I was helping out at my church when I got a text from one of my closest childhood friends. Then another text from my grandmother, my brother, my sister and another friend. Everyone seemed to know just how much I love the Notre-Dame de Paris and just how devastated I would be to learn that my favorite church became engulfed in flames.
But Notre-Dame de Paris is not just church. It's not just a tourist site and it's certainly not just another Gothic building in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. Honestly, the Notre-Dame has always felt like a living, breathing person to me. The French translation of Notre-Dame de Paris is "Our Lady of Paris" and like many women her age, our lady is filled with memories and personal history that she's eager to share with the world.
Perhaps most notably, Notre-Dame is the trusted guardian of 850 years of world history under her roof. The cathedral welcomes 14 million visitors annually to experience the priceless works of art, spiritual artifacts and fine architecture. This is an art lover's heaven. One of my favorite works inside the cathedral is the series of hand-painted wooden panels from the 14th century depicting scenes of the life of Jesus by the choir seats. I snapped a ton of photos in February 2019, because I was so captivated by the intricate details of these wooden, three-dimensional storybooks. The interior of the cathedral is predominantly built from the original 1200s oak wood, which makes it especially susceptible to the horrible fire raging around it today. It's believed that the wooden beams used to construct this part of the cathedral were taken from local trees in the 800s. The EIGHT HUNDREDS!
The series of 14th century wooden panels depicting Jesus' life adorn the choir area
Horrific events have happened here for centuries. Since Notre-Dame's completion in 1120, she's seen and survived quite a few atrocities. The Black Death in the 1300s, The French Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots (Protestants) in the late 1500s, destruction in the 1780s during the French Revolution, German bombardment during World War I, Nazi occupation from 1940-1944 during World War II and multiple near bombings in the 2000s. And she has no doubt witnessed many other horrible chapters in human history. It's impossible not to marvel at her resilient and forgiving nature.
If you think about it, Notre-Dame is a bit like a lighthouse that projects the goodness of humanity back into the world despite the darkness that permeates it. She’s stood in the face of pure evil, but still chosen to shine her light back at us. I would always say to Josh as we walked away from a visit with her, "I love knowing that Notre-Dame has been here almost a thousand years and will continue to be here
for another thousand." There's something comforting knowing that no matter what changes, she remains at the center of Paris's heartbeat.
Notre-Dame de Paris suffered during World War II from Nazi Occupation between 1940-1944
Notre-Dame has always seemed less like a building and more like a confident woman to me, an unstoppable female force disguised as a cathedral. Aside from the obvious outer strength of her stone walls, there’s a very tangible, holy spirit here and you can feel it the second you walk through the door. Especially at night. The bell towers are always illuminated with expert outdoor lighting that you can see from the very top of the Montmartre neighborhood. I'll never forget an evening last year when I was in the courtyard alone around Midnight and I could hear the soft hum of a choir practicing a concerto for their performance the following evening. It felt totally otherworldly.
It's a special experience to walk past or drive by Notre-Dame after dark
Notre-Dame de Paris has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 1991, which means that is is deemed as priceless to humanity. The labeling means to serve as evidence of our intellectual history on the planet and a reminder to all of us to take care of these vulnerable places. I've written this blog post in an effort to preserve some of my own happy memories visiting her over the years
Like many tourists, my favorite feature of Notre-Dame are the opulent rose windows filled with hand-painted stained glass. There's also more to these windows than meets the eye. If you look deeper, the windows were initially installed to mimic a picture book, so that illiterate parishioners could learn from the vibrantly illustrated biblical stories. The figures on the brightly colored glass helped tell the stories in a way that words could not.
Some of the rose windows were destroyed in the 1830s during the French Revolution, but the cathedral has worked hard to fundraise and restore her to her original glory. You can see some of the money raised in the photo below for new bell towers. On my most recent visit to Notre-Dame in February 2019, I took photos of EVERY SINGLE rose window because I'm so obsessed with the rich and wild colors. I'm so grateful that I did.
My first experience with Notre-Dame happened in 1999 on a family vacation in Paris. We had all recently seen Disney's popular 1996 film, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame so we were totally pumped to really be there and my brother Michael and I played the PC game, The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Topsy Turvy Games religiously after school. We'd mimic the gargoyles' witty retorts, all while virtually exploring the cathedral through this computer game that felt pretty cutting-edge at the time. It was some of my first exposure to art history and architecture, which I studied in high school and then in college at the University of Maryland College Park.
Since that childhood visit, I've returned to Paris multiple times and had the chance to visit Notre-Dame with friends, solo and with my husband Josh. My favorite thing to do inside of the cathedral is to walk slowly down the side naves and explore the art and relics within each individual chapel. They're all unique, which is what I love most. When I'm feeling the need for quiet within such a busy environment, I'll simply kneel down on one of the pews and enjoy meeting up with God in this holy and historic place.
The entire city of Paris and much of the world is aghast at the destruction caused by the inferno. Our friend Tony who is a lifelong Parisian texted me via What's App and said,
"I am very, very sad my friends.
Sooo much bad. The fire is taking it all."
As the Paris Fire Brigade bravely fights to save Notre-Dame tonight, I feel a pit of sadness at the damage caused to Our Lady of Paris and wish there was something I could do, which is why I decided to write down some of my happy memories with her. As of Monday evening, the spire of the cathedral has fallen, and the fire has claimed its iconic roof, but I am grateful for the 400+ firefighters risking their lives to bring her back to life.
No matter what happens tonight, Our Lady of Paris isn’t going anywhere.