Notre Dame De Paris: 850 Years?

Gargoyles glare down from the towers of Notre Dame as a motorcycle speeds up a ramp and tears into the air, arcing like a flying buttress, its spinning wheels dropping inches from terrified tourists and the sculpture-encrusted façade of the world’s most famous, most beloved, most reinvented and most mobbed cathedral.

The fantasy flashed through my irreverent mind as I clambered among joyous crowds seated on the temporary wooden bleachers and ramp that will face the cathedral until the end of this year. Worshippers wept and sang as cameras clicked, buzzed and whirred. Bliss and bafflement filled me.

We’d watched the carpenters build the ungainly platform, a here-today-gone-tomorrow structure so at odds with the solid pile of stone 100 feet in front of it. We’d hoped, vainly, that it would recreate the medieval maze of narrow streets that stood here until Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann wiped the slate in the mid-1800s to make the cathedral’s wide, modern square.

Script large enough for a par-blind skeptic like me to read declared that Notre Dame Cathedral was 850 years old this year, 2013. I wrestled the numbers back to 1163 and smiled a Gioconda smile. You had to wonder how many of today’s hallowed stones, sculpted or squared, had actually been part of this ecclesiastical flagship as it rose from 1163 to 1345, the date of its putative completion.Perhaps the foundation stone was authentic? It would be the now-invisible one laid, we’re told, by Bishop Maurice de Sully. He was the gleeful visionary who demolished the Romanesque church that had stood here for about 800 years when he took over. Added to the tally, that brought us back to the fourth century AD, which seemed about right. The first Christian church on this site would have been built after Paris’ masters in Rome switched from a Pagan pantheon to the great bearded patriarch and his virgin in the sky.

But what might a mole find underneath the 1,650-year-old Romanesque church? Why, a modest little Roman temple, perhaps, and maybe an ancient Gallic one underneath it for good measure.
Everyone knew that Notre Dame Cathedral, that paragon of the Gothic, was merely the spire-studded icing on a layer cake of architecture, history, and myth. All you had to do was clamber down into the archeological crypt facing the cathedral to see its profane underside: ancient Roman or Romanesque foundations, a third-century city wall, medieval hovels, roads and even sewers.

Everyone also knew that the current incarnation of Notre Dame was reconstituted from a ruin in the 19th-century (and restored again and again in decades to follow). The sculptures were fakes — copies or replacements of sculptures looted in the French Revolution or destroyed by weathering and acid rain. The main spire was an extravagant falsehood, put there by architect Viollet-le-Duc. He was the genial fellow who “restored” the cathedral not to any historic reality, but to capture what he considered the quintessence of the medieval.

In fact nearly everything inside and outside Notre Dame is a copy or a replacement or the result of Romantic 19th-century fantasies lifted from the pages of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was this wild, violent, irreligious novel published in 1831 that saved the cathedral from the wrecker’s ball. Hugo’s lusty tale was pure invention, like other inspiring tales, and buildings full of wonder, and it’s a story that plays well to this day.

The real miracle is, despite its fakeness, despite the fables, lacunae and inaccuracies, despite the crowds and souvenirs and flashing cameras, Notre Dame still has magic.

When my wife and I set out from Paris to the Pyrenees on foot, a pair of skeptic pilgrims, we began nearby at the Saint-Jacques Tower on Paris’s ancient Roman road. But our first stop was Notre Dame. How now? Can freethinkers be moved by a rebuilt pile atop layers of unbelievable fiction?

Absolutely: You would have to be a brute, or an imaginary stuntman on a tricked-out motorcycle, to not be moved by Notre Dame.

The ramp and bleachers and viewing platform, and the Catholic propaganda, may be ridiculous, useless or offensive to some. But as we stood in line like thousands of others, and finally entered the forest of limestone columns illuminated by ethereal, glass-filtered light, we were glad to be mere skeptics, not cynics. We were delighted to revere this draughty old barn full of windy words precisely because everything about it is a peerless, perennial fake.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook, and Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. His Paris Time Line app will be published in March: and

[Photo credit: Alison Harris]