The world watched aghast April 15 as flames raged through the roof of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, momentarily halting arguments about religion, politics, or entertainment to witness a very particular devastation.
Despite the knowledge early on that there were no casualties, since the church had already closed for the day when the fire started, a deep sense of fear and loss resonated across nations, cultures, and faiths, especially upon seeing the 300-foot spire come crashing to the ground.
What caused this universal distress?
While Christians breathed a sigh of relief when Christ’s crown of thorns was rescued, it is doubtful that the world feared the potential loss of the statues, paintings and monuments in the church, given that most wouldn’t remember the 14th-century Notre Dame de Paris statue, Nicholas Coustou’s Pietà, the carved and painted choir enclosure or the world famous organ.
Even the historical events of the site, Henry IV of Navarre’s famed conversion, Napoleon’s coronation, and Joan of Arc’s retrial, vindication and ultimate canonization highlight France’s problematic history with the faith, rather than triumