The Medieval Myth of Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame is being restored — either as a sensationalized jewel of contemporary French architecture or as a monument to the “greatness” of France’s past.

The Medieval Myth of Notre-Dame

“RESTORATION,” THE 19TH-CENTURY French engineer Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc wrote, is “a modern word and a modern thing.” His Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVI siècle, a multi-volume corpus of architectural history, painstakingly defined and diagramed by Viollet-le-Duc, describes restoration as a practice both to protect buildings and to improve upon them. “To restore an edifice,” he explained, “is not to maintain it, to repair it, or to remake it. To restore is to reestablish [rétablir] it in a complete state that could never have existed at a given time.” Restoration, Viollet-le-Duc theorized, was the practice of technology, of engaging the wisdom and the ideals of the present moment to perfect the past.

Led by Viollet-le-Duc, architects, engineers, and laborers across Western Europe in the late 19th century turned to many of the crumbling architectural monuments that surrounded them with a newfound interest. Armed with the industrial technology of iron girders and ferro-concrete, these restorers reestablished countless parish churches, shored up innumerable cathedral bell towers, even rebuilt entire cities, improving upon the edifices of past using the finest modern technology available.

As these architects and masons published encyclopedic catalogs of historical architectural styles, built “Gothic” facades supported by iron and steel, and reengineered stained-glass production on a massive scale, they were restoring the past exactly as Viollet-le-Duc advocated. In so doing, they at once relied on the advances of modernity to restore the past while constructing a past suitable to their modern moment. Furthermore, as borders that had been porous for centuries became fixed, newly redefined nation-states relied on the past that they “restored” to establish themselves as nations distinct from one another, each endowed with a historical tradition. Regional styles of architecture across France, for example, became unified French patrimoine, while the diverse landscapes of Prussia, Bavaria, and the Rhineland became the heimat of a new Germany.

Viollet-le-Duc’s definition of restoration reveals a fundamental truth about how societies consider the past: history — who tells it, how, and to whom — is as much a reflection of the present as it is informative about the past.


On April 15, 2019, a fire began during restoration work of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, the Roman Catholic cathedral first consecrated in the late 12th century, destroying large portions of the roof and a central spire. Notre-Dame sits at the heart of France. The cathedral has hosted the coronation of an emperor, heard the funeral masses of presidents and prime ministers, and has survived centuries of political upheaval and war. Although attendance at is masses has waned over the years, the number of tourists who visit the site annually has consistently climbed. Although it is a religious building and France is a secular nation, Notre-Dame continues to symbolize Paris and to epitomize French culture.

Situated on the Île de la Cité, an island in the River Seine in central Paris, Notre-Dame is the kilometer-zero from which French cartographers measure the nation. All of the distances posted along the national highways of France are measured to the square in front of the cathedral. England, by contrast, whose monarch heads its state church, measures distance from the traffic junction at Charing Cross.

As news of the fire spread on social media, many saw in Notre-Dame the loss of France’s past. Pundits and politicians from around the world lamented the fallen spire, and the destruction of the roof, known as le forêt — the forest — for its thick trunks of ancient wood. But the fire also reveals something fundamental about the history of Notre-Dame — that it is a true restoration as Viollet-le-Duc described it. Notre-Dame is a building that has been constantly restored — both architecturally and metaphorically — reestablished in a modern state countless times throughout its history. Notre-Dame has always been as much a construction of the present as it is a monument of the past. As we begin to restore Notre-Dame again, we must consider our own moment within the long history of restorations and reestablishments to the church.


Viollet-le-Duc restored Notre-Dame. Between 1844 and 1864, he and a team spent millions of francs to rebuild the Gothic sacristy — the room where priestly vestments and liturgical instruments are stored — and to crown the building with a spire, a tower taller, thinner, and better engineered than anything a medieval mason could have constructed. It was Viollet-le-Duc’s spire that collapsed on April 15.

A consultant named Nicolas Marang captured footage of the spire’s fall on his smartphone — one of several videos that have circulated widely online since the fire — as he watched the flames from the right bank of the Seine. The sky is gray with smoke and the timbers of the roof and the tower are already exposed by the flames. Suddenly the spire begins to list toward the right, over the nave of the church, and it falls quickly, taking several of the roof timbers of the nave with it as it tumbles. Where the spire had been, a bundle of timbers still stands erect, dark against the flames.

For a moment in Marang’s video, before the whole tower collapses, the structural framework of the spire is visible. The limestone and lead that faced it have largely fallen away, exposing the skeleton of Viollet-le-Duc’s addition. Just before it collapses, the exposed beams of the spire bear an uncanny resemblance to another Parisian icon: the Eiffel Tower. Although Viollet-le-Duc’s tower was a feat of 19th-century engineering, until April 2019, its structure had been concealed beneath lead sheets, sculpted figures, and limestone blocks decorating it in an exaggerated Gothic style. The devastating fire unmasked the modern construction underpinning the apparently medieval building.

