So what's the deal with this old church, anyway?
April 16, 2019 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the cultural and symbolic significance of the Notre Dame.

I, too, stopped in my tracks when I saw yesterday's news about the Notre Dame. It's obviously a significant cultural, architectural, and historical loss.

But I've honestly been surprised by the outpouring of grief that I've seen over the incident, here on MetaFilter and elsewhere.

I'm not trying to invalidate anyone's feelings. I just didn't know that people felt this strongly about this particular building, and I'm curious to understand why they do.

I understand that it's an architecturally and historically notable building, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, and a national symbol to the French. (Which is why I agree that it's obviously a significant loss.)

But it's hard to imagine quite the same reaction over, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or even Westminster Abbey. It seems like Notre Dame has some unique significance.

What is that significance? What does the Notre Dame symbolize that causes the fire to resonate so strongly with so many people? I honestly don't know – I'm asking so that I can be better informed.

I could, of course, be mistaken about any or all of this.

posted by escape from the potato planet to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think Westminster Abbey burning would have quite a similar reaction.
posted by demiurge at 5:33 PM on April 16, 2019 [37 favorites]

Well, it represents Paris, the cultural capital of Europe.

And it is the purest distillation of every single person who said they'd go to Europe "someday" and see Paris "someday".
posted by notsnot at 5:42 PM on April 16, 2019 [19 favorites]

Remember that in all the change and upheaval of the last few years, people want to feel that some things are timeless and don’t change, and when big institutions or buildings fall it kind of reminds us that maybe humanity / the future isn’t as solid as we want to think it is.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:44 PM on April 16, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Among USians I know, having visited Notre Dame on a trip to Paris is a very significant cultural growth claim - it’s a sign that you’re a world traveler, that you’ve been to this important city, that you caught the key things in that city. It’s very much a class and education marker. It’s also something a lot of people in this class do in their teens or 20s, and that trip abroad is often a marker of their transition into adolescence or early adulthood. Basically, what notsnot said.
posted by amelioration at 5:45 PM on April 16, 2019 [23 favorites]

There are also a lot of layers of resonance and symbolism to Notre Dame, right? It represents Paris, and France more broadly; it’s literally the center of the city. It’s been the site of eight centuries’ worth of historic events. It’s still an active religious community. It’s home to priceless works of art. It is itself a priceless work of art. There aren’t all that many other individual buildings that sit at the intersection of so many things people care about.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:45 PM on April 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

So first of all, I'm not sure I agree with the premise. I agree about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which honestly seemed a bit underwhelming to me when I saw it, but I think I would be more distraught if the Taj Mahal were destroyed, or St. Paul's in London. I think there are actually a fair number of buildings that would have a similar impact.

Second of all, part of it is that there's a sense of permanence about anything that has been around for 800 years. Those things aren't supposed to catch fire and burn down for no particular reason. If something that has survived for that long can just burn down, then nothing is permanent. And in our scary political times, that's a terrifying metaphor for the fact that all our certainties seem vulnerable.

Third of all, it's a holy site for Catholics, and this is Holy Week.

Finally, it's a popular tourist destination in Paris, which is a lot of people's first international tourist destination. A lot of people have heady memories about going to that place. A lot of people want to go there, and a lot of people planned to take other people there some day.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:45 PM on April 16, 2019 [46 favorites]

If you ask an English-speaking person to name "a cathedral," 8 times out of 10 they would say "Notre Dame." It symbolizes Western medieval culture (however much of it is a later restoration). It was the dramatic setting of a story which has been retold a zillion times and of which most American children have seen at least a cartoon adaptation. It is shorthand for Paris for every middle-class-and-up American tourist who ever went (Paris has to be behind London only as a European destination for U.S. tourists, and in the top five cities for all foreign destinations). It shares a name with the leading Catholic university in the U.S, a perennial college football power, thus increasing its name recognition even in precincts that might be otherwise blissfully unaware of cathedrals.
posted by praemunire at 5:48 PM on April 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have been reflecting on this today, primarily because while I get the loss on an intellectual level, I don't feel it on the same emotional level as a lot of people.

One of the threads I came across on Twitter (which I did not mark, sadly) discussed the historical significance of the building of the Notre Dame. The influence of the guilds, the way the building of the Cathedral provided not just income but a purpose to a significant population. It dug into the history of the the building process and provided a broader general context of what was going on historically when the Cathedral was built.

