would’ve told you it was discovering pain au chocolat. But today, after seeing the images of Notre-Dame burning, I searched for the memory of being inside that centuries-old building for the first time as a child. Less than four feet tall at the time, I remember standing in awe of the south rose window. Growing up in the suburbs, I had never seen anything like it. It was so big, so beautiful, and so blue. While the fate of those windows is unknown at the moment, I can only hope they’ve survived so that further generations of Parisians and travelers alike can appreciate their overwhelming beauty for at least another 800 years.” —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor

“My very first visit to Notre-Dame was also one of my first international experiences. I vividly remember trudging—16, jet-lagged, and still trying to find my footing in an entirely new-to-me place—up the winding stone staircase in one of the belfry towers, fascinated by the way the stairs were worn down and smooth. Had it been the relatively recent tourists like myself, thinking distantly of Victor Hugo, who were mostly responsible for the depressions in each step, or had they become noticeably worn long before, polished under the feet of generations of devoted clergy going about their daily routines?” —Maggie Fuller, associate editor

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Paris

Laura Dannen Redman is AFAR’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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