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Coronations, requiems, liberations, Notre-Dame’s bells have tolled for them all

Jean-Paul Pelissier, REUTERS | Sparks fill the air as Paris firefighters spray water to extinguish flames engulfing Notre-Dame Cathedral burns on April 15, 2019.

The bells of Notre-Dame have tolled through centuries of French history, marking epic moments since medieval times. The iconic structure has been damaged, neglected, restored and celebrated, in life and art.

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Located in the heart of the French capital on the Ile de la Cité, a natural island in the River Seine, Notre-Dame Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and an emblem of the nation.

As a raging fire tore through the church Monday, thousands of Parisians poured on to the streets to watch, a sense of loss etched on many faces as they witnessed the possible destruction of Notre-Dame, a site that has come to symbolise the history, faith and national unity of the French people.

During the cathedral’s 850-year history, there have been numerous additions and restorations,with each era leaving a mark on the cathedral, but the architectural integrity of Notre-Dame has remained unchanged.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1163 and its two iconic bell towers were finished around 1245. But the building was not completed until the beginning of the 14th century.

Notre-Dame through the ages

A spire originally installed around 1250 was taken down five centuries later. At the end of the 19th century, the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, a tireless defender of France's medieval monuments, rebuilt the spire, sparking a chorus of criticism from residents and tourists alike.

It was this spire which collapsed to gasps of disbelief from horrified onlookers on Monday, consumed by the flames ravaging the roof and the wooden latice supporting it, known as the "forest".

A gift from a collapsing empire

The history of Notre-Dame in many ways mirrors that of Europe and the cathedral has been the site of landmark moments in the continent’s history.

In 1239, King Louis IX -- who was later cannonised Saint Louis -- placed the famous “Crown of Thorns” in Notre-Dame while his personal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle, was being constructed a few metres away from the cathedral.

The relic, believed to be Christ’s 'Crown of Thorns', was gifted to the French king by Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople. It stayed in Sainte-Chapelle until the French Revolution when, after a brief stay in the National Library, it was moved back to the Notre-Dame following an 1801 restoration.

The Crown of Thorns is displayed in the cathedral on the first Friday of every month and on every Friday during the Christian holy month of Lent.

The reed and gold relic survived Monday’s blaze, according to Notre-Dame's top administrative cleric, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet.

War and revolution

During the medieval period, the cathedral was the site of several royal marriages and requiems, including the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots and the French crown prince Francis, who later became King Francis II.

The French Revolution sparked a desecration of the church, when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed.

It however remained a central site in French religious and political life. It was in Notre-Dame that Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France.

On August 24, 1944, the cathedral's massive tenor bell announced the liberation of the city from Nazis, marking the end of the dark years of German occupation during World War II.

More than 25 years later, Notre-Dame hosted the funeral of Charles de Gaulle, a rare honour for the leader who steered France's resistance during Wrld War II.

A book that spread Notre-Dame’s magic

But perhaps the most memorable milestone in Notre-Dame’s legacy did not take place in the cathedral nor was it a real event.

It was conceived at a Parisian writing desk, when Victor Hugo brought the cathedral alive in his 1831 book, "Notre-Dame de Paris", giving it a personality on par with the novel's heroes, the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy beauty Esmeralda.

At a time when the church was facing the prospect of demolition because of its shocking state of disrepair, Hugo’s novel worked as a rallying cry to action for the nation, which began efforts to safeguard the structure.

The story has since been the subject of films, cartoons and children’s books, spreading the fame of this French medieval religious site to distant corners of the world, where children unfamiliar with Paris have discovered the magic of the gargoyles, beams, bell towers and columns of the edifice.

But the most enduring importance of Notre-Dame is the fact that the cathedral remains an active place of worship, not just a magnificent historic structure. Regular services have been held here and will continue to be held in this epic church in the heart of the French capital.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday mirrored the mood of the nation when he vowed to rebuild the cathedral. The fire occurred during the Christian Holy Week preceding Easter and for worshippers, the renovation effort will no doubt be seen as a metaphor for the one of the central tenets of Christianity: the Resurrection.

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