I think when you pull those threads together - when you think about the sense of unity and purpose that drew people together 800+ years ago to build a structure that has endured, and the way that particular structure has drawn people from all cultures to together to admire the beauty and the passing of time - you feel it in the stones, the passage of history and time. Romanticized? Absolutely.

But contrast that with today, when things seem to be so fractured...

And add popular culture...

I am very much hoping that wiser and more organized MeFi's can flesh out my comments in a more coherent manner.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 5:55 PM on April 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

It’s the best known Catholic church in the world outside the Vatican,* and it’s been standing (and famous) for many hundreds of years.

*You could argue that Church of the Holy Sepulchre is more famous or at least more significant, but there would be an equivalent or greater outpouring of grief if that was destroyed.
posted by sallybrown at 5:59 PM on April 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

All of the above reasons sound kind of like people thinking what other people value. I believe that we underestimate the depth of others' feelings, of their attachment to ideas, of the resonance of sincere belief between people.

I am so lucky to have been there. I almost didn't go. I ended up going to Paris (much like I ended up going to Chicago) in a kind of random, unpremeditated way, and while I was there I just wanted to feel what "normal" life was like, eat some amazing but unpretentious food, and learn what I could about everyday people and everyday culture. I found a room in the suburbs and got to hang out with the lovely family there and play with their baby. It was really good.

I'd take the Metro into Paris and just walk around. I found myself at Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore, because a friend had actually lived in there and I wondered what *that* was like, and I also wanted some supplementary books to help me get better at the French Language.

Notre Dame Cathedral was across the river, across the street. There were a bunch of tourists there. Whatever. I skipped it.

Then, someone else staying in the house with me reeeeally wanted to go there, and I was getting a bit lonely, so I went with him to actually wait in the line to go inside. It wasn't too bad; Paris isn't nearly as hot as North Carolina. Once inside, yes, it was very big. I figured I'd seen it. But I stayed longer.

The details, the ancient wood, the sheer accumulation of effort and love and exquisitely careful artisanship -- it was overwhelming. I'm not really into stained glass windows, but these are so _much_, in a good way. And that all of this had been maintained and protected for such a very, very long time -- I couldn't help but be affected.

The act of loving a thing changes the thing. In Paris' case, they have loved that place, those artifacts, and that art, for hundreds and hundreds of years. And that's allowed gorgeousness, and many of the most perfect examples of art and craft that humans can create, to accumulate there.
posted by amtho at 6:02 PM on April 16, 2019 [35 favorites]

I think when you pull those threads together - when you think about the sense of unity and purpose that drew people together 800+ years ago to build a structure that has endured, and the way that particular structure has drawn people from all cultures to together to admire the beauty and the passing of time - you feel it in the stones, the passage of history and time. Romanticized? Absolutely.

I wonder whether the popularity of Pillars of the Earth led to this feeling about cathedrals like Notre Dame—that many people now understand the vast amount of time, effort, and human talent that went into building a structure like this at that point in history.
posted by sallybrown at 6:03 PM on April 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Construction on the cathedral began in 1160. That's the most jaw-dropping aspect of it to me...that you can visit a place that connects us so solidly with medieval people.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:05 PM on April 16, 2019 [37 favorites]

Best answer: There's an extremely obvious explanation that all other comments have heretofore missed: it's the subject of a beloved book and, perhaps even more importantly for American Millenials, a Disney movie.

You don't even have to do the thought experiment with Pisa or Westminster Abbey. Try it with Chartres or Amiens, which, aesthetically, are superior buildings, or Sainte-Chappelle, which, IMO, is a more beautiful church in Paris. I doubt half the people I've talked to about the Notre Dame fire even know that there's a town called Chartres, let alone that the town is home to a cathedral, or that the cathedral is probably the best specimen of Gothic architecture.

Some of it, especially from French people, probably has to do with the location on the Ile de la Cite and the kilometer zero stuff, but I strongly doubt that's anywhere near as strong as the mere fact that a bunch of people saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:21 PM on April 16, 2019 [14 favorites]

Many people who might not otherwise recognize or care about a piece of architecture will recognize Notre Dame from the book or movie adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, one of the most famous French novels in the world by one of France's most beloved writers. The original title of the book in French is literally Notre-Dame de Paris in reference to the cathedral, and Notre Dame is given narrative weight as a central character and focus in the book. The book itself was written to bring attention to Notre Dame and Gothic architecture and promote them as worthy of celebration and protection, as the cathedral was falling into disrepair and in danger of demolition or remodeling when Hugo wrote about it.

