There is a Latin verse from the Middle Ages that goes, Niteris incassum navem submergere Petri / Fluctuat at numquam mergitur illa ratis — “In vain you strive to submerge the ship of Peter / this vessel rocks but is never submerged.” Simplified to Fluctuat nec mergitur — She is rocked by the waves, but does not sink — this motto came to be associated with the city of Paris. From coins, to the coat of arms, the official adoption came at a time during the 19th century when much of the old city was destroyed to make way for new, modern renovations.
And seemingly forever at the epicenter of Paris, the beating heart of Ile de la Cite, stands Notre-Dame Cathedral. This small island is likely where the first building blocks of what would become Paris arose–back when the settlers there were but a small Gallic tribe of ‘Parisii’ embattled with Romans. As the story goes, it was here in the 5th century AD that the patron Saint of Paris, Genevieve, led the city in prayer to save themselves from Attila and his Huns. And later, as the invasions and sieges momentarily cooled–there began the construction of a cathedral that would eventually become Notre-Dame, at the point where all roads in France meet, and where–despite the persistent wars and losses over centuries–it has remained.
“The church of Notre-Dame in Paris is doubtless still a majestic and sublime edifice. But, however beautiful it has remained in growing old, it is difficult to suppress a sigh, to restrain a feeling of indignation at the numberless degradations and mutilations which the hand of time and that of man have inflicted upon this venerable monument…” – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Ch. 14″
Affectionately known as ‘Our Lady’, Paris saw the beginning of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s construction in the Spring of 1163 AD where both King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III were present for the first stone laying. Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, was eager to oversee the building of a grand church set in the new style of Gothic–but he would not live to see its completion. It would take another 200 years or so for that day to come.
And since then, Notre-Dame Cathedral has looked upon more than 850 years of history–some good and some bad–all while standing resilient, never sinking. Even before construction was finished, France saw the breakout of The Hundred Year’s War where the Plantagenet kings of England saw the kingdom of France as their rightful claim, having been decedents of Norman kings, when Charles IV of France died without heirs. During the course of this 116 years of conflict, France saw many victories and many defeats against the English crown. One of the famous heroes of these events was Joan of Arc, who bolstered French morale after aiding in the siege of Orleans and ultimately helped lead to France’s inevitable victory in the war. After being captured by the English and summarily executed, Joan of Arc was later beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris where a statue bearing her likeness resides. There was the French Wars of Religion which led to the riots of the Huguenots in the 16th century, a band of Protestants in opposition to the Catholic Church, who committed iconoclasm upon many of the statues of Notre-Dame. The Black Death swept through Paris repeatedly, coming in waves of plague through the ages, a particularly brutal one occurring between the 16th-17th centuries which likely saw many Parisians finding solace and seeking salvation within the church walls. The long and prosperous reigns of both “The Sun King” Louis XIV and his son Louis XV saw the removal of original stained glass windows in favor of white glass which would bring more light within Notre-Dame along with many other internal altercations more congruent with their period’s style. The iconic spire, which many of us watched helpless and aghast fall to yesterday’s flames, was not even the original–this had been previously removed after having been wind damaged.
Notre-Dame Cathedral also bore witness to the French Revolution in the late-18th century and saw itself, along with the monarchy, become a target of the new Republic. It became temporarily the house of the Cult of Reason and was plundered of its treasures and had many of its religious iconography destroyed–statues of biblical kings beheaded by the guillotine like French monarchs. It became nothing more than a beautiful, Gothic warehouse for food until Napoleon Bonaparte liberated and restored it as a church–holding his coronation as Emperor of France there in 1804. But by the time of Victor Hugo, the cathedral was largely in disrepair and rapidly decaying–prompting Hugo to feature this relic of Paris in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The popularity of this book brought with it renewed love and attention, prompting King Louis Philippe to order Notre-Dame’s immediate restoration with the help of renowned architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. They re-created much of the sculptures and glass that had been previously lost and were responsible for the reconstruction of the spire, which will undoubtedly be remade again after yesterday’s tragedy. Notre-Dame Cathedral was also there for both World Wars, the second which saw France fall to Germany in 1940. It was the liberation of Paris in 1944 where Notre-Dame took a few literal bullets for its people.
And yet, Notre-Dame Cathedral has remained through all of these events, housing treasures such as the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and a nail from the crucifixion. Relics from St. Denis, St. Genevieve, and the tunic of St. Louis. All irreplaceable and at least the Crown of Thorns and St. Louis’ tunic confirmed to be saved from yesterday’s fire. The Rose Windows, breathtaking feats of stained glass from the 13th century are remarkably said to have been saved from complete destruction along with the Great Pipe Organ. Though the catastrophe of the fire has yet to be fully assessed, there is some solace to be found in that Notre-Dame Cathedral is still standing and the people of Paris and the world with it.
I, too, watched in anguish yesterday as the fire ate away at the cathedral–scared of what could have possibly been the complete destruction of a monument of world heritage and history, and dismayed at how helpless I felt in those moments. I’m not naive enough to think that anything lasts forever and it can certainly not be the case with history–but I am relieved that the greatest tragedy has been averted and that is in forgetting Notre-Dame Cathedral existed at all. So many things in history have been inexplicably lost to us forever, both in physical wonder like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes, or in lack of memory such as to the contents of the Library of Alexandria–but Notre-Dame will not be forgotten and certainly not after today. Watching the world stand up and cherish what this cathedral means to the arresting spirit of humanity and our desire to build on beauty, or the solidarity of Parisians as they came together to sing hours worth of hymns and to aid in the saving of artworks and relics from inside, the motto of Paris chimes particularly loud today while the bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral take their momentary rest:
She is rocked by the waves, but she does not sink.
To donate to the reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, follow this link: https://don.fondation-patrimoine.org/SauvonsNotreDame/~mon-don?_cv=1