Notre-Dame in the arts: From gothic novels to Assassin’s Creed

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Notre Dame south facade

Notre-Dame is not just an architectural wonder and symbol of Paris and France, it has also inspired everything from operas, ballets and novels to films and video games.

As the French authorities begin planning the reconstruction of the gothic masterpiece from the ashes of Monday’s blaze, here is a review of some of the works of art it has inspired.

Literature

The hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame may have sent the spirits of medieval troubadours soaring, but it owes much of its literary fame to Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1831 gothic novel Notre-Dame de Paris – better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The fervently Catholic poet Paul Claudel – brother of the brilliant and tragic sculptor Camille – credited it with helping him see the light in his 1913 poem My Conversion.

It was Christmas Day 1886 and the choir was singing the Magnificat when “in an instant, my heart was touched and I believed… with such an uplifting of my entire being”, he wrote.

Even the Communist poet Louis Aragon paid homage to it in his novel Aurelien and his poem Paris 42, in which it becomes a symbol of resistance to the German Occupation.

The American literary guru Joseph Campbell – whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces George Lucas credits as a huge influence on his Star Wars saga – was obsessed with the cathedral.

Campbell was particularly taken with ancient ideas of the goddess being re-expressed in Christianity with the “second mother” – Notre-Dame (Our Lady in French).

Movies

Hugo’s novel alone has been filmed no less than 10 times, the first dating back to the birth of cinema in 1905 with La Esmeralda.

There have been at least five television adaptations, with the British actor Idris Elba about to direct a contemporary version for Netflix in which he will play the hunchback Quasimodo.

The two best-known films are The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Quinn in 1956, and Disney’s animated version 40 years later with the voice of Demi Moore.

Notre-Dame has been used as a backdrop in numerous movies including Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 Parisian crowd-pleaser Amelie.

Video games

The cathedral is the heart of the blockbusting Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014) set during the French Revolution of 1789, with its staggeringly realistic backdrops created by Ubisoft studios.

The game itself is the setting of the viral video Templar Assassin by the YouTube stars Norman and Squeezie, which has been viewed nearly 70 million times.

Art

While Notre Dame has always been a favourite for weekend water-colourists, its interior is the setting for one of Jacques-Louis David’s most spectacular canvasses, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807).

It shows the emperor taking the crown to place on his own head, the ultimate demonstration that he was a self-made man.

Marc Chagall was hugely inspired by the cathedral for his vision of Paris as was Maurice Utrillo, in his numerous studies of the building.

Eugene Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People depicting the barricades of the revolution of 1848 also features Notre-Dame’s two towers in the background.

ON STAGE

Notre-Dame has been the setting of numerous plays, operas and musicals as well as Jules Perrot’s ballet La Esmeralda, first staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1844.

Another 1965 ballet Notre Dame de Paris by Roland Petit had music by the Oscar-winning film composer Maurice Jarre, with costumes by Yves Saint Laurent.

The first opera based on Hugo’s book, La Esmeralda, was staged as early as 1836, only five years after the last volume of the book was published.

But the most successful stage show by far was Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante’s 1998 musical Notre-Dame de Paris, which has been staged in more than 20 countries since.

Source: AFP/hs, Artnet, YouTube