Notre Dame de Paris Blaze Brings Up Strong Images of Cultural, National Identity

April 17, 2019


What happened?

On Monday, April 15, a fire broke out at the famous cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The landmark receives over 13 million visitors annually. It was an iconic part of the Parisian skyline.

Two-thirds of the roof and the entire spire have collapsed on the 850-year-old building. The suspected cause of the fire was from the renovation work that had been going on after cracks had been detected in the structure. The rose window, bell towers, organ in the cathedral, and most famous artworks, have been pronounced intact.

Being brought up in a French Catholic family, I, like many others, am saddened and shocked by the event. The footage seems surreal to me as I had just visited the location a month prior. During that trip, I decided not to go inside and climb to the top as I had done it earlier and the length of the queue put me off. Admittedly, I have been beating myself up about foregoing the chance to see the internal structure again ever since I heard the news of the fire.

Notre Dame de Paris before the fire. / Courtesy of The Amsterdammer

What does this mean?

An icon of both French and Catholic culture, the burning of Notre Dame could not come at a more symbolic time. Echoing what the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo said: “Notre Dame is part of our common heritage.”


The cathedral is part of French history and culture, although France is considered a fundamentally secular (laïc) country. Despite there being a consensus to not display any form of religion in public, Parisians stood watching the blaze singing hymns, showing a strong sense of fraternité – one of the three virtues of the republic.


Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is said to have immortalized the cathedral in French literature.


The disaster affects all French people, regardless of their religion. Yet it is interesting to look at the timing of the fire with respect to Catholic traditions. Sunday, April 14, the eve of the fire, marked Palm Sunday in the Catholic Church. This denotes the beginning of Holy Week before Easter. A famous quote from John’s scripture reads: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” – which served as a metaphor for Christ’s resurrection after three days. In a time where the image of the Catholic Church is under scrutiny due to the many child abuse cases, could such an event rebuild a more positive image of the community?


What comes next?

The French President Emmanuel Macron, has vowed to rebuild the cathedral, calling for help from the best masons around the world.


The French billionaire family Pinault has donated €100 million. Only minutes before their archival, the Arnault family decided to upstage them by donating €200 million to the reconstruction. In addition to these funds, the government has pledged to release €10 million for initial rebuilding work.


I believe that once the emotions of the event subside and media attention starts to lessen, a divisive public debate will ensue. The ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) are likely to feel neglected and overlooked – potentially fuelling further demonstrations across France – if funding from the government goes towards the rebuilding of a historical monument instead of the building of their futures. Those from more traditional and potentially more affluent backgrounds are likely to support the government in rebuilding such a symbolic landmark. That being said, the rebuilding of the cathedral’s roof and spire could create jobs which may appease the fury of the ‘gilets jaunes’– at least until the next reason to protest arises.


I wonder if the rebuilding of the landmark will create more unity between the French people.


If you want to make your own donation to the rebuilding effort, please check out:  


Josephine Sylvestre is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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