Standing in front of the glorious Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, one can easily convince oneself that the church has always been subject to the same mix of awe and affection that visitors feel today. But, as the Paris Musées’ new exhibition in the cathedral’s crypt shows, that would be flat-out wrong.1
Vandalized during the Revolution, neglected during the Restoration, ignored by a public that thought Gothic architecture passé, and scarcely escaping demolition in the 1820s when the cash-squeezed government blanched at its enormous repair costs, Notre-Dame survived by a whisker. It stands in its present form largely thanks to the efforts of two men: Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (popularized these days as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) not only reversed Parisian apathy but also created a powerful movement for the cathedral’s preservation; and the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who led the twenty-year restoration, designed the iconic spire, and hired visionary sculptors and artisans like Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, who invented the fantastically weird gargoyles like “Le Stryge” that adorn the cathedral’s upper reaches. The exhibition reveals how this all was accomplished and how Hugo’s novel and its many adaptations continue to shape our appreciation of Notre-Dame.
Nestled in the crypt’s permanent collection of Notre-Damiana, the exhibition starts with an overview of the cathedral’s first half-millennium, before turning to Hugo’s architectural activism. Hugo’s poem “La Bande Noir,” which protested the wholesale demolition and salvaging for building materials of France’s old châteaux in the wake of the Revolution, was published several years before Notre-Dame de Paris, while his 1832 essay “Guerre aux démolisseurs” railed against the destruction of France’s ancient monuments. By 1844, all was settled—there was enough money and public support for the costly renovation of Notre-Dame to begin.
There was one incidental benefit from this long delay. Photography was only invented in the late 1830s, but by the time renovations began, it had advanced to the point where the proceedings could be well documented. The exhibition includes several striking images of Notre-Dame and its architectural details. Charles Nègre, Charles Marville, and Edouard Baldus are all represented. One of Baldus’ albumin prints shows the replacement of the statues of biblical kings that had been beheaded (under the impression they were French kings) by angry Revolutionary mobs.
Of equal interest are the materials describing Viollet-le-Duc’s thoughts about renovation. “Restoring a building,” he wrote, “is not about restoring, repairing or remaking it. It is about restoring it to a complete state that may have never existed at a particular moment.” Thus philosophically armed and thoroughly under the spell of Hugo’s novel, Viollet-le-Duc occasionally took creative liberties that went beyond the realm of conventional Gothic style. He contributed several personal touches to Notre-Dame, including the famous central spire (fabricated by the same company that built the Statue of Liberty), and at one point planned two additional spires—one atop each of the cathedral’s towers. Amusingly, instead of restricting himself to a more conventional acknowledgment of his role—like a commemorative plaque—he allowed his features to be worked into the face of one of the apostles (St. Thomas) adorning the spire. All of the cathedral’s roof statues, by the way, were saved from the 2019 fire, as they were removed just days before the inferno to undergo off-site restoration.
Much of the rest of the exhibition is given over to memorabilia from the Hunchback story. Film loops, drawings, photographs, and movie advertisements (including one delightful poster from the 1956 film showing a gnarly-faced Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo and a sultry Gina Lollobrigida as the doomed Esmeralda) demonstrate the lasting appeal of Hugo’s novel and how its recent adaptations continue to shape our favorable impressions of Notre-Dame—even for those who have never heard of the men who saved it.
On leaving the crypt, one can pass by the fencing on the north side of Notre-Dame, which features panels showing the effects of the 2019 fire, the subsequent efforts to stabilize the cathedral’s damaged structure, and profiles of the various artisan groups that are carrying out the restoration work.
Last July 9, after months of drama about the future appearance of Notre-Dame (including a proposal for a new spire made from Baccarat crystal) and the threatened resignation of France’s chief architect if any of the more barmy suggestions were to move forward, the Elysée announced that Notre-Dame would be restored to its status quo ante.