As the world looks on in disbelief, the tragedy of Notre Dame continues to unfold in Paris. It is impossible to overstate the cathedral’s significance to the French nation, standing sentinel over the capital since the middle of the 13th century.
An example of the highest form of Gothic architecture, its resonance goes beyond the status as house of worship—the building has been the witness to the evolution, and Revolution, of France.
That position as witness to a nation has, curiously, been personified by strange, half-human, stone figures on its roofs: the gargoyles.
Hundreds of these sculpted watchers stood across Notre Dame. Nothing more than elaborate drainpipes—and yet the gargoyles, from the French gargouille meaning throat—symbolised something else. Quasi-demonic, they represented the forces of evil, forever outside the sanctuary of the church within.
Not all the Notre Dame figures function as rain-water spouts. Many were placed simply as natural, supernatural or mythological symbols. Across the centuries, those which were spouts were also prone to erode. Many others were destroyed during the French Revolution of the 1780s. A restoration of the cathedral took place across 25 years in the mid -1800s, and the gargoyles—including a gargoyle of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who oversaw the restoration—were restored and re-carved, giving new life to the statues.
Now, having survived revolution, 20th Century warfare—and even a Victorian restoration—the gargoyles suggest that even in the darkest periods, some things cannot be destroyed.