All of the building's historic, artistic, architectural, cultural legacies (mostly) aside: Notre Dame is famous and beloved because a famous and beloved author wrote a famous and beloved book trying to make the cathedral famous and beloved enough to save it. And it worked.
posted by nicebookrack at 6:25 PM on April 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

I should note that I'm not saying that judgmentally. I'm a proud Catholic, committed Francophile, and aficionado of Gothic architecture who has never read the Hugo book or seen any of the films, and yet Notre Dame still looms larger in my imagination than the other cathedrals I mentioned just because of cultural osmosis.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:26 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

It was one of those things that it was hard to countenance might ever change. And it took like 200 years to build, just an astounding length of time for sustained, collective, organized human effort. It's hard to imagine how long it might take to restore it to any semblance of its previous glory. These things challenge comprehension, even for a non-religious, entirely non-Christian heathen like myself. It was an astounding achievement of the arts and architecture and religion and human endurance.

I think it's also upsetting because it's just one more terrible thing, in a timeline that has a lot of bad things in it. It's never a good feeling to see a place of worship burn, a place that channels so many human emotions and hopes and dreams, and one such as this... It's that feeling, but multiplied by the immense number of people who have visited it or dreamed of doing so someday, and who have their own intense feelings about it. Maybe that is a big part of it: It's a focus of people's dreams and aspirations and memories.
posted by limeonaire at 6:43 PM on April 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Notre Dame translates to "Our Lady". (The cathedral was built during the time of the medieval Cult of the Virgin Mary.)

I personally think that there is a very strong symbolic significance to this. Notre Dame Cathedral is quite literally the mother of Paris.
posted by nanook at 6:56 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I happened to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time a few months ago because it was a classic I haven’t read, but I’ve never seen any of the movies and certainly don’t give a flying fuck about the Disney version. I have been to Notre Dame, but I don’t have stronger memories of it than of other cathedrals in Europe.

But I do love Paris, and I know that Hitler wanted to destroy it and famously asked,”Is Paris burning?” And the reason it wasn’t destroyed is because his own general defied his orders because of his own love for Paris. I think a lot of my own attachment to Paris come from images of Nazis marching through the streets and then the joy of liberation, not to mention the extremely moving scene in Casablanca when Paris falls to the Nazis. So to think of Notre Dame surviving all of that and then burning now seemed unbearable to me.

And this is a Cathedral, I am Catholic, and this is Holy Week. Cathedrals are designed to inspire awe, and I think there can be a religious sense even among those who don’t believe.
posted by FencingGal at 6:58 PM on April 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

It's a really old, beautiful building that has survived a bunch of wars, looks like its been around forever and everyone thought it be around forever too. I think if the world was in a better place then this would be treated as sad news but not to the extent that it obviously has been. I also think that in 2019 displays of emotion, both online and IRL, have a stronger performative aspect than they did, for example, a decade ago.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:00 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Because it was beautiful, and it's sad when something beautiful ends. Because it was an amazing feat of architecture & technology for it's time, cutting edge stuff. But mostly because it's sad when something beautiful is destroyed. The whole building was an awe inspiring work of art, think of it this way, is there a work of art that moves you and someone destroyed it, that's how you might feel. Not everyone sees a building as art or as beautiful & that's fine they don't have to.
posted by wwax at 7:09 PM on April 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Notre Dame is the heart of Paris. And Paris is the heart of France.

I think the anglophone world and the francophone world exist more-or-less in parallel instead of overlapping with each other and so it's easy for us in the anglophone world to forget (or just never realize), but France is a massive cultural, political, intellectual powerhouse and world leader. I mean right now, today, not in the distant past. To have its almost literal heart engulfed in flames is horrifying. And to have it engulfed in flames during Holy Week? Ffs.
posted by rue72 at 7:44 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, but there are literally dozens of ancient, beautiful churches. Sainte-Chappelle, just next door, is nearly as old, much better-preserved, and, to my taste, more beautiful. Most people have never heard of it.


The cultural history of Notre-Dame is interesting. Hugo's novel was meant to protect it and other medieval Gothic buildings in Paris at a time when many were being demolished or repurposed. (The Revolution was not out of living memory, a period when cathedrals were symbols of the old monarchical-clerical order and had their shit torn up as a result.) So the interior was mostly 19th century Gothic Revival, as was the spire. So it's a product of purposeful mythmaking, but, y'know, a Gothic cathedral at the stern of a boat-shaped island on a river at the heart of an ancient and renowned city is going to carry its own myths.

