Notre Dame de Paris is quite possibly the most famous Christian landmark in Paris, and certainly one the most beautiful. Though greatly popularized in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it is Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris that originally paints the grand portrait of Paris’ most celebrated cathedral. Hugo sets his novel in 1482, three hundred years after construction began on the cathedral. Through the story of Quasimodo, the adopted son of the archdeacon of Notre Dame, he represents a Paris that is literally and symbolically dominated by the great cathedral.
Book Three of Victor Hugo’s novel begins by describing Notre Dame as “without doubt, even today, a sublime and majestic building” (123). This majesty and sublimity is consistently utilized by Hugo to reflect the overall importance of the building to the city as a whole. Started in 1160, Hugo believes the cathedral to have been constructed not by architects, but by men of art. Each part of the building, every stone in the wall, works in harmony to create a magnificent whole. However, the church, much like the Hugo’s characters, is far from perfect; it is “wrinkled and scarred”. On the façade of the church, one can see the legions of political and religious revolutions. It contains architectural elements from both the Romanesque and Gothic period, serving to symbolize multiple moments in French history. It is a building of transition. According to Hugo, “great buildings, like mountains, are the work of centuries”. This ability to withstand, and eventually represent, change is what has led the cathedral to be used by artists of all kinds to represent the city as a whole.
Notre Dame has long served as a literal and symbolic center of Paris, and Hugo uses it as a bridge between three areas of the city: the city, the town, and the university. The church, on the Ile de la Cité, is literally in the middle of the city, neither of the left bank nor of the right. The intellectual, the political, and the peasant have a kind of interaction that was not found in other parts of the city. The boundaries of class seem to be much weaker in the shadow of the great cathedral. The novel itself has characters of all class, backgrounds, and lifestyles, and it is through the church that these characters find their interaction. Clergymen, soldiers, and gypsies all meet at Notre Dame de Paris.
Hugo calls the cathedral a “symphony of stone”, and when I visited this morning, I heard this silent symphony perfectly. Though filled with hundreds of people from around the world—again taking the role as creator of interaction—the cathedral has a silence that is nothing but peaceful. Although it has witnessed centuries of change and revolution, it has maintained its role as a true sanctuary. There is clearly something beyond the church’s beauty that has led it to become such an idolized figure of not just Parisian architecture, but of Paris as a whole. It is this element of peace found in the sanctuary that attracts the public. This peace is seen in both the past and the present. Like the Notre Dame of 1482, the Notre Dame of today is open to all, and is a conductor of interactions that are at the same time international, yet surprisingly personal.