Insights into the Battle for Holy Purity from Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Hellfire: Judge Frollo before his fireplace
Hellfire: Judge Frollo before his fireplace

Purity, Chastity, Virginity, all of these terms surround topics of wide discussion among our youth and adults. In case you didn’t know, I LOVE watching Disney musicals, in fact, I love almost any musical, with several of them holding the title of “favorite. Ask any of the men I go to seminary with, or the men and women I work with at camp and they will tell you of my love of musicals. I sing lines from them to entertain kids, one of my favorites when leaving a table is Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita. Or when leading a group in the blind caterpillar: “Come along and follow us” from POTH’s Love Never Dies.

Music, to me speaks to the soul and helps us teach us lessons of life, as well as increasing our love  of Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas once  said:”Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.” Isn’t that lovely? I love music!

I have always said that Disney musicals are not really for children, they are for adults and here’s the reason why:

1. Disney films tend to contain largely adult inuendos and things, which a child should never be shown. Why do we think that most children are first exposed to pornography at age 10? (yes, because it’s easily accessible) Because we flood their brains with advertisements and subliminal messages in the movies that they watch. Granted, we don’t show our kids “porn” in their kids movies, but the movies do talk about heavily adult themes. (Whether or not adults should be shown them is another story altogether.)

2. Disney musicals tend to have some of the BEST musical scores and combined with their words and the animations associated with them, you can go very deep in discussing what they could mean.

Today, I want to discuss one of my favorite Disney Musicals of all time: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, released in 1996. This film could be the subject of a book, as there are so many symbols and hidden meanings which appear in it, both visually and audibly.

One of the common themes which appears in many movies’ musical scores, is the ancient chant: Dies Irae, or Day of wrath.  It usually occurs in movies right before something or someone dies. It appears in movies such as: Star Wars IV, It’s a Wonderful Life, Lion King, The Lord of the Rings, The Exorcist,  and more. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll always spot it in other movies. And when you hear it, it’s like a present on Christmas Morning! For more history on it, as well as what other films it appears in, click here.

In the first part of the Hunchback when Quasimodo’s mother is being chased down the streets of Paris by Judge Claude Frollo (Who, in the book is actually the Archdeacon of the Basilica, not the judge.) we hear the haunting melody which plays along with the pace of the horse galloping down the street. The chant fits perfectly here as it exposes the film not only as a film which has meanings of life or death, but also the moment is one which is a play on words.

Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.

This play on the words of the Dies Irae, talking of the wrath and doom impending for Quasi’s Mother, (foretelling her death on the steps of Notre Dame) and also the “Sentence” descending from the “Judge” (Frollo) makes me laugh. Hey, I’m a latin and a music nut, so these type of things amuse me!

You can watch the afore mentioned scene here:

Back to the subject of the title of this post though, The Battle for Holy Purity, Let’s take a quick refresher on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us about purity:


2517 The heart is the seat of moral personality: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication. . . . “305 The struggle against carnal covetousness entails purifying the heart and practicing temperance:

2520 Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins. But the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires. With God’s grace he will prevail

2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

2531 Purity of heart will enable us to see God: it enables us even now to see things according to God.

So purity, is something that we all struggle with at one point or another in our lives. I say struggle, because we struggle with the temptation to remain pure. Being impure can mean a variety of things, it can mean: masturbation(self abuse), premarital sex, dressing immodestly, or a host of other things. Through our Baptism, we are washed clean of ALL sin in that moment, but because of our fallen nature, we have to struggle to resist the temptations of the flesh and desires which are disordered and point us away from God. In the end, after striving to live according to God’s law we will hopefully be with him in Paradise. But, by practicing purity and having a pure heart, here on Earth, we are able to see things here on earth, more so as God sees them. (i.e. the good in others, wanting to will the good of others, desire to see others succeed, loving purely, etc.)

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Judge Frollo has a famous scene, one of which many say is the BEST evil antagonist scene in all of Disney’s movies. The scene is know as Hellfire. By far, it is the BEST scene (musically speaking) in the entire movie! Maybe even in all Disney movies…

Here’s a link to watch it, please go ahead and watch it (it will open up in a new window) and then come back here so we can talk about it.