[Now that we know the architectural superstructure is mostly intact, I can say that I found the interior gloomy and weirdly claustrophobic for such a large space.]
posted by holgate at 8:14 PM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I visited this summer, and I got really into the history of the building. To me it felt like I was looking at an old tree and all of the rings inside it that could tell the story of Paris and Europe. A few of my favorite points:

- The site has religious significance that predates Christianity in France. They think that a temple to Jupiter was on the island before a church was built (one that predates the Notre Dame)
- The building is a relic of medieval Europe, when we imagine everything being 'bad.' The original human effort from thousands of people over multiple decades to erect the structure just because they valued this sort of greater purpose than themselves really struck a chord with me. It's also architecturally amazing that they could construct something so massive without many modern tools.
- The building is basically the birthplace of Western Music that realized you could have two melodic ideas simultaneously. This one is a bit niche, but I was a music major, and that innovation was huge on the development of Western music.
- Supposedly, the building houses the Crown of Thorns. This is probably definitely apocryphal. That said, you can look at a place that is connected to the Crusades, a series of events that still has reverberations in today's global politics.
-During the French Revolution, the building was used as one of the more famous "Temples of Reason." The Cult of Reason, which developed essentially atheist ceremonies during the revolution, both really amuses and excites me.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a fantastic example of literary themes from its era.

I guess what I'm saying is that the building is historical, but it's also grown alongside Western Civilization.
posted by lownote at 8:31 PM on April 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

The Duomo in Florence would be a better Italian analogue than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in more ways than one. Other structures which would have similar significance both in their home countries and worldwide might be St. Basil's in Moscow, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is on Cambodia's flag.

Which is not to diminish any of the features mentioned by others here which make Notre Dame extraordinary and significant and unique, just to note that it is not singularly so, nor above all other structures ever erected by humans in the depth of emotion it inspires.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:00 PM on April 16, 2019

Notre Dame is also a background shorthand for other stories set in Paris, especially pre-Eiffel Tower times. It shows up in all sorts of random movies like Van Helsing. Monday night, I couldn't bear to catch up with Ladybug and Chat Noir because it renders the Paris landscape along the Seine so lovingly. For comparable touchstones, I'd say the London one would be the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben / the Clock Tower / Elizabeth Tower in particular, the one visual shown to set the tone of "this is London".

It's not even my favourite Paris church (ST DENIS), but there's been a temple of some sort on this site for well over two millennia, and you sort of feel it when you go in. I could take or leave most of the interior, but Easter mass there was magical. For a cathedral it's surprisingly human scale compared to somewhere like Cologne or Milan, so you feel you can get a decent impression of it in your memories. I lived for a while a stone's throw away and the idea of it possibly not being there anymore is... my brain just blanks.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:54 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I walked up those medieval stairs to stand next to a Notre Dame gargoyle and look upon Paris. It felt awesome. I'm neither religious nor French but very much look with awe on human feats of engineering and architecture, and felt that building's power and civic importance.
posted by goofyfoot at 10:29 PM on April 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Mod note: A few deleted. Reminder: Please stick to answering the question. OP has asked "What does the Notre Dame symbolize that causes the fire to resonate so strongly with so many people?," not why you don't care, or don't believe that others genuinely care, etc.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:02 AM on April 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

For me personally, as a former literature major, the grief comes direct from Victor Hugo. In a college 19th century French class, I read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame -- in the original, the title is Notre-Dame de Paris, straight up. The cathedral is very much a character in the book, la vieille reine, the dowager queen, that looks over Paris as a sort of silent protectress. At the time the book was written, in the 1830s, Notre-Dame and many of the other old Gothic churches were fallen into disrepair and were being razed. By the power of words, Victor Hugo saved Notre-Dame -- that's heady stuff for an aspiring writer to read in her formative years.

So when I finally saw her, a decade later, I was in awe not only of the architecture, but of all the time and effort that had gone into building and now restoring her. There was an exhibit inside that detailed that architectural work through the years. It called to mind a line from the novel:

"Les plus grands produits de l'architecture sont moins des oeuvres individuelles que des oeuvres sociales ; plutôt l'enfantement des peuples en travail que le jet des hommes de génie."

"The greatest products of architecture are less individual works than social works, rather the birth of peoples in labor than the thrust of men of genius."

So the cathedral is symbolic to me not only of Western architectural achievement or whatever, but also of the physical and mental labor that went into planning, creating, and maintaining such a thing. All that work of all those people, gone.

