“Upon the face of this ancient queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle we constantly find a scar.”(Victor Hugo)
Perhaps, no other single volume tells the story of the French culture, its people, its religious myths, its complex architecture, austere class divisions, the power and the glory of its kings, and their deprivations more comprehensibly and breathtakingly than “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
But what is more, its author, Victor Hugo, masterfully intertwines all the different elements of French culture and tradition with a magical but tragic love triangle among its protagonists -Esmeralda, the gipsy girl, Quasimodo, the bell ringer, and Claude Frollo, the priest, in a manner that leaves readers wiping the sweat from their brow every now and then!
Indeed the gripping narrative of love and disloyalty, hatred and revenge, pain and death puts “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” among the greatest stories to baffle the imagination and to register a perpetual blot of injustice on the conscience of man.
Set in 1482, the novel is transposed in the mystic armor of Notre-Dame Cathedral, the huge, sprawling gothic architecture whose walls became the epicenter for mysticism and magic, treachery and wickedness of costly degrees, and in whose eyes the burning of Esmeralda and the destruction of Father Claude Frollo is profoundly accomplished.
No doubt, Notre-Dame is an ancient cathedral known for its pompous splendor and excesses. Second perhaps only to the Vatican in its gothic collection of art and medieval relics (including what is believed to be the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, a piece of the cross on which he was crucified, a 13th Century organ and bronze statue of the Twelve Apostles, Old Testament Kings among others, it has an intriguing history and panache which has captured the imagination not only of the people of France, dead or living, but curious minds all over the world. Approximately 12 million tourists flock the streets of Paris each year to catch a glimpse of this medieval pride for its attractions, history and magnificence, rather than its representation of the temple of the Christian God of Holiness.
Let’s take a paragraph from Hugo’s description of this monumental, almost seductive edifice:
“…First of all ─ to cite only a few leading examples─ there are assuredly, few finer architectural pages than that front of that cathedral, in which, successively and at once, the three receding portals with their pointed arches, the decorated and indented band of the twenty-eight royal niches, the immense central rose-window, flanked by the two lateral windows, like the priest by the deacon and sub-deacon; the lofty and slender gallery of trifoliated arcades, supporting a heavy platform upon its light and delicate columns; and lastly the two dark and massive towers, with their eaves of slate ─ harmonious parts of one magnificent whole ─rising one above another in five gigantic stories ─ unfold themselves to the eye, collectively and simply ─ with their innumerable details of statuary, sculpture, and carving, powerfully contributing to the calm grandeur of the whole; a vast symphony in stone, if we may so express it; the colossal work of a man and of a nation; combining unity with complexity, like the Iliad’s and the old Romance epics to which it is a sister production; the prodigious result of a draught upon the whole resources of an era ─ upon every stone, is seen displayed, in a hundred varieties, the fancy of the workman disciplined by the genius of the artist ─ a sort of human Creation, in short mighty and prolific like the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have caught the double character ─ variety and eternity.”
No doubt the cathedral’s depiction of beauty, splendor, and glory was awesome to the author even in the 15th Century! But aside its beauty, this Middle-Age wonder has its ugliness too, a case of beauty and the beast.
What is today celebrated of the Cathedral is actually a degradation by the handiwork of Time and less skilful latter-day architects. But of paramount interest to many adherents is how such a sacred monument of worship could transform into a dark prison, a place for the pursuit and study of dark arts, magic and witchcraft under the noses and direct supervision and participation of its famous bishops and priests as indicated by Victor Hugo.
When confronted by an angry, swearing mob, hapless Esmeralda seeks refuge in the belfry of the cathedral, but ironically, she meets her tragic end within its precincts, the cathedral conspiring with the relentless mob in her cruel execution.
Until recently, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece was considered fictional. However, with new discoveries suggesting otherwise, one wonders the extent of the cathedral’s involvement in the narrative’s clerical atrocities. The rebuilding of the cathedral, after the pre-Easter flames, should provide occasion for spiritual renaissance beyond tourism and national pride.