Okay, so what did you notice about it? Here’s some main point wrap ups, that we will dissect:

1. The Archdeacon, followed by Friars, chanting and swinging a thurible (the gold dish with incense coming out) singing in Latin. (Yes it’s Latin, not Spanish!)

2. The hymn, which they are chanting is the Confiteor (We will get into why this is so important.)

3. Frollo starts to sing in Latin as well, before switching to English (even though he is in France…hmmm…haha)

4.The phrase Frollo sings first is Beata Maria Blessed Mother

5.The imagery, ie. Starts in Basilica, Frollo looks out window toward Basilica then to the fire, image of Esmerelda dirtily dancing in fire, inquisition like shapes of monks judging him, Kicks the soldier reporting out, Falls down in the shape of a Cross on the ground of an empty room at the end.

Okay, so you saw at the beginning the Archdeacon and the Friars walking around and singing for Vespers. (Judging by the sun going down, I would presume that it would be Compline though, which is why they were chanting the Confiteor. (It is chanted during the public recitation of Compline or Night Prayer.)

What is the Confiteor? If you’re Catholic you pray it at every Sunday Mass, it is the public acknowledgment of our sin. After reciting it, the priest absolves us of our Venial sins. (May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our…) We pray it following the Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass, and before the  Lord have Mercy and Gloria (if there is one.)

I have provided the entire text of the video piece below. My comments throughout it are in red.

Confiteor Deo Omnipotenti (I confess to God almighty)
Beatae Mariae semper Virgini (To blessed Mary ever Virgin)
Beato Michaeli archangelo (To the blessed archangel Michael)
Sanctis apostolis omnibus sanctis (To the holy apostles, to all the saints)

Here, the Archdeacon and the Friars start to acknowledge their own sins, as they close their day by praying Compline.

Beata Maria (Blessed Mary)

Frollo, here acknowledges Mary as he looks out the window towards  Notre Dame (translated as: Our Lady) Throughout the movie, Notre Dame is a symbol of innocence, and purity of both mind and heart for all in the film. Whenever themes of purity, innocence, or right judgement come up in the movie, Notre Dame appears somehow. The scene of Frollo, closing his night, acknowledges the church, his faith, and Momma Mary is touching, it shows that underneath everything evil about him, he still has some ray of good. 

You know I am a righteous man
Of my virtue I am justly proud

Here, he starts to show his pridefulness, and his thinking that sin is above him.

Et tibit Pater (And to you, Father) (Sung by Archdeacon) Shows that God is still to whom this prayer is directed, but for now, Frollo is asking the Blessed Mother for help.

Beata Maria
You know I’m so much purer than
The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd

Here, his pride gets out of hand and it is where I believe he falls and begins to sin. I am reminded of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in the temple, how one begged for forgiveness and the other judged him.

Quia peccavi nimis (That I have sinned) I said, I thought this was where he began to sin, no?

Then tell me, Maria
Why I see her dancing there
Why her smold’ring eyes still scorch my soul

Here Frollo is imagining impure thought of Esmerelda and is trying somewhat to see why he is having these thoughts, what lies beneath?

Cogitatione (In thought) Again, acknowledging that he is having impure thoughts.

I feel her, I see her
The sun caught in raven hair
Is blazing in me out of all control

Here, he is really getting into his impure thoughts and is letting them become his reality. (He is lustfully thinking about Esmerelda)

Verbo et opere (In word and deed) He has sinned here.

Like fire
This fire in my skin
This burning
Is turning me to sin

Here, he is acknowledging that he is sinning and recognizes it as such.
It’s not my fault And then, he forgets all of that, and tries to blame it on someone else.

Mea culpa (Through my fault) The Archdeacon and Friars echo that it is through MY fault. (Excellant play on Frollo’s words, almost judgmental you could say.)

