Notre Dame: why are the Hunchback, the Devil's Gate and the Gargoyles famous?


If before the fire on Monday April 15th, the cathedral of Paris was not the most famous religious building in the world, now it is. Notre Dame was at the mercy of the fire for more than six hours and its central needle collapsed, but its main structure and its famous facade with the two imposing towers were saved from destruction. Even its rich and universal history has survived.

Here we examine three of the most famous cultural and historical aspects in the world on Notre Dame de Paris: the Hunchback, the Devil's Gate and the gargoyles.

The hunchback that existed

The worldwide introduction of this character dates back to 1831, when the historical novel Our Lady of Paris, written by Víctor Hugo, was published.

This work tells the story of Esmeralda, a gypsy dancer of great beauty; of Quasimodo, a deformed young deaf man with a pronounced hump that sounded the bells at Notre Dame; and of the cathedral deacon Claude Frollo, adoptive father of the bell.

The story is sad. Esmeralda arouses the admiration of those who look at her for her physical grace and her folk dances. Even the religious of Frollo succumbed to his beauty and sent Quasimodo to kidnap him. The pretext he will obviously give is that the kidnapping is "saving him" from other gypsies, seen almost as pariahs.

Frollo's plan is hindered by the authorities, when a captain stops Quasimodo and is sentenced to physical injury or public death. The hunchback receives a beating in a square. The Parisian people download all sorts of insults and contempt for his crime and ugliness on him.

Manuscript of Our Lady of Paris, by Victor Hugo (1831).
Manuscript of Our Lady of Paris, by Victor Hugo (1831).

The young man's torture is stopped by Esmeralda herself, who takes pity on him and brings water to the gallows. Quasimodo is surprised because he is not used to good treatment. The two characters intertwine in their ways and both become victims of a society full of desperation, suffering and injustice for the disinherited, while the powerful leave with theirs.

This is the plot of the novel, but more than 100 years after its publication, a document of the archive of the Tate Art Gallery revealed that the hunchback existed.

National Geographic wrote an article about it. The hunchback appears in the memoirs of Henry Sibson (1795-1870), a British sculptor hired to repair the cathedral in the years described by Victor Hugo.

In Sibson's story there are references to a lone hunchback sculptor who would have been hired by the government and who did not like mixing with his companions.

It is very likely that this hunchback was Hugo's inspiration, but in Sibson's memoirs there is no mention of Esmeralda or another gypsy.

Representation of Quasimodo in the Disney musical comedy.
Representation of Quasimodo in the Disney musical comedy.

Buildings like Notre Dame, which see thousands of citizens born and died in eight centuries, are propitious scenarios for the creation and propagation of myths and supernatural stories. Not only in texts but in oral tradition.

A Parisian legend tells that in the 13th century the elaboration of arabesque decorations on the side door of Santa Ana, in the cathedral, was entrusted to a young blacksmith named Biscornet.

The worker was industrious and ambitious, but the mission surpassed him, so to complete his mission, Biscornet would invoke the devil to help him complete his task. The price was high: the devil would help him in exchange for his soul.

According to what is still said in the 21st century, the devil would have answered the young man these words: "I am the devil. If you want to be in agreement with me, you will be the sharpest blacksmith and you will be able to finish the greatest number of works that you propose ".

This is what Biscornet did. He managed to decorate the door of Santa Ana of the temple of God with an impressive finesse, but on the day of his inauguration, the door did not open.

The door of Santa Ana, with the arabesques of iron on the wood that Biscornet would have made.
The door of Santa Ana, with the arabesques of iron on the wood that Biscornet would have made.

The religious had to pour abundant holy water on the door so that it would yield, and a few days later Biscornet was found dead on a street near Paris.

Thus, the Puerta de Santa Ana is popularly known as the Puerta del Diablo.

It should be noted that neither those nor the other two doors had the decorations they have today. The frames were much simpler in the beginning. The arabesques like those of Biscornet were the only decoration for centuries. When the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc led the 19th century renovations, detailed ornaments were also made for each entrance, now visited by over 13 million people every year.

eye: About Biscornet there is not much information, but its name, formed by "bis", which means "two" and "cornet", which derives from "corna", refers to "two horns", like the known figures of the devil. It is possible that this young man never existed, but his legend goes back many centuries.

Detail of the arabesques.
Detail of the arabesques.

The famous gargoyles of the cathedral are nothing but tubes. Indeed, this is one of the definitions of the word "Gargoyle" throwing the RAE dictionary:

"Fine of the pipe, usually adorned with fantastic figures, which protrudes from the wall in the form of a shelf and gives water to the roofs, to the terraces or to the fountains".

At Notre Dame, the gargoyles are clever tubes that conduct vacuum-packed rainwater so that it does not flow over stone walls, which could degrade.

These stylized reeds in the form of grotesque mythological creatures were installed on top of the cathedral from 1844, when the restoration program led by architects Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and Jean Baptiste-Antoine Lassus began.

One of the Gargoyles of Notre Dame, before the fire of 2019.
One of the Gargoyles of Notre Dame, before the fire of 2019.

In the cathedral there are 54 figures of these, presumably inspired by the aforementioned novel by Victor Hugo Madonna of Paris, whose character Quasimodo mostly frequented the higher veins of Notre Dame, for his work as a bell ringer.

Indeed, it is believed that the entire maintenance program of the mid-nineteenth century was inspired by Hugo's work in 1831.

In the prologue of the same, Hugo complained about the treatment that centuries-old medieval monuments and churches in Paris received.

The author called "unacceptable" the state in which Notre Dame was found for 1831, and after the success of his novel and a movement of public opinion, the authorities competed for several architects to submit proposals to remodel the 39; building. The aforementioned Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus have won, and Víctor Hugo has achieved his goal.

Notre Dame at the end of the 19th century.
Notre Dame at the end of the 19th century.


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