I can't watch the videos of the fire because they are so viscerally horrifying to me, like watching a video of a person burning.
posted by basalganglia at 3:52 AM on April 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's a good question. I'm one of those who have a lot of feelings about this; more than I would have expected myself to have. Here's my take on it, as copied from the Notre-Dame thread on the blue:
I've been thinking about why this hit me so hard.

I'm not a believer, and my mother is; we just took a trip to some Hanseatic cities in North-Germany, and visited a couple of brick gothic churches. We look at churches from a mostly different perspective, and not all of our reasons overlap, but we both enjoyed seeing them.

I like to look at churches, and other holy buildings, because I admire craftsmanship; I'm a signwriter, I recognise a good hand when I see one. It can be striking to realise that that hand died hundreds of years ago. It's like a collegue reaches out across the centuries, and says hello. Hello, don't you hate it when your best sable brush has a hair sticking out and it ruins your lines?

Mostly, I like to look at holy buildings because they show us what people are capable of when they are motivated by love. It's a type of love that I don't share, but it's love all the same. And in this world and these times, when we are all too often shown what people are capable of when they are motivated by hatred and contempt, that is not such a bad thing to be reminded of.

It's not about the stones and the beams and the glass rainbows that make up the windows. It's all of the hours, weeks, years spent in making it, it's all of the memories in those who visited, and all of the dreams in those who didn't, but wanted to. After all, it's about people.

As Will said, what a piece of work is (hu)man.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:58 AM on April 17, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think Notre Dame is a multi-header of significance:

* Big houses of worship or big religiously-significant places just seem to have some kind of subconscious juju. Any place that's a tourist destination is bound to have some site that is significant to the [blah] religion at its center; Notre Dame, the Hagia Sophia, Uluru, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Crystal Cathedral, the Wailling Wall, Stonehenge, Newgrange, you name it. No matter what the religion, or whatever the place, there are some sites that that community embraces as the main locus for "our majority religion" and tend to cleave to pretty hard. That further makes them tourist destinations because "heck, this is part of the life of the people here". Even if you don't believe in the faith yourself; you definitely sense that the people who live there do.

* Piggybacking on the above - there are people who go out of their way to have personal life events at these religious sites because of that heightened significance. There are people who've had weddings there; for them this is personal. Or, they've just made a point of "this is where I proposed" or something.

* Related to that, too - sometimes the people who have life events at these religious centers are historically significant themselves. Some of the people who have had their weddings at Notre Dame over the years have been various kings or queens. Emperors and kings have also had coronations there.

* These big houses of worship have tended to draw outpourings of artistic expression, and students of art go there for study purposes. Artists throughout history have been bringing their A-game to works they do for churches, and that has brought about some stunningly beautiful pieces of art, even if you set aside the religious significance.

* Religious centers also feature heavily in the day-to-day life of a community during big historic events. One of the things older Parisians remember about V-E day is that "they rang the bells in Notre Dame". Notre Dame also had celebratory masses on different events. Different heads of state have also had their funerals there. In every community "the local church does [blah]" when something big happens in the country, and that becomes part of what people remember about it. (Not discounting that secular landmarks do that too; like how the Empire State building will light itself up in different colors to commemorate different events.)

* Finally, Paris is in and of itself a major Tourist Spot for everyone in the world. And all those people want to make sure that they see "all the sites", and for a city as rooted in Catholicism as Paris is, Notre Dame is one of those sites (because of all of the above). So that's loads of people from other countries who've personally seen and visited Notre Dame.

So - you have a religious site in a cultural destination that has been woven through the life of that city for about 800 plus years, which has been part and parcel of weddings and funerals and coronations of 800 years' worth of kings, and has been sitting at the heart of 800 years worth of major events and inspiring 800 years worth of art and drawing 800 years worth of tourists - that's a mighty long reach.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:34 AM on April 17, 2019

From a music perspective, Notre Dame was where the concept of polyphony (more than one note at the same time) in western “classical” music began. Leonin and Perotin’s church compositions are credited with this step forward and they are a huge, huge deal in western music history. I was lucky enough to hear a mass at Notre Dame when I went last year, and hearing those harmonies echo in the space where our cultures understanding of choral harmony began was just... a huge deal for me.
posted by a hat out of hell at 8:55 AM on April 17, 2019

On a note that will sound more negative than I intend it to be: France, and liking French things, are huge signifiers of class and education in the United States. I'm sure you can think of a million examples, from the influence of French ideas and architecture in early US history to "French chic" and "French children are well-behaved and never fat" tropes in popular culture. When I was a kid in school, long ago before kids got to learn, eg, Mandarin, you had a choice of starting French or Spanish. French was the choice of most of the striver or rich kids. Spanish would have been far more useful and many's the time I wished I'd taken it instead, but at the time French was what the "gifted" kids took at my school.