I’m not to blame

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

It is the gypsy girl
The witch who sent this flame Here, Frollo has blamed his impurity on Esmerelda. (Who, could have some responsibility with it, as she does dress somewhat immodestly, with low cut blouse, etc.)

Mea maxima culpa (Through my most griveous fault)

It’s not my fault

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

If in God’s plan Here, he turns to blaming his sin on God.

Mea culpa (Through my fault)

He made the devil so much
Stronger than a man Confirmed.

Mea maxima culpa (Through my most griveous fault)

Protect me, Maria Starts to ask Mary to help him, protect him from his impure thoughts.
Don’t let this siren cast her spell
Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone
Destroy Esmeralda And forgets it all, blaming Esmeralda for all of his sin, instead of accepting it himself.
And let her taste the fires of hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone
Dark fire
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or Back to sinning, he starts to give ultimatums to Esmeralda to choose to be with him in sin, or he will burn her for not doing so.
Your pyre
Be mine or you will burn

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

God have mercy on her Still a little judging from Frollo

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

God have mercy on me Ironic, no? but still, he is asking for forgiveness.

Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

But she will be mineAnd he finishes by wanting to stay in his sin.
Or she will burn!


Now, I have to say that whoever did the research for Disney and compiled the Confiteor in the way that they did was genius. Everything flows and it retains most of the structure of the original prayer. Well done!

The Imagery which is involved in Hellfire has much to do with Frollo struggling with purity as well. Throughout the movie, the Basilica of Notre Dame stands as as symbol of purity and innocence, Frollo stands looking out the window toward the Basilica at the beginning of the Confiteor, he starts his night pure, and seeking to follow the will of God. Then he goes down hill. Pride, the root of most sin, leads him to more sin and he shuts himself away in his room, with only his temptations to keep him company. As the Confiteor progresses Frollo begins to feel the weight of his sin. (shown by the Inquisition styled Monks) Frollo then, when he is interupted in his sin, he kicks the soldier who disturbs him out. At the end of Hellfire, Frollo falls down in the shape of a Cross on the ground of an empty room, alone.

This post is inspired by talking with many of the young men at camp this Summer and from teaching the kids about the difference in what the culture teaches us and what Christ asks us to do.

As we travel through our lives on our journey to Heaven we strive for many things. One of the things which seems to be afflicting our youth, and more and more people in the world is the struggle for purity. Whether it means, staying pure as in not masturbating, having premarital sex, etc. I’m reminded of questions from campers this summer, who asked: “How far is to far when making out?” “If you’re not having sex, but just masturbating, by yourself why is it wrong? You’re not harming anyone.” and other questions like it.

Some talk of having a “God-Hole” in our hearts, while I don’t agree with this statement, per se, I do agree that we are searching for things that only God can fill. Things, which give us much joy, peace, love, security, etc. These are things which the world can offer us for a time, but in the end only God can fill those things we desire permanently. St. Augustine talks of desiring eternal vs. temporal goods. He goes so far as to even say that children, family, etc. are temporal goods and keep us from following after and striving for things eternal.

We were made for Heaven. We were made for union with the Trinity in Heaven. Our life is filled with striving for eternal goods. Death is but a passing moment, Heaven is eternal. Each of us is dying. Where we go, we choose ourselves. Live a holy and virtuous life or a sinful life, that choice is up to us. We were made for God, we were made for greater things.

In battling for Holy Purity there are many steps that we can take to stay pure, to stay holy for Christ. Engaging in the battle for purity is a way of striving for eternal things. This post has gone on long enough, but I will be publishing a follow-up soon of how we can learn from Judge Frollo’s mistakes. I’d like to close with a line from the beginning of the movie, which I feel explains Judge Frollo’s thoughts, but encourage us to look inside ourselves and see what sins we have attachment to, and start finding ways to battle those sins and fight for Christ!

“Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin,
And he saw corruption everywhere… except within.”

Look inside yourself, pray about what you can start doing to fight sin in your life. See you next time, and keep the faith!

Published by Father Corey D. Bruns

I'm a Priest of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY and Parochial Vicar of Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Bowling Green, KY.

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