This post is about the fire at Notre Dame. I know, oceans of ink terabytes of pixels have been used to talk about the extent of this tragic event and what it means to people on a personal and global level. Obviously, this post is just one more in the nearly numberless pieces already published. And I also know, this is now a few days late, but I wanted to have some time to process what the burning of the cathedral meant for me before writing down my thoughts. To have written on Tuesday would have been inadequate – my feelings were too raw. When I saw the initial reports, I was literally sick to my stomach. And that was after the first ten minutes when I didn’t believe what I was seeing and reading.
Now that I have had some time to think and reflect on that day, here are some of my thoughts.
Seeing the images of the fire (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the videos), I was gutted. I love Paris and I love that building. Paris to me is sacred ground. It is where I feel I belong. The year I did my major research for the doctorate, I was not in a good place. The research was going slowly and I was concerned that I would not finish the thesis. Something I had worked towards my entire seemed to be falling from my grasp and there was very little I could do at the time to stop it. From January to April of 2006, I did most of my research in the Bibiliotheque Nationale de France, with other research being done at the Bibliotheque Mazarine in the Institute de France.
I had been to Paris a couple of time previous to this particular trip to help get some preliminary research done. From the moment I entered the city, I fell in love with it. I can still remember the first site coming out of the number 4 metro line at the Pyramids stop – the Paris Opera House. The sight of the golden roof against the Parisian summer blue sky has remained with me all these years. So when I returned to Paris, I was excited and yet apprehensive, not knowing what would come of my research trip. Almost immediately, I was able to find the sources I needed and within the four months, I was able to gather enough material to finish my thesis and get portions of it published over the next few years.
From 9.00 to around 3.00, I would work in the BNF and then at the end of the day I would walk the 5 or so kilometers from the BNF along the Seine to the Île de la Cité. I would walk by the book stalls and often take a detour at St Julien le Pauvre to sit in the small garden of the Hôtel de Cluny, even though it was winter to clear my head after a long day of reading 17th century sermons. But no matter what, every day I would walk by Notre Dame which in the depths of winter, was largely empty because of the lack of tourists. I took advantage by walking slowly along the aisles and the transept. I lingered at the Rose Windows. In short, I breathed in the cathedral and it (I know this is getting way too maudlin) is woven into my own sense of being. There were many evenings when I would sit in front of it for an hour or so, just looking and contemplating the universe, or more than likely, letting my imagination run away from me.
Everybody needs to have a place that is sacred to them; it can be a cabin the woods, a resort in Mexico, Branson, Mo, anywhere that is more than just a nice place to visit. Paris is that for me in no small part because of Notre Dame. One of the few places more important than Notre Dame to me is the Basilica of Saint Denis. But that is a different post for a different time.
So to watch it burn was watching a piece of me perish in those flames and that is why I wanted to wait a few days before endeavoring to put my thoughts down. Though the structure of the cathedral was saved, along with many of its treasures there is no question that the damaged is catastrophic. Hundreds of reports have already mentioned the loss of the medieval “forest” of oaken beams holding up the roof. Irreplaceable. The spire went up like a roman candle, altering the Paris skyline. But and this is an important but. But the cathedral survived. It is still standing and can be restored and repaired.
When I taught medieval history, I would do a lecture on the gothic cathedrals.
I would begin by telling my students that cathedrals were largely medievalist representations of what we thought the Middles Ages looked like. The fact is, that façade that I looked at every evening, was no older than the 19th century. Yes, some of the glass is medieval and those wooden beams were certainly 800 years old, but the roof and spire that were destroyed were no more than 150 years old. That is not to say, the historical value is less, but it is reminder that Notre Dame has gone through 850 years of change. And indeed, the current structure replaced the earlier basilica that stood on the same site for several hundred years and yet no one is lamenting the loss of the even older and historic church which was razed to make way for the new cathedral.
The cathedral never stopped being built. Even the famous gargoyles are 19th – 20th century. In the 1990s there was controversy over some of the newer gargoyles because they looked suspiciously like the Disney characters from their animated version of Hunchback of Notre Dame. If they were destroyed, then perhaps the fire did do some good.
In part, this is because there have been many indignities visited on the cathedral throughout its history. The 16th century Wars of Religion saw major damage to Notre Dame done by Huguenots who believed that the imagery of Catholicism was idolatry. The French Revolution was brutal for the cathedral. The dictator, Robespierre converted the church into the Temple of Reason. At the height of the Terror, Parisians destroyed the statues which they thought represented the French monarchy (they in fact were representations of Old Testament kings. This is what happens when you don’t learn history, you make stupid mistakes). Some of those original statues with their damaged are on display in the musée national du Moyen Âge. In fact, if you look carefully at these originals, you will notice that they had been painted. The medieval cathedral would have been am explosion of colour. Green fig leaves, blue robes, reds, yellows, gold, silvers; the entire building would have dazzled the senses. And yet, none of that colour has been kept.
Even prior to the French Revolution and its destruction of all symbols connected to the Church and Monarchy, the French Enlightenment regarded Notre Dame as a symbol of a backwards and benighted age of superstitious barbarity. The term Gothic as it was applied to the medieval architecture, as meant as a pejorative with the word’s connection to the Germanic hordes that were thought to have swarmed throughout Europe, sweeping away the culture and rational world of the Romans. Thus, even before Notre Dame’s deliberate desecration, it was the victim of total neglect.
The indignities didn’t stop with the Revolution. Napoleon had the famous Christ Enthroned tympanum cut out to make room for his coronation procession. And for the 19th century, the cathedral was in such a bad state that the French government had voted to tear the whole thing down. It was preserved because by the mid-century people started realizing that these ancient buildings were part of France heritage and should be preserved. Victor Hugo lent his fame to preserving Notre Dame by writing his novel Notre Dame de Paris, which popularly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The French architects, Lassus and Viollet le Duc crafted a plan to restore the building to its medieval glory. And for the most part he succeeded, though not without controversy since many of the restorations were built on, at times, shakey ideas of the medieval character of the original building.(*)
And then there is the slow deterioration throughout the 20th century caused by increasing pollution which left Notre Dame’s limestone covered in black which wasn’t removed and cleaned until the early 21st century. When I first visited Paris in 2004, the scaffolding was still there. For 850 years Notre Dame has been under a constant state of building, tearing down, restoring, and reinvention. The irony of the fire is of course, that it was caused by work to restore the spire.
Knowing this, it bothered me to read articles that tried to ascribe the fire, which was an accident caused by an electrical short-circuit (https://globalnews.ca/news/5181623/notre-dame-fire-electrical-short-circuit/), a cosmic significance. No, this does not represent the destruction of Western Civilization, nor is it a perfect metaphor for our distressed times. It was just one more accident of circumstance that Notre Dame has experienced. Just about every cathedral has burned to the ground at one point or another or are on the verge of collapse. We are only one earthquake away from having the Hagia Sophia crumble into a heap of stone.
This is not to undermine the scale of loss caused by the fire, but to hopefully put things into perspective. The cathedral will be rebuilt. The emphasis will most likely to replicate its medieval character, but at the same time it would be a fitting monument to incorporate 21st century aesthetics into the rebuilding as a way of reminding us that these cathedrals are living representations not just of the distant past, but of the values, the ideals, and cultural contexts of the people who lived and died in the shadows of these buildings before they become monuments to the past.
(*) A great starting point for anyone interested in the history of the modern renovations of Notre Dame is Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. University of Chicago Press, 2009
Dr. Jason Sager holds a PhD in French History and is currently working on his B. Ed. He is looking forward to again visiting Notre Dame.