France

Notre Dame Cathedral’s Gargoyles

I have loved  gargoyles ever since I was 11 and saw the Disney animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although I visited Notre Dame Cathedral on both of my first two trips to Paris, it wasn’t until my third time there that I actually saw them up close and personal. This was due to the fact that on my first visit to Paris, I actually don’t think I got to go inside the cathedral (that trip consisted of a lot of picture taking from the outside), and on my second time there I didn’t have the time required to stand in line in order to climb to the top of the North Tower. However, on my third visit to the City of Light (third time’s a charm after all), I stood in line…for a while…and waited near to an hour. The time I spent queuing on the little side street on Il de la Cite brought back a flood of other memories involving instances where I had to stand in an interminably long line in Europe, always for a view-the line to go to the cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (I would not recommend that experience if you are prone to claustrophobia) and the line that I thought was to climb to the top of the cupola of the Duomo in Florence, which after standing in line for nearly an hour under the hot Italian sun, was in fact just to see the stark inside of the church-the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.

Although I had the Paris Museum Pass, which not only provided free admission to many of the city’s most visited attractions but also the opportunity to bypass the queues, climbing to the top of the tower only gave me free admission, which I’m sure is done on purpose due to its incredible popularity. While there are certainly higher views had when in Paris (the most notable one being the Eiffel Tower), the view from the Notre Dame tower is ideal due to the close proximity of Il de la Cite to sights such as the Louvre, the Pantheon, and Les Invalides, not to mention the always recognizable landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. You’re undoubtedly high up and yet not too high that buildings look like a mere speck in the distance.

As anyone who has ever visited knows, the best part about the tower is the gargoyles. Although they vary in terms of their looks and features, they are all incredibly detailed. Lest you think gargoyles are simply a decoration, a gargoyle is actually a carved stone grotesque with a spout designed to carry water from a roof and away from the side of a building for the chief aim of preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between. The front of Notre Dame features elaborately carved stonework depicting scenes from the Bible as well as important Biblical figures, and yet all over the cathedral are water spouts designed in the shape of animals, many of them rather frightening. Although it seems rubbish today, I can see the medieval purpose of the gargoyles as they were used to assist the Church in conveying messages to the masses. They were used both as a representation of evil and to scare people into attending church. It is also believed that their presence led people to believe that evil stayed outside of a church’s walls. I can understand this at a time when the majority of people were illiterate and believed what the church preached to them how the gargoyles could serve as a coercive force. And yet one look at the “thinking” gargoyle (the one whose picture graces my blog header), a statue that perhaps the French sculptor Auguste Rodin derived inspiration from for his own masterpieces due to its beautifully pensive pose, and all thoughts of them making me feel as if the end is near evaporate. (This was a common ideology at the time, instilled in the masses by the clergy.)

There are some Parisian sights I wouldn’t need to visit again since I’ve been to them multiple times. However, the tower at Notre Dame Cathedral is definitely something I would like to see and experience again. While steeped in legend and folklore, the gargoyles certainly have borne witness to the city of Paris for centuries and for that I consider them to be the city’s gatekeepers.

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