Notre Dame is a metaphor of sublime beauty, of course, but also of the ugliness of human bigotry
In the crypt of Notre Dame cathedral, there is a commemorative plaque honouring an archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was born into a Jewish family from Poland that emigrated to France. His mother Gisèle was deported from Orleans in 1943, to be murdered in Auschwitz.
Three years before this tragedy, her young son Aaron had felt drawn to the new testament, and had converted to Catholicism during holy week. After the war, his distraught father had sought the help of Paris’ chief Rabbi to have his son Aaron Jean-Marie’s baptism annulled, but failed.
This diaspora teenager, who would come to preside over mass at Notre Dame Cathedral for almost a decade, saw himself as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. He often said that he remained a Jew who had found fulfilment in Christ.
When the head of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described the cathedral as very much a European monument, I was reminded of that single Ashkenazi convert remembered in its crypt.
Notre Dame does indeed symbolise the continent’s culture and majority religion, but it also embodies historical enmity between Christianity and Judaism.
Notable on its façade are the figures of Jewish synagoga (represented as a defeated woman with a sinister snake for a blindfold) and her foil Ecclesia (symbol of the triumphant thrusting force of the Catholic church).
Though the marriage of the Jewish grandparents of Jesus is highlighted above Notre Dame’s entrance with a Torah scroll apparent in the depiction, highlighted too are contemporary figures of France’s local Jews, in the pointed hats they were forced to wear by royal decree (foreshadowing the yellow stars that Hitler imposed on this religious minority, and which archbishop Lustiger’s own parents were forced to wear during the occupation).