Hugo and the Hunchback

Notre Dame Cathedral

In 1831 when Victor Hugo published his famous piece of French literature The Hunchback of Notre Dame about souls caught in tragic circumstances beyond their control, he had also woven into the story descriptors of the decay of the great medieval church.

In the plot, Quasimodo, a crippled bell-ringer, eventually rescues the body of beautiful Esmeralda, a gypsy girl, after she is falsely accused of murder and hanged.  No one who’s seen Charles Laughton swing down on the bell ropes to claim Maureen O’Hara (though in the 1939 movie version she was alive) will ever forget the scene, or forgive Frollo, the archdeacon, for his betrayal.  And darned if I sometimes get it mixed up with another tale, The Phantom of the Opera, also about a misfit from Paris.

“Substituted for the ancient Gothic altar,  splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries,” Hugo wrote, was a  “heavy marble sarcophogus with angels’ heads and clouds.”  The color-drenched stained glass windows had been replaced with clear panes, and there was not any particular style in the repairs made to the building after the French Revolution.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame dates back to the Twelfth Century, taking one hundred years to build.  Five thousand oak trees were used for the original roof.  Its stone developed stress fractures so flying buttresses were built on the outside for support.  During the revolution, mobs also carried off statues of kings and paintings from the interior.

Hugo’s book inspired a Nineteenth Century rehabilitation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on its island in the Seine River by Paris.  Just in time, too, because  stones were just about to be repurposed for some major bridges.

It was saved for awhile, but it’s in trouble again.  Apparently the repair stones were substandard, and cement was also used.  Today the some of the famous gargoyles, which  keep rainwater away from the building, have been replaced with PVC pipes.  One source describes them as looking like “ice cream in the sun” due to the effects of pollution.  Oxidation of the iron in the windows has caused some to crack or even explode.  While the French government owns it, the Catholic Church uses it for mass and as many as 50,000 tourists a day visit in the summer.

The bells were replaced in 2012 for the structure’s 850th birthday.  It recently took $7 million to fix its spire.  In 2018 a foundation will make an American five-city tour looking to raise $100 million in the next few years (By the way, the cathedral on the movie set in California cost a quarter of a million to build; the bell-ringing scene was filmed on the day Germany invaded Poland).  It will take more than a book to renew interest in saving the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, but, hopefully, this is one thing that mass media can create positive spin for.  Quasimodo would approve.







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