I saw Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time in December 1946. I had just arrived in France from Tel Aviv and cathedrals were not part of my life experience. I did not know a gargoyle from a chimera. As I stood on the vast esplanade in the piercing cold and looked at Notre Dame, I felt I had been struck by a physical blow. Carvings, statues and intricate decorations were everywhere. I knew I would come to this place many more times because there was just too much to absorb.
This was a wholly aesthetic revelation. Religion was not a part of it.
Notre Dame has stood on the Ile de la Cite for more than eight centuries. Victor Hugo was fascinated by it and believed it represented all of France’s history. In 1792, during the French revolution, the interior of Notre Dame was entirely gutted and many statues were decapitated. Victor Hugo led the campaign for restoration.
Notre Dame and other major churches were rebuilt in the 1800’s and are sometimes called 19th century cathedrals. For instance, Notre Dame acquired its monumental spire, now so sadly lost, in 1859.
Artists, painters and sculptors were deeply affected by cathedrals. Renoir said, “no modern building can be compared to Notre Dame.” According to Rodin, “the whole of France can be found in its cathedrals just as the whole of Greece can be found in the Parthenon.” Starting in 1892, Claude Monet created a series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral trying to capture its many moods by painting it at different times of the day.
At the end of World War II, Pablo Picasso painted Notre Dame many times. Here’s a beauty from 1945 you might not have seen before.
Napoleon had himself crowned in Notre Dame and when Charles de Gaulle returned to Paris after its liberation, his walk through the city ended at Notre Dame.
This enduring Cathedral will continue to inspire us all.
Editors note: More on France, Art and Cathedrals next week.