Monday, April 15, 2019

Aglow in Sadness From Notre-Dame's Flames


A little more than a week ago I watched, for the umpteenth time, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the classic 1939 film adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel starring Charles Laughton. It is a great movie.

The first time I saw the film I must have been no more than 10 years old. I watched it with my mother, probably as one of the Million Dollar Movies that played each night for a full week on WOR-TV Channel 9 in New York during the 1950s. From that time, indelibly imprinted in my mind was the scene wherein the hunchback bellringer Quasimodo pours molten lead through gargoyles on the roof of the cathedral onto Parisian beggars and riffraff attacking Notre-Dame. 

For years I thought the mob was trying to free the Gypsy maiden Esmeralda from his grasp. He had saved her from the gallows, invoking “sanctuary” inside the church.  

The mob actually was trying to shield Esmeralda from a threatened royal revocation of sanctuary safety. Deaf, Quasimodo had no way of knowing the mob was not attacking him. 

To my young eyes and ears, the spectacle was all that mattered. The hunchback saved the girl. 

Hugo’s book is far different from its various movie iterations. Look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested in knowing the differences. One thing is a constant—Notre-Dame commands the screen. 

I climbed to the top of the cathedral during my first trip to Paris in August 1966. I arrived at the base of Notre-Dame just before closing time. New visitors were not allowed entry through the main entrance that day anymore. Being a bold teenager of 17, I decided that up the down staircase was good enough for me. I raced up one of the towers, the right one if memory serves me correctly. The climb is 387 stairs. It took about 10 minutes. 

A few steps short of the top a young man descending said something to me I could not understand. Having just spent six weeks in Israel, I reflexively responded, “Mah?,” Hebrew for “what?”. He laughed and answered me in Hebrew that the viewing area was closing and being cleared of tourists. I rushed ahead and managed a short but thrilling view of Paris from above.

I’ve returned with Gilda to Paris several times. Notre-Dame has been one of our memorable stops.

Paris without Notre-Dame in its glory would be like visiting London without seeing Big Ben or Westminster Abbey, Rome without St. Peter’s Basilica or the Coliseum, Jerusalem without the Western Wall or the Dome of the Rock. 

Begun in 1163, the Gothic cathedral was completed in 1345 at a cost impossible to fathom.

Will Notre-Dame be restored? Would the French government sustain such an expense for an expected lengthy restoration? 

If there is a model of hope for a resurrection of the edifice it can be found at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Built by Tsar Peter the Great on the shore of the Baltic Sea in the early part of the 18th century, Peterhof’s elaborate gardens, fountains and buildings were largely ravaged by the invading German army in 1941. Restoration began at the end of World War II and lasted through decades. Gilda and I can attest to its beauty. 

In Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia (“holy family”) Church is slated for completion in 2026. Construction began in 1882, but did not take on its current design until Antoni Gaudi took over as architectural director in 1884. Gaudi died in 1926 with only 20% of the project complete. Gilda liked it when we saw it about 15 yers ago. I didn't warm to it.

These days the French are not a particularly religious people. But the importance of Notre-Dame transcends beliefs. When the shock of the blaze is reduced to embers, a burning desire to rekindle national pride will fuel a revival of the grande dame of Paris.

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