A race against time and flames to save the priceless artwork of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has begun after it caught fire on the late afternoon of April 15th 2019. Fortunately, it appears that no one has been hurt in the blaze which engulfed the top part of the church as the sun began to fade. Within hours, chunks of history had melted away as the flames took hold. And that history is peppered with royal stories which now find themselves part of a modern tragedy.
The church was begun in 1160 in the reign of King Louis VII of France. His close confidante, Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris, began work on a church which would showcase French gothic architecture and much of the construction was completed before his death in 1196. Within a century of the foundation stone being laid, Notre Dame was largely complete and already a favourite of royals from France and wider afield.
One of its most famous features, the south rose window, was a gift to the cathedral from that most religious of Capetian kings. Louis IX, later canonised and known to history as Saint-Denis, donated the beautiful stained glass which has already been damaged and restored many times in its long history. There are fears that the workmanship in this window, along with the famous north and west roses, may have been badly damaged by the fire.
The celebrated architecture of Notre Dame has been witness to some of the most famous events in royal history. It was at the Cathedral that Philip IV of France convened the first Estates General while in 1431, the English boy king, Henry VI, was also crowned as French ruler, too. Mary, Queen of Scots married her first husband at Notre Dame – her wedding to Francois, Dauphin of France took place in 1558. And in 1804, Napoleon and Josephine were crowned as Emperor and Empress of France amidst its medieval walls.
But Notre Dame is, of course, much more than that. For centuries known as ‘liber pauperum’, or poor people’s book, its outside was littered with visual representations to bring to life religious instruction for those that couldn’t read. It became, and has been for centuries, a symbol of and for Paris and France. Louis VII and Maurice de Sully saw it as part of a wider campaign to bring French influence to a wider audience. They certainly succeeded and now, almost nine centuries on from their initial ideas, the world hopes that the beautiful creation they helped bring to life can survive this devastating fire.