And this is complicated by anxiety and hatred tied up in contrasting stereotypes about France with anxieties about the US - oh, French people are snobs, they're strike-crazy, they are superficial; Americans are fat and lazy but French people are obsessive; all that stuff. French children are well-behaved but American children have spirit. French women are well-dressed but rigid in their fashion, etc etc. Or "Freedom Fries", remember that?

(And then, in the mainstream American imagination, France is figured as white and its ugly colonial history largely erased.)

So there's a lot of charge around Famous French Things in the American imagination, because France is tied up with a lot of ways of proving your sophistication, anxieties about bodies, anxieties about American practices. France itself is a big symbol, and Notre Dame is a symbol of a symbol.

This doesn't mean that Americans who visit Paris, like French things, etc, are doing it for fake reasons to seem sophisticated - French cooking is really great, the Saint-Chappelle is really beautiful, the breton is a great stripe, etc etc. My mother and I had a longstanding joke, until she got too sick for jokes, about traveling the Loire valley by hot air balloon, descending each night to stay at a different chateau. It's just that there's a lot of emotional weight on France for Americans for a variety of reasons and that predisposes us to our interest.
posted by Frowner at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, here's what I wrote the other day:
I've made pilgrimage to a lot of famous churches: Holy Sepulchre, Hagia Sophia, St Peter's, Westminster Abbey, Washington National Cathedral -- but I've never been to northern France and I've never seen the spire of Notre Dame de Paris.

I've never lived in a world without it, and never stopped to think that I might. It's as if you found out that all the koalas had suddenly died, or that Madagascar had sunk into the sea.

There's a lot of anger at Western civilization and at the Catholic Church -- rightly so, in many cases. But they have also produced immense beauty, incredible buildings that stretched themselves up toward God for a thousand years. As GK Chesterton said in his biography of St Thomas Aquinas:

"In Northern France also sprang up that splendour of building that shines like swords and spears: the first spires of the Gothic.

"We talk now of grey Gothic buildings; but they must have been very different when they went up white and gleaming into the northern skies, partly picked out with gold and bright colours; a new flight of architecture, as startling as flying-ships.
posted by tivalasvegas at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Several other people have mentioned that it's Holy Week, but I wanted to give a little more context in case anyone isn't familiar with the Christian liturgical calendar.

The liturgical calendar is set up so that you live the life of Christ over the year. Before Christmas it's "Advent," where you're waiting for the Messiah to be born. Then during Lent, you track Christ's teachings on earth and experiences in the world. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday (i.e. last Sunday), where you celebrate Christ's entry into Jerusalem, where we all know he will be killed. During Holy Week, Christians remember how he was rejected by his own people, tortured, and put to death. It's very meaningful because it is a time when we reflect on the wrongs we have done and feel most deeply the injustice of the world, and think about how much things would suck without the assurances of faith (and how much it must have sucked to be an apostle, not knowing what was to come...among other things). This is why Easter is such a big deal—after the suffering and penitence of Holy Week, Jesus rises from the dead and we celebrate that we don't have to feel so miserable all the time after all.

So, the cathedral burning during Holy Week makes it all the more significant for practicing Christians. The only way it could be more consonant with the liturgical calendar is if it had burned on Good Friday itself (the darkest day of the Christian liturgical year).
posted by branca at 11:47 AM on April 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

For countless generations (thousands?), Notre Dame has ALWAYS been there, serving the same purpose: the center of life. Clocks are set by its bells, mass is said several times a day. Where would one go to feed the need for a spiritual connection? Notre Dame.

It is literally the center of Paris. There's little brass disc embedded in the pavement in front of the cathedral called 'Point Zero' or 'Kilometer Zero' - it's where all distances from Paris are traditionally calculated.
posted by DandyRandy at 12:00 PM on April 17, 2019

20th century conceptions of 'civilization' or 'Western civilization' often prioritized Notre Dame. E.g. Kenneth Clark's influential 1969 TV series 'Civilisation' began with Clark standing in front of Notre Dame and presenting it as the quintessential example of 'civilisation:'

CLARK: What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I'm looking at it now [camera pans to Notre Dame].
posted by crazy with stars at 1:54 PM on April 17, 2019

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