COMMENTARY: Notre Dame — A beautiful lady


On Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999, the music of the spheres produced the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century. My husband and I planned to be in Paris for a chance to see this rare positioning of the sun, the earth and the moon. With a scant week in Paris, we also planned to see as much of the City of Lights as we could. Given little time and much to do it is significant that we took a full day to tour Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris).

The Great Lady of Paris is more than 800 years old. It is located on a small island called the Ile de la Cite in the middle of the Seine River. Construction was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345.

But these dates are approximate.

The fact is that when you are talking about a structure this massive, built at a time when all construction was done through muscle power, the time of construction is not measured in time, it is measured in history.

Life has not always been easy for the Lady. During the French Revolution the anti-Catholic revolutionaries desecrated and then abandoned the structure.

By the time of Napoleon is was on the verge of demolition.

In many ways, it was Victor Hugo’s book The Hunchback of Notre Dame that motivated the citizens of Paris to restore the church for them, the city and the world. During World War II the cathedral was in constant danger of bombing or other demolition.

Hitler was notorious for wanting the Lady burned to the ground.

But it survived.

Notre Dame is a product not just of human endeavor, but also human genius. At the time the cathedral was started, such massive constructions were limited by gravity.

If a roof got too big and heavy, it fell.

The early ceiling shows the six-part rib vaults that had been invented to transfer the weight of the roof outward and downward to the pillars of the church. Then, in the 13th century, these ribs were made more powerful by the addition of additional pillars (buttresses) set outside the walls of the cathedral and connected to the roof by arched bridges.

These “flying” buttresses allowed Notre Dame to grow bigger, higher, longer and turn into the Lady that represented the best of medieval architecture.

In 1999 Notre Dame was already under restoration. There were scaffolds surrounding the Rose Window. While we could not enter through the main doors, we could go inside and view the amazing interior and priceless artifacts of the cathedral. We also stood in a line that threaded around three sides of the grounds for a chance to climb the corkscrew of 140 stone steps to the top of the bell towers. These steps are narrow, uneven and worn concave by almost 700 years of human steps. Once at the top you can see the bells (including the huge Emmanuel Bell), walk in the open air along the catwalk around the roof, be within arm’s length of the gargoyles that carry water away from the structure and the chimera that protect the building from evil. The wind blows, the sun shines or the rain falls but either way you can look down on Paris. You can also catch a hint of the history that the Great Lady has seen and wonder what thoughts have filled her mind and touched her great heart.

Now, helpless, remote and saddened beyond words we watch the Lady of Paris burn. In the news coverage, you can hear the soft hymns being sung by the gathered Parisians.

This is Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian calendar. If God wanted to take the soul of this cathedral home, He could not have chosen a better time.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.