When Paris was liberated from German occupation on August 25, 1944, there was no doubt in General Charles de Gaulle’s mind about what he had to do to mark that event in the mind of every French citizen and thereby stamp his authority on the country.
The day after the German garrison in Paris surrendered, de Gaulle, ever the master of the grand historical gesture, visited Notre-Dame Cathedral. He went to hear the Te Deum traditionally sung to celebrate momentous occasions in the nation’s life. As he walked into the cathedral, gunfire broke out inside. It’s never been established whether it came from rogue German snipers seeking vengeance or from communist agitators trying to sow panic. The threat, however, didn’t deter de Gaulle from walking forward to stand bareheaded before the altar and chant the Te deum laudamus (whose words he, as a student of the Jesuits, knew by heart).
De Gaulle’s presence in Notre-Dame mattered because it symbolized the restoration of France’s liberty and honor after four years of occupation and the disgrace of collaboration. What’s more, hundreds of people inside the cathedral and the thousands gathered outside—Catholics, atheists, Socialists, Vichyists, Jews, Resistance fighters—also understood what de Gaulle had done, because they too instinctively recognized Notre-Dame’s importance for France.
The smoking, gutted ruin that is now Notre-Dame has long been France’s parish church. I don’t just mean that it is the cathedral of the French capital. Many Frenchmen and women, including many non-Catholics and non-believers, tacitly regard Notre-Dame as a place in which La France éternelle truly resides.
That’s why someone like Victor Hugo, a Voltairean free thinker for most of his life, didn’t hesitate to locate perhaps his most famous novel in the citadel of the Catholicism which he grew to detest. Likewise Napoleon Bonaparte, despite his notorious contempt for priests and marked preference for the classical world of Greece and Rome, didn’t consider being crowned Emperor of the French anywhere except in Notre-Dame. This decision owed something to his desire to reconcile Catholic France with the legacy of the Revolution which Napoleon had declared to be “over.” But Napoleon also understood that if Paris vaut bien une messe, as Henry IV allegedly said upon converting to Catholicism in 1593, then an Imperial France was worth a Coronation Mass in 1804, and the only place for such a ceremony was Notre-Dame.
For all these reasons and more, it’s hard to imagine a harder psychological blow to France than the immolation of Notre-Dame. The building practically breathed of France’s past. It has functioned, for example, as the cathedral seat of some of France’s greatest bishops: scholars and diplomats like Cardinal de Retz, theologians such as Louis-Antoine de Noailles, writers like Georges Darboy who was murdered by the Communards in 1871, and, more recently, the dynamic evangelist Jean-Marie Lustiger—who, some would say, single-handedly began the process of reviving French Catholicism from the doldrums of the 1970s.
But beyond these men and the many Parisians whose daily activities and struggles have unfolded in Notre-Dame’s shadow over the centuries, the cathedral has symbolized the peculiar genius of the West and France’s pivotal role in producing that culture. It’s no coincidence that in the BBC series Civilisation the art historian Kenneth Clark singled out Notre-Dame as giving as full a meaning as can be imagined to the word “civilization.” Though a man of idiosyncratic religious opinions, Clark saw buildings like Notre-Dame as evidence of people actualizing their potentialities in the way God intended. “Above all,” Clark said, “I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.”
That reference to a society perhaps gets to the heart of why so much of France is in deep distress about the burning of Notre-Dame. The very idea of France as a distinct country rather than a gaggle of loosely-connected territories began taking shape at the time Notre-Dame was being built. It was during this same period, for instance, that Philip II Augustus became the first monarch to style himself “King of France” rather than “King of the Franks.” To be sure, Notre-Dame’s Gothic style is also found in countries like Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries. But treasures inside Notre-Dame, like the three rose windows which I and others have spent hours contemplating, have never been seen as anything other than part of France’s patrimony.
No doubt, Notre-Dame will be repaired, just as countless other European wonders have been restored following fire, storms, sieges, and wars. Thanks to modern architectural and construction techniques, this is possible. But what’s lost is the labor and love of hundreds of Frenchmen who, for almost a century, worked to carve, construct, and mold beauty out of mud, wood, stone, and glass. Their work and creativity, and that of many others who contributed to Notre-Dame’s refurbishing and restoration over the subsequent eight centuries, has been lost forever. To look at Notre-Dame before April 15, 2019, was to look largely at the work of medieval men who believed they were building a holy place for the Lord of Hosts: an edifice which conveyed their status as children of God in the land which would become known as France, la fille aînée de l'Église. It was their achievement which disappeared into the flames.
Our Lady’s Cathedral has fallen. France is grieving. But amid that mourning, let us remember the work and vision of those architects, builders, and humble, usually illiterate laborers who, in designing and constructing this architectural splendor, gave unique expression to Irenaeus’s famous line—that “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.