latest guide
library picture

Victor Hugo and
The Cathedral of Notre Dame

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris, Notre Dame, is now one of the most important symbols of France. However it wasn't always so well loved. You might know the fabulous story of the monstrous hunch back who lived in the bell towers. But did you know that that story was responsible for saving the cathedral?

The 800 year old Cathedral was already in decay when Napoleon held his triumphant emperor's coronation there in 1804. After that it's decline rapidly advanced.

Unexpectedly it was the writers and artists of the Romantic movement that eventually clamoured for it to be restored. In particular, Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris' otherwise known as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was a major factor in the funding for Violet le Ducs restoration programme in the 1840's.

The Romantics were a group of secular intellectuals who kicked against the ultra - rationalism of the enlightenment and the strictures of classical art. They were interested in strong emotions, beauty, horror, love and terror. They championed the individual imagination above the expertise of art critics. They looked back at the Gothic age fondly as an age where everything was built as a work of art and they demanded that some of the old Gothic beauty and drama of Paris be restored.

"The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.

On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior*; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid."

Victor Hugo, 'Notre Dame de Paris' 1831

The most enduring image in the popular imagination taken from the Hunchback story is that of a grotesquely ugly Quasimodo ringing the great bells of Notre Dame and crying out "Esmerelda! Esmerelda!" When you go up into the upper gallery you can almost see the poor monster running to hide from the pitiless glare of visitors.

Hugo intended the book to be more about the cathedral than about the characters. His descriptions of it are long and ardent.

The story tells of a mad astronomer/priest called Frollo. Frollo has adopted Quasimodo as a son. They live in the Cathedral together. Their world is torn asunder by the appearance of a Gypsy girl called Esmerelda who dances and sings in the courtyard of the Cathedral one night. Basically, every character in the book falls in love with her, including the Hunch Back. But Frollo betrays her and he is happy to see her hanged for a murder that he himself commits in jealous rage. He descends into madness and when Esmerelda goes to the gallows it is Quasimodo who storms down from Notre Dame to rescue her and bring her to sanctuary in the cathedral towers.

The enormous popularity of Hugo's work inspired a new respect for the Cathedral that transcended the conflict between faith and secularism.

Now it's a fitting house for some of the most fabulous medieval stained glass work in Europe, the rose windows are an absolute must see.

You can get to the Cathedral on the Metro, head for Cité, or on the RER which stops at Chatelet les Halles or Saint Michel Notre Dame near the cathedral. It's also walking distance from the Louvre and being sat at the bottom corner of the Ils de la Cite there's some gorgeous strolling to be had in the environs.

Back to the Library