The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.
On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.
If we had leisure to examine with the reader, one by one, the diverse traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most, especially the men of art, since there have been individuals who assumed the title of architects during the last two centuries.
And, in the first place, to cite only a few leading examples, there certainly are few finer architectural pages than this façade, where, successively and at once, the three portals hollowed out in an arch; the broidered and dentated cordon of the eight and twenty royal niches; the immense central rose window, flanked by its two lateral windows, like a priest by his deacon and subdeacon; the frail and lofty gallery of trefoil arcades, which supports a heavy platform above its fine, slender columns; and lastly, the two black and massive towers with their slate penthouses, harmonious parts of a magnificent whole, superposed in five gigantic stories;—develop themselves before the eye, in a mass and without confusion, with their innumerable details of statuary, carving, and sculpture, joined powerfully to the tranquil grandeur of the whole; a vast symphony in stone, so to speak; the colossal work of one man and one people, all together one and complex, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, whose sister it is; prodigious product of the grouping together of all the forces of an epoch, where, upon each stone, one sees the fancy of the workman disciplined by the genius of the artist start forth in a hundred fashions; a sort of human creation, in a word, powerful and fecund as the divine creation of which it seems to have stolen the double character,—variety, eternity.
And what we here say of the façade must be said of the entire church; and what we say of the cathedral church of Paris, must be said of all the churches of Christendom in the Middle Ages. All things are in place in that art, self-created, logical, and well proportioned. To measure the great toe of the foot is to measure the giant.
Let us return to the façade of Notre-Dame, as it still appears to us, when we go piously to admire the grave and puissant cathedral, which inspires terror, so its chronicles assert: quae mole sua terrorem incutit spectantibus.
Three important things are to-day lacking in that façade: in the first place, the staircase of eleven steps which formerly raised it above the soil; next, the lower series of statues which occupied the niches of the three portals; and lastly the upper series, of the twenty-eight most ancient kings of France, which garnished the gallery of the first story, beginning with Childebert, and ending with Phillip Augustus, holding in his hand “the imperial apple.”
Time has caused the staircase to disappear, by raising the soil of the city with a slow and irresistible progress; but, while thus causing the eleven steps which added to the majestic height of the edifice, to be devoured, one by one, by the rising tide of the pavements of Paris,—time has bestowed upon the church perhaps more than it has taken away, for it is time which has spread over the façade that sombre hue of the centuries which makes the old age of monuments the period of their beauty.
That is the opening of Chapter I of Book 3 of Victor Hugo’s novel, called in English The Hunchback of Notre Dame but in French Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral is a character in the novel, its most important character. Quasimodo is its genius loci. The passage in Latin Hugo quotes in the second paragraph is from Ovid and means, literally, “Time is gluttonous; Man more gluttonous”.
I do not weep for a building. Buildings may be rebuilt. I weep for Paris. I weep for France. I weep for Europe.
Without its history Europe is just a place—no better or worse than any other place. That history comes complete with wrinkles, scars, and sublimity.
The United States does not even have history. We have natural wonder, largely consisting of empty, undeveloped spaces and the creed on which our country was founded.
Many are quoting Emma Lazarus’s poem, engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, itself a gift to us from the French, from the children of France. They invariably quote the first phrase “Bring me your poor, your huddled masses” without quoting the second and more important second “yearning to breathe free”. It is not a poem about alleviating poverty. Those who came to the United States thinking its streets were paved with gold were mistaken. It is our creed that is important not wealth.
I weep for us.