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On April 15, people around the world watched in horror as a voracious fire consumed the medieval wooden roof of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral and felled its spire.
The following day brought some measure of relief: Despite the building's wrenching losses, its masonry structure was largely intact, and many of its precious relics had been swiftly and lovingly removed by a human chain of church officials and firefighters. The building had steadfastly endured the destructive flames.
Notre - Dame - Symbol - Identity
Since then, Notre Dame has been hailed as a stable and enduring symbol of French identity.
But it would be more accurate to say that the cathedral's importance comes from the very instability of its meaning.
Century - Notre - Dame - State - Dire
Originally completed in 1345, by the early 19th century Notre Dame stood in a state of dire disrepair. It took an idiosyncratic young architect, moved by Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," to fashion a new meaning for the building – one that, ironically, looked nostalgically to the past for inspiration.
'The book will destroy the edifice'
Victor - Hugo - Novel - Notre - Dame
In 1831, when Victor Hugo published his famous novel "Notre Dame de Paris" – known in English as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" – the country was experiencing rapid social, political and industrial change.
The cathedral, meanwhile, had fallen by the wayside. Years of neglect, blinkered renovation efforts and the anti-Catholic zeal of the French Revolution had left the once-regal building in ruins.
Set - Century - Novel - Period - History
Set in the 15th century, the novel alluringly evoked a different period in French history. In the novel, Hugo lamented that the printing press had supplanted architecture as the primary communicator of civilization's cherished values. In one of the book's most famous moments, the archdeacon Frollo points sadly to a printed book on his table.
"Alas! This will kill that," he laments, directing his finger to the cathedral looming magisterially outside his window. He continues, "The...
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