In an essay published in 1860 in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Viollet-le-Duc defended his design as a modern tower masked in an authentically Gothic skin. He at once promoted his spire as a model of what medieval masons would have built as he trumpeted its modern engineering. Its height and slenderness were made possible by deepening the foundations of the cathedral’s four central pillars. He designed the spire and the pyramid upon which it rested to withstand winds beyond anything likely in Paris. As an ultimate fail-safe, its wooden core was designed to sway and shift gently in a strong wind, as contemporary skyscrapers do. Viollet-le-Duc carefully calibrated the construction so that any two of the four pillars could support the weight of the tower, which he estimated a total of 750,000 kilograms. This whole feat of engineering, he bragged, was accomplished at a cost of 67 centimes per kilo. His prosaic assessment of the project — pricing his work by the kilo like raw material offered for sale — reflected his pride at the industrial logic of his work and its engineered precision.

For Viollet-le-Duc, Notre-Dame and the chance to restore her spire offered the perfect opportunity to apply prominently the tools of industrialization to a historic monument. But even as he worked, he faced opposition from Parisians who feared his industrial zeal had gone too far. Many feared the beams of his new spire were iron and protested that the material was too prosaic to decorate their national cathedral. The tower’s structure, Viollet-le-Duc assuaged crowds, was built of nothing but the finest French oak — harvested in the Champagne region no less — treated with minium, a lead compound designed to retard weathering and which dyed the beams a rusty red. Two decades after the reddish beams of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire had been covered in lead sheeting and limestone to match the rest of Notre-Dame, his frequent collaborator Gustave Eiffel designed his own tower, one built unabashedly of exposed iron, its structural logic borrowed from Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothicized spire.

Viollet-le-Duc was hardly the first to approach Notre-Dame with modernizing ambitions. Even the parts of its structure that, today, appear authentically medieval are elements added to the building over time. Its famous flying buttresses — the detached structural system that supports the walls of its nave and its eastern end — were innovations added more than a century after the building’s consecration to support the weight of its stone walls. Architectural historians are loath to declare the building of any one general style. The stout pillars and round arches of its nave are hallmarks of the Romanesque style, and the sharply pointed arches and massive stained-glass windows of its transepts are textbook examples of the late-Gothic Rayonnant style. What today reads as a largely unified medieval building — authentique in Viollet-le-Duc’s assessment — is the work of centuries of construction, renovation, and eventually restoration. Medieval construction was a slow process — often requiring multiple generations of masons who labored on the same project, adapting their work to stylistic changes as they went. Notre-Dame, with its hodgepodge of styles, is no exception.

But throughout history, Notre-Dame’s restorations have not been solely architectural. To the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century, Notre-Dame represented a monument to the excesses of the ancien régime. They decapitated its statues, melted many of its bells to make into cannonballs, and, in 1793, rechristened the church in honor of the Cult of Reason. Notre-Dame was reestablished not as a church to the Virgin Mary, but in honor of Marianne, the republican personification of liberty and freedom who adorned the seal of the First French Republic.

Notre-Dame also embodied Napoleon’s own conflicted relationship with the Catholic Church. Three years after he conquered the Papal States, rejecting the Church and imprisoning Pope Pius VI, Napoleon negotiated a treaty, reconciling the schism between revolutionaries and the Church and officially restoring Notre-Dame to its cathedral status. On December 2, 1804, after a rushed Catholic wedding to his wife Joséphine insisted upon by Pope Pius VII, Napoleon was crowned emperor of the French at Notre-Dame, rather than at Reims, which had been the traditional coronation church for the French monarchy. For the occasion, Napoleon ordered the church whitewashed in order to conceal the damage of the revolution and to lend the building what he considered a more dignified, Neo-classical appearance. Later, he proposed turning the cathedral into the capitol of Catholic Church — moving the papal curia, the college of cardinals, and the Vatican archives from Rome to Notre-Dame. Paris was to become a new Rome, with the Neo-classicized Notre-Dame at its center. That plan never came to pass, however. Napoleon’s goal to make Paris the new Rome fell apart as his empire frayed. His successors, the restored Bourbon dynasty, largely neglected Notre-Dame, returning to the tradition of coronations at Reims.

Then, in the July Revolution of 1830, as mobs gathered in Paris to protest the Bourbon king Charles X’s increasingly oppressive regime, Notre-Dame again became a symbol of concentrated power and Royal despotism. Rioters and looters returned to the cathedral and its sculptures, many of which still bore the scars of the revolutionaries. In a pamphlet titled A Note on the Destruction of Monuments in France, Victor Hugo called for a law to preserve the medieval legacy of France from those who simply equated ancient architecture with the ancien régime and demolished it.

