“It is our history, our literature, our imagination”: thus did Emmanuel Macron, president of France, pay tribute on Monday evening to Notre-Dame, even as Parisians gathered to sing in the shadow of the clouds still looming over the charred cathedral.
Victor Hugo would have understood precisely what Macron meant. In his great novel of 1831 – an artistic plea for the restoration of the cathedral, as well as a work of fiction – he described the sublime ecclesiastical architecture of the Middle Ages as “thought written in stone” (la pensée écrite en pierre).
What connects the 19th-century novelist and 21st-century president is something deep in the French psyche – a cultural passion, defining a nation, whose force has also been felt around the world. It is a generous patriotism of the intellect and the heart, available to all, and distinct from the nationalism that now disfigures so much political discourse.
Like Hugo, Proust was captivated by Notre-Dame, and would stand for hours outside the portal of St Anne on the right of its western facade. When Freud first visited the cathedral in 1885, he experienced “a sensation I never had before”. The founder of modern psychology declared that “I have never seen anything so movingly serious and sombre”.
The strength of Freud’s response helps to explain why sadness was tempered by relief as dawn broke on Tuesday morning: much had been destroyed, but most of the cathedral’s artistic glories had survived.
The spire is no more, but, mercifully, the flames did not consume the great Gothic western façade – described by Corbusier as “a pure creation of the spirit” and captured on canvas by modern painters including Chagall, Picasso and Matisse.
The sheer antiquity of Notre-Dame underpins much of its numinous power. Its foundation stones were laid in 1163, and it achieved profound religious significance under the Capetian monarchs; especially Louis IX (1214-70) who first brought the Crown of Thorns to the cathedral in 1239, and entrenched its significance as one of the great reliquaries in Christendom (the crown was saved from the fire on Monday by the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, Father Jean-Marc Fournier).
Most striking, though, is the resilience of the cathedral’s emotional traction in our secular age. The images of its devastation – intrinsically painful for Christians – were also deeply distressing to those who regard belief in the divine as ridiculous.
Therein lies a clue to the abiding force of what we still dare to call “civilisation”: even in a digitally-fragmented, hectic world, we retain an often unspoken allegiance to the buildings, art, books and music that express human solidarity. In miraculous achievements such as Notre-Dame, the force of individual genius meets the social yearning for monumental symbols of beauty and belonging.
National in origin, it expresses a spirit that transcends the limits of borders and time.
For Hugo’s hunchback, “the cathedral was not only society… but the universe, and all nature beside”. In beholding Notre-Dame’s moment of extreme vulnerability, and now collaborating in its rise from the ashes, the whole world has experienced afresh the pulse of that extraordinary feeling.