Notre Dame de Paris
A Short History and Description of the Cathedral with Some Account of the Churches which Preceded it
Library of Alexandria
No city of the modern world has seen such amazing changes as the French metropolis. In the eyes of many persons, from every downfall Paris has arisen more incontestably splendid. But not to all is the Paris of Baron Hausmann lovelier than the city which preceded it. For instance, M. Joris-Karl Huysmans, the author at once modern and mystical of A Rebours and La Cathédrale, bitterly regrets the disappearance of those ancient and brooding byways which lent to the Paris of his youth a curious charm which has now almost disappeared. The Paris of magnificent vistas is at least less fascinating to the artist than the comparatively provincial city of crooked lanes which has gone to make way for a series of lofty and pretentious street fronts and spacious squares. Strange it is that, where so much has been changed, the cathedral church of Notre Dame has remained almost unaltered in outline and general effect. Revolutions have surged round it; monstrous rites have been perpetrated within it; even the hail of shot and shell have left this wonderful Gothic creation poorer only in decorative detail. There is a certain fascination in the grimness of this mysterious building in la ville lumière, and I am disposed to agree with Mr. Richard Whiteing that it symbolises the underlying sadness, as opposed to the superficial gaiety of the Parisian. Thousands of French churches are dedicated to Notre Dame: even in Paris itself we have Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Notre Dame de l’Abbaye aux Bois, Notre Dame des Blancs-Manteaux, Notre Dame des Champs, Notre Dame de Lorette, and Notre Dame des Victoires. But still when we speak of Notre Dame we allude instinctively to that vast edifice which frowns over the slow and winding Seine. The cathedral church of Notre Dame is almost as closely connected with the history of the French people as is the Abbey of Westminster with that of the English. And indeed the gray-white building whose foundations are nearly washed by the waters of the Seine has seen pageants more superb, and tragedies more luridly dramatic, than our own proud Minster of the West. Although it can boast no such marvellous continuity of vital historic episodes, Notre Dame is the one building in the French metropolis which seems to stand as a symbol for the whole city in all its memorable phases: with it may not be compared the bragging grandeur of the Arc de Triomphe, the extensive splendour of the Louvre, nor the rebuilt Hôtel de Ville. We do not forget the exquisite beauties of La Sainte Chapelle, the strange fascination of the resting-place of the Great Napoleon, nor the majesty of the once royal church of Saint Denis. None of these, however, will bear serious comparison with the great Metropolitan Cathedral of Paris. Notre Dame has an almost unearthly power of asserting its existence. Neither in full sunshine, nor in the twilight, nor when night has finally set in, will it allow its majestic proportions to be overlooked. Mr. Henley has finely spoken of “the high majesty of Paul’s,” but even our own metropolitan cathedral, with its overwhelming dome, is scarcely more predominant than Notre Dame. The geographical position of the Cathedral of Paris is not unlike that anciently possessed by Westminster Abbey, and by that crown of the Fens, Ely Cathedral. We find that Notre Dame dominates an islet of the Seine. At its east end is that tragical commentary on the life of modern Paris, The Morgue. The late Mr. Grant Allen, with a cheerfulness which we are far from sharing, noted that this triumphant example of the best Gothic in the world has often been restored. We believe that he was one of many intelligent persons who derive a real satisfaction from the so-called “restoration” of an ancient work, of which no real “restoration” is possible, though repair is an obvious duty.