Thuillier: Notre Dame has stood for 800 years. And it will stand for hundreds more


Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/TNS

Damage caused to Notre Dame Cathedral following a major fire is seen on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France.

Marcus Thuillier, Columnist

On the evening of April 15, Paris’ Cathedral Notre Dame caught fire.

The first flames appeared Monday evening and began to spread, ultimately engulfing the cathedral’s main spire. In just over an hour, it had fallen and the flames were burning down the rest of the roof. By the time firefighters were able to restrain the fire, much of the wooden roof had been ravaged and collapsed into the inside of the church.

Over the course of a few hours, an over 850-year-old cathedral, which stands as a worldwide symbol of the Christian faith, was threatening to collapse and leave centuries worth of history in its wake.

It houses artifacts such as the crown of thorns, which is believed to be the wreath Jesus wore before being crucified. But the cathedral is so much more than a symbol of faith. It is located on the Île de la Cité, the center of Paris and birthplace of French civilization. Growing up in France, I have come to see it as the heartbeat of the city and the people that I love.

It is difficult to come to terms with these feelings of extreme pain and distress. The last I can remember feeling like this was the evening of November 13, 2015, when ISIS conducted a terrorist attack in the heart of the French capital.

Thankfully, the Notre Dame fire seems to not have caused any deaths, but the symbolism stays the same. Paris, a city that has existed for over 2,000 years, has seen multiple revolutions, coronations and wars. The despair was apparent in the eyes of those who witnessed the fire. It felt the same way on my end, some 4,000 miles away, as I was grieving and reeling at the terrible loss that Notre Dame’s destruction would be.

I thought long and hard about why I had those feelings. After all, I am not Christian and Notre Dame is an inanimate object, albeit a well-known one. I don’t usually step foot inside churches, and have only been inside Notre Dame once. But that visit is still burnt into my memory.

There is a reason over 12 million people visit the cathedral every year. The inside of the cathedral was a place of absolute beauty. The art and windows were extraordinary. The view from atop the tower was breathtaking. The landmark is a masterpiece of architecture and art and of massive historical significance.

Notre Dame was home, and seeing it on fire made me feel like it got swept out from underneath me.

In many ways, Notre-Dame is an elegant illustration of France’s struggles and conflicts of the past. In 1909, it was the site where Pope Pius X took the first step toward canonizing Joan of Arc — one of France’s symbols of unity and nationalism. A statue inside the cathedral pays tribute to her.

The cathedral was sacked of its monarchic statues during the French Revolution. It saw the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor of the early 19th century who chose Notre Dame for his coronation in 1804. It was the setting of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” written in 1831. In modern days, it has been recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Properties and is ingrained as a symbol of French culture and history.

The international community has quickly reacted to the tragedy and offered words of comfort and solidarity to the French people. Many politicians and the pope took to official channels to express their support. French billionaire François-Henri Pinault already pledged 100 million euros to the rebuild of the cathedral. The LVMH Group pledged a further 200 million euros to the cause.

With money and time, Notre-Dame will rise from its ashes. Like Anne Hidalgo, the Parisian mayor, tweeted, “Fluctuat NEC Mergitur.” In English, the city’s motto roughly translates to “She (Paris) is rocked by the waves but does not sink.” In the case of Notre Dame, she is rocked by fire but does not fall.

The November 13 attacks brought the city’s motto back into the spotlight. I feel a personal attachment to it. It speaks to the resilience of the city and its people. And now it will speak to the pain of partially losing such an important monument, to the heartbreak of having to say farewell to a cherished piece of my history. As the fire has been managed, it appears the towers, bells, rose windows and structures will survive. The rebuild will commence.

The people of Paris have lived there for over two millennia. Notre-Dame has stood for over 800 years. And it will stand for hundreds more.

Marcus Thuillier is a first-year graduate student. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.