It’s one of France’s most powerful religious, architectural and cultural symbols—and images of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames evoke questions about how the city, and the cathedral, will move forward. But the fire isn’t the first time the cathedral has faced destruction.
During the French Revolution in the 1790s, angry mobs and revolutionaries looted the medieval Gothic church—and even declared that it wasn’t a church at all—during a bloody push to remove France’s close ties to the Catholic church. More than two dozen statues affixed to the church facade were publicly decapitated the same year as Marie Antoinette.
Before a furious crowd stormed the Bastille in Paris in 1789, the Church wielded extraordinary power in France. The vast majority of French people were Catholic, Catholicism was the state religion, and the Church owned vast swaths of property and collected heavy tithes from most people’s incomes without paying taxes of its own. But a growing number of French people had tired of the Church’s almost inconceivable power.
As the monarchy toppled, then fell, a small group of radical revolutionaries who had been influenced by Enlightenment-era philosophies of freedom of religion and a reason-based society saw their chance to strip the Church of much of its authority. They embarked on a dechristianization campaign, confiscating Church property, trying to get all clergy to swear their loyalty to the new state, and removing the Church’s control over the birth, death and administrative records it had held for so long.
The Revolution gained steam, and so did its attempts to strip the Catholic Church of its authority over French life. Parisians massacred and jailed priests during the September Massacres of 1792, and clergy were put on trial during the Reign of Terror. In 1793, the new government announced that public worship was illegal. In response, people rushed into churches, stripping them of religious symbolism.
Notre-Dame de Paris had long been a symbol of the monarchy, too—a place where state holidays, and kings, were celebrated. Henry VI of England was crowned king of France there in 1431. But revolutionary Parisians had had enough of its royal resonance. The cathedral’s west facade featured 28 statues that portrayed the biblical Kings of Judah. In fall 1793, the new government ordered workers to remove them. They didn’t portray French kings, but no matter: The 500-year-old statues combined monarchy and religion, and they were brought to the cathedral’s square and decapitated. Twenty-one of the heads were only recovered in 1977, when workers found them behind a wall in an old Parisian mansion.
That wasn’t the end of the cathedral’s revolutionary role. In November 1793, the cathedral became the site of the Festival of Reason, a revolutionary and anti-religious festival that both mocked Catholicism and suggested that French people should worship Enlightenment principles instead. After the cathedral was plundered, it became the stage for a packed public event in which a seductively dressed actress portraying the Goddess of Reason was worshiped atop a mountain. Enlightenment philosophers’ busts and statues of the Liberty replaced religious statues, and seductively dressed women danced and sang songs extolling the revolution. The centuries-old cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason. Almost everything inside was looted aside from its bells.
Eventually, dechristianization extended all the way to instituting a new, atheist state “religion” devoted to revolution. That concept was controversial though, and eventually Maximilien de Robespierre proposed The Cult of the Supreme Being, a civic religion that allowed for the existence of a god, but was rooted in revolutionary concepts. In 1794, Paris hosted the Festival of the Supreme Being, a massive celebration that included music, parades and pageantry.
Despite revolutionaries’ determination to stamp out Catholicism for good, most French people stuck to their religious beliefs. “Parents refused to send their children to be instructed in the new civic religion; attendance for civil services and government festivals was chronically low,” writes historian Justin Dunn. “Catholicism proved to be the stabilizing element that many segments of society could cling to amidst the storm of upheaval and change that was the French Revolution.”
After the Reign of Terror, Catholicism slowly regained acceptance in France. By then, though, many French clerics had been run out of the country and most of France’s churches were closed or converted for other uses. France’s violent separation of church and state was complete.
Despite its brush with destruction, Notre-Dame retained its powerful symbolism. After the Revolution, it bounced back from the looting. Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor there in 1804. In the mid 19th century, it was restored to its former glory. And though it’s not yet clear how many of its treasures were destroyed in the fire, it will doubtless find new life once the smoke clears.