Famously – though notoriously to the French – the art historian Kenneth Clark described the cathedral of Notre Dame as “not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigorously intellectual façade in the whole of Gothic art”. That very façade, and with it the whole 856-year-old edifice, was reportedly a quarter to half an hour away from being destroyed by fire on 15 April.
The global outpouring of grief at the partial gutting of the cathedral shows that Clark was wrong; Notre Dame is very loved, and not just by the French. But it was not always so. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, which was fiercely anti-clerical, anti-Catholic (in a traditionally deeply Catholic nation) and anti-religion, the cathedral fell into disuse, dishevelment and despair.
It took the humanist and architectural sensibilities of the great French writer Victor Hugo to save Notre Dame by making it eponymous as the central character of his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, generally and woefully rendered in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Hugo had a second “notre-dame” in mind when titling the book: Esmeralda, “our lady of Paris”, desired by many of the men in the novel, but herself loving only one.
Although ambitions, loves and lusts swirl around Esmeralda, it is the wood, stone and glass building that is the core of the book. Mute except for its bells, ever-present and all-seeing, the cathedral watches over the antics of men and women, a timeless witness to human life, endeavour and failure, sorrow and joy.
Other than using it as the central literary conceit in the novel, Hugo had another idea in mind with his cathedral character. Distressed by the way that older – often medieval – buildings in Paris were allowed to subside into ruins and demolished for building material or to make way for contemporary architecture that he deplored, Hugo used his book to make a plea for the preservation of Gothic architecture.
More pointedly, at the time that he began Notre-Dame de Paris, in 1829, the cathedral was in a state of perilous disrepair. In that historical fact there is much hope to be drawn for the repair and restoration of the Notre Dame now so ravaged by fire. So impassioned was Hugo by the plight of medieval buildings in Paris and Europe in general and Notre Dame in particular that he devoted several chapters of the novel to discussions of architecture as a disappearing art and to acutely detailed descriptions of the cathedral. Two whole chapters are given to the latter, which the architects and restorers could profitably consult when they devise their restoration plan for the church.
Home and haven
Revolutionary though Hugo’s take is on the cathedral as a character, it is arguably his treatment of abused and poor people that is most progressive, even radical. There is, of course, one of literature’s ultimate insider-outsiders, the hunchbacked Quasimodo, who becomes the cathedral’s bell-ringer. By 20 he is semi-blind and deaf, his loss of hearing the price for making the bells peal over the city. Abandoned as a baby, Quasimodo comes to find a haven in the cathedral, from which he rarely ventures. When he does go outside, he is reviled and mocked by the society that he encounters beyond its protective precincts.
In another blow from Fate, Quasimodo has the misfortune to have as his seeming protector Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. The hunchback loves and worships the archdeacon; worse, Quasimodo is incapable of imagining Frollo’s lecherous, venal, vindictive and murderous nature.
Although outside of “society”, Esmeralda is the focus of so much and so many in the novel. Frollo lusts after her. Quasimodo comes to love her after she gives him water when he is in the stocks, on public display after having been severely flogged. Pierre Gringoire, the aspiring but unsuccessful poet, marries her to avoid being hanged. Phoebus de Chateaupers, captain of the royal archers, although already engaged to Fleur-de-Lys, is beguiled by her.
Esmeralda is 16 years old. Ostensibly she is also – and remember that the novel was published in 1831 – a Gypsy. I (re)use that term deliberately, despite its being regarded as pejorative in contemporary usage, because Hugo uses it and to retrospectively apply modern sensibilities and terminology would be anachronistic and inappropriate.
But think of how a Gypsy as the protagonist to Frollo’s antagonist would have come across in 1831. (It must be remembered, however, that Hugo reveals that Esmeralda is not Gypsy, but was kidnapped and substituted with Quasimodo.) And pause to consider how sympathy for an outcast hunchback might have struck readers in France even after the Enlightenment, after the Revolution.
Now to Hugo’s own words from Notre-Dame de Paris, first on Quasimodo, then on Notre Dame, and ending with an aspiration that will help those anxious about the future of what is more than merely a large building.
“He therefore turned to mankind only with regret. His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him – he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him.”
“The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.”