Hugo repeated the idea in an essay titled “War on the Demolishers,” in which he decried the false pragmatism of the functionaries appointed to municipal councils who demolished monuments of the Middle Ages to sell for the price of materials. It was to the same functionaries that Viollet-le-Duc appealed in 1860, when he summarized his restoration of Notre-Dame’s spire in the purest of economic terms: 67 centimes per kilo.

Hugo’s best-known defense of architecture, of course, was a defense of Notre-Dame in particular — his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (the translator of the novel gave it its English title, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Hugo’s novel is set in 15th-century Paris, a city whose titular Dame is at once the great church and the beguiling and beautiful Esmeralda. Hugo’s fear of the fate of the church is voiced in the novel by Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral. Looking up at his church over a printed book, he laments: ceci tuera cela: This will kill that.

Frollo’s prediction “was the presentiment,” Hugo wrote, “that in changing its form human thought was going to change its mode of expression […] that the book of stone, so solid and durable, would give way to the book of paper […] that one art would dethrone another. It meant: printing will kill architecture.” Of course, what Hugo articulated as a fear in the 15th century would be just as much a fear in the 19th century.

Hugo feared that the great edifices of French history — Notre-Dame chief among them — would be left to crumble by those who no longer recognized them as art. He feared opponents of feudalism, or those who saw its echoes in contemporary politics, would forget that “at that time anyone who was born a poet became an architect,” and that the wanton destruction of the past would accelerate this artistic upheaval, from the public monuments of medieval architecture to the individual, replicative technology of the printing press.

Viollet-le-Duc’s definition of restoration, and his project at Notre-Dame, were in direct response to Hugo’s novel. Popular acclaim for the text brought attention to the dilapidated cathedral and renewed interest in preserving it. Rather than killing architecture, the printed book heralded its rescue. To a nation for whom freedom from tyranny and the rights of individual expression were of utmost importance, Hugo recast Notre-Dame not as the crown jewel of state power, as Napoleon had wanted, but as a testament to the work of generations of masons and sculptors, poets who wrote in stone. “The law of liberty succeeding unity,” Hugo proclaimed, “is written in architecture.”


Once again, Notre-Dame will be restored, reestablished in the present unlike at any time in the past. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, President Macron announced that he intended to rebuild the cathedral within five years, making it “more beautiful than before” — a timeline experts worry is far too fast to rebuild the damaged structure responsibly. At the same time, many Parisians now fear the government has systematically downplayed the dangers of the fire to local residents, particularly from the large amount of lead that melted in the blaze. In recent weeks, schools in districts near the site have been closed after elevated lead levels were discovered and the environmental group Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) has filed suit against the city, claiming officials failed to fully inform Paris residents of the dangers posed by lead released into the air from the fire. As the embers still smoldered, two prominent French families, the Arnault and Pinault families, pledged more than 200 million euros to the cost of the repairs to the building. Nearly one billion euros in donations have come in from philanthropic sources in France and around the world.

To many, the speed with which funds poured in from across the nation to restore Notre-Dame reflects France’s deep inequality. In the days leading up to the fire, rioters had again returned to Paris, protestors aligned with gilets jaunes movement, named for the yellow safety vests they wear, the kind French motorists are required by law to keep in their cars for emergencies. Their diffuse movement began in response to Macron’s increased taxes on gasoline and have quickly spilled into more general protests against the deep economic divides within France: between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural. Private money flooded into the Île de la Cité at a time when rural France faces service cutbacks, increasing fuel and food prices, and a president seen by many as elitist and unsympathetic to their plight. Notre-Dame is being reestablished as a monument to contemporary inequality.

At the same time, architectural renderings of a reimagined Notre-Dame have begun to circulate. While many advocate for restoring the building as it was before the fire, others have proposed more dramatic solutions: an entirely glass roof, a beam of light in place of the spire, a truly awful gilded flame-like structure rising from a restored roof. Macron has expressed cautious interest in a contemporary spire, something far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen vehemently oppose. Notre-Dame is being restored — either as a sensationalized jewel of contemporary French architecture or as a monument to the politicized “greatness” of France’s past.

Whatever the outcome of these renovations, what will be preserved is not merely a building nor merely a political symbol. What remains is a historical process, an ongoing cycle of birth and rebirth as the past is recast for the present moment just as it was by Viollet-le-Duc, Napoleon, and Hugo. Notre-Dame will survive, in whatever form it takes, and as it does, we must remember that the building in the days before the fire was just as much a modern construction as the building that will rise from its ashes.


Danny Smith is a doctoral candidate in medieval art history at Stanford University.


Featured image: "Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris - Paris - France - Mérimée PA00086250 (6)" by Binche is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Danny Smith is a doctoral candidate in medieval art history at Stanford University.


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