FOR NEARLY A thousand years, Notre Dame cathedral has watched over her beloved Paris. Standing at the city’s “Point Zero,” the official marker from which distances are measured in Paris, she is both the symbolic and literal heart of the city. But she is so much more.
Notre Dame, Our Lady, is Paris, and all of France. She’s honeymoon photos and semesters abroad, childhood visits and religious pilgrimages. She is art made immortal, not just by the people who built her, but also by the painters, writers, and artists she inspired.
And through it all — coronations, revolutions, and two world wars — the gothic structure has witnessed the best and worst of times.
Which is why, when an inferno ripped through the cathedral on Monday taking with it her iconic spire, people around the world found themselves riveted to their screens, watching yet another major moment in her long history unfold. The 856-year-old stone edifice would not, and should not, burn alone.
“[Notre Dame] was crucial as a place where people came together,” said Anne E. Lester, a professor of Medieval History at John Hopkins University. “It was a place of refuge for people in need, a place of charity, and a place of support for the community.” Notre Dame was also the place where, over the centuries, clerics convened to debate the nation’s Catholic beliefs and heresies.
On the site of a Merovingian cathedral, construction begins under King Louis VII, forever establishing Paris as the center of French life, religion, and culture. The first stone of the cathedral was laid in an elaborate ceremony presided over by Pope Alexander III.
The first Mass is held inside the unfinished structure — likely the first French cathedral to be designed with flying buttresses.
The Gothic version of the cathedral is completed, 182 years after construction began.
Bubonic plague arrives in Paris where one of Europe’s oldest hospitals — Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, built kitty-corner to Notre Dame as part of the Île de la Cité master plan — treats upwards of 500 sufferers.
During the Hundred Years War, Henry VI of England is crowned King of France at Notre Dame, a very public expression of English domination. French Kings were traditionally coronated at Reims, about 80 miles northeast of Paris.
At the height of the Reformation, Huguenots raid the church, destroying statues in their zeal to expunge idols from Christian worship.
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During the Age of Reason, Notre Dame is deconsecrated and turned into a Temple of Reason. Its altar is dismantled and replaced with an altar to liberty. A year later, Maximilien Robespierre holds an official festival for the Cult of the Supreme Being and dedicates the church to the cult.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s government strikes a deal with the Holy See to return Notre Dame to the Catholic Church in time for Napoleon’s coronation on December 2, 1804.
Victor Hugo’s popular “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” showcases the cathedral as a central character in his novel, highlighting the importance of the then-neglected building, ultimately igniting a movement to restore it.
During WWII, against Adolf Hitler’s wishes, Nazi command chooses not to raze Paris. Concerned citizens had removed and stored Notre Dame’s stained glass windows, and shored up the structure with sandbags.