When tragedy strikes in the age of Instagram, we enter a stage of collective shock, followed by a state of communal grief. And so as my Instagram feed filled up yesterday with photos and video of Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral-the roof engulfed in flames, the spire toppling as all the world gasped-I was faced with the images I’d been too upset to view all afternoon, the Gothic horror of it all.
And then came a second wave: the personal snapshots. Notre-Dame by day; Notre-Dame by night. The gargoyles, their bony jaws in their hands, contemplating the most majestic of cities from their perch atop this 12th-century architectural wonder. There were countless selfies with the cathedral’s twin towers and rose windows as the try-to-beat-this Instagram backdrop. I thought about my own trips to Notre-Dame.
My gargoyle shots are buried in a photo album somewhere at my mom’s house; I’ll look for them this weekend when I go home for the holidays. I searched my digital photo archive and found a single photograph: Notre-Dame in early evening, taken on the fly two summers ago as I raced past in a hurry to get somewhere else. It was a beautiful twilight, but the light on the transcendent stone facade seemed to emanate from within.
No building, not even the Eiffel Tower, is more representative of the spirit of Paris, of its beauty and its resilience over centuries of plague, war, protest, tragedy, and of so much joy. Of course, to some, Notre-Dame is also a symbol of centuries of French power and, in its more distant past, of religious persecution. But this majestic cathedral has transcended that history, offering solace and an oasis of reflection to people of all backgrounds and religions, including me.
There is a moment in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame when a character comes across a dust-covered brass plaque emblazoned with the words “Spira, spera”-a Latin phrase meaning “Breathe, hope.” Man-made things, however sacred, can be repaired and rebuilt. And thanks to an outpouring of donations, Notre-Dame de Paris will be whole again-a continuing testament to the power of architecture and design to inspire and uplift. The cathedral still stands. Breathe. Hope.
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