Notre Dame / Chartres

Of the many medieval cathedrals in France, there are two that hold surpassing reputations in the popular imagination. The oldest of them is Notre-Dame de Paris, which was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345. The fame of Notre-Dame rests not so much on its role as a marker in the rise of religion in medieval Europe as it does on a novel about a hunchback, by Victor Hugo. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1829) is set in 1482 at the time when the democratizing effects of the Gutenberg printing press are being felt most acutely by the hierarchy of the Church. The threat to the power structure of the old order, symbolized by the cathedral, is expressed most graphically in the annual celebration of the Feast of Fools. A holdover from Roman festivals, this holiday gave license to the people on the streets for a brief eruption of mockery of the institutions of the Church and the monarchy. The key characters in this drama of freedom versus repression are the deformed Quasimodo, a quintessential outsider, and the free-spirited Gypsy girl, Esmeralda. I have found six versions of the Hunchback story on film. For the classic portrayal of Quasimodo, see the Charles Laughton version of 1939. Only one of the available trailers offers a glimpse of the Feast of Fools on the square in front of the cathedral. It is the Disney version, complete with cute animals and show tunes.


Chartr-1The preeminence of Chartres Cathedral (say Shart, or Shart-reh if you must) as a destination for pilgrims and tourists is attributable to its survival as a superb example of Gothic architecture and its emblematic position as a great cathedral set in the middle of a small town. It was built between 1194 and 1250 on the same site as no less than five cathedrals that came before it. The first of them dated to the 4th-century. One was destroyed by the Vikings in the ninth century. Often, the Cathedral played host to seasonal fairs and festivals. Threats to both Chartres and Notre Dame in recent centuries have included the French Revolution, which showed zealous disrespect for the Church, and World War II, during which Chartres was largely spared.

Returning to Notre Dame: Napoleon’s Coronation

The Notre Dame Cathedral was sufficiently recovered from the desecrations of the Revolution to play host to the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor on December 2, 1804. Pope Pius VII presided over the rite but Napoleon stole the show by seizing the crown and placing it on his own head, and on the Empress, Joséphine. In the trailer below, the impact is submerged beneath the graphics at the very end. This dramatic disrespect for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, following the sweeping acts of the Protestant Reformation and the formation of the Church of England by Henry VIII, was a period at the end of a sentence. I think it can be said that from this point onward the cathedral would never again be confused with an institution of political power.


French Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire


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