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Our Lady of Paris: 850-year-old masterpiece stood firm through wars, revolution

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 5 days ago Josh White For The Daily Mail

Historian Kenneth Clark told British television viewers that he could not easily define 'civilisation'.

'But,' he said, turning towards Notre Dame cathedral in his 1969 BBC series, 'I think I can recognise it when I see it.'

Possibly the world's most famous church, 'Our Lady of Paris' is an enduring Gothic masterpiece, a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics from all over the world and symbol of French nationhood. The possibility of its total destruction is as inconceivable as Big Ben tumbling into the Thames.

Standing on a small island in the middle of the Seine, its two huge Gothic towers, unique rose windows, rich sculptural adornments and menacing gargoyles are at the centre of one of the most recognisable urban vistas on the planet.

Construction began in 1163 on the site of an older church – and before that a pagan temple – under the reign of Louis VII, with the foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III. Thousands of labourers slaved for nearly two centuries until its completion in 1345.

Using innovative architectural techniques to assert France's growing status as a European power, its soaring vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and doors surmounted by a row of figures of Old Testament kings were an expression of royal grandeur.

Slideshow by photo services

The building is longer than a football pitch at 427ft, with its largely wooden spire – which collapsed last night – once soaring 300ft into the Parisian sky.

Indeed it is the mode of constructing of the roof structure – entirely in timber, with each beam being made from a single oak tree in a tight lattice – which may be the key to understanding last night's disaster. In all, 5,000 oaks were used in making it.

Among the catalogue of scenes from medieval history that have played out within its sacred confines, Henry VI of England was crowned there in 1431 in the midst of the Hundred Years War, the only English king to be crowned monarch in both nations.

In 1558 Mary Queen of Scots married the French dauphin, Francis II, within its walls, and in 1572 the future Henry IV of France was also married there.

But as well as wonderful scenes of chivalry, the cathedral has also survived its share of misfortune – although, curiously, it had avoided any devastating fire until yesterday's disaster.

In 1548, at the height of the Reformation, rioting Protestant Huguenots damaged some of the statues, considering them idolatrous, and in the 1790s it suffered significant desecration during the French Revolution.

Many of its treasures were looted and the so-called 'sans-culottes' decapitated the heads of 28 statues, thinking they were French kings, not the biblical figures they really represented.

Bells were melted down to make cannon balls and the vandalised structure was then rededicated as a temple to the bizarre state-sanctioned Cult of Reason, as French leaders attempted to invent a new religion to fill the people's spiritual void.

In 1793, the Cult of Reason's greatest – and most lascivious – pageant was held at the cathedral, with a new shrine to 'Liberty' replacing its Christian altar and the inscription 'To Philosophy' being carved in stone over the cathedral's doors.

a large building: The interior of Notre Dame with its chandeliers illuminated. As the seat of the Archibishop of Paris the cathedral is a major site of Catholic worship

The interior of Notre Dame with its chandeliers illuminated. As the seat of the Archibishop of Paris the cathedral is a major site of Catholic worship
© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited

During the same pageant, seductive girls dressed in tricolour sashes enacted a 'tableau vivant', surrounding a live model dressed as the Goddess of Reason, whom philosopher Thomas Carlyle sarcastically dubbed 'one of the best [goddesses] ... though her teeth were a little defective'.

As France's atheistic fervour abated, however, the cathedral came to be used as a food warehouse and fell into disrepair.

By the time of Napoleon's rise to power, Notre Dame was in danger of total demolition, but its significance was recognised by the politically astute Corsican. He was crowned emperor there in 1804 in a ceremony presided over by Pope Pius VII.

Again, it was allowed to fall into a state of decay, but this time it was novelist Victor Hugo who shot the building back into the public's consciousness with his 1831 best-seller The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. 'Assuredly the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice,' he wrote.

'But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last.'

Hugo's romantic descriptions, coupled with his observations about the damage it had sustained, helped to prompt a fresh round of restoration to the building by King Louis-Philippe.

The hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo remains one of the most famous characters in world literature, with a 1996 Disney cartoon adaptation imprinting the cathedral's gothic majesty on to a new generation.

Amazingly, it stood proud through both world wars and the Nazi occupation of Paris without taking major damage. During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the cathedral suffered hits from stray bullets, with some of the medieval glass being damaged.

And it was there that a special mass was held later that month to mark the end of the occupation, attended by General Charles De Gaulle, whose funeral service was also held there in 1970.

Until yesterday, Notre Dame was Paris's most visited monument, with entry to the main cathedral free to its 12 million annual visitors – double the number that go to the Eiffel Tower – and an active congregation of worshippers.

Today Paris, and the world, greet with horror the inestimable – and seemingly total – loss of one of the crowning glories of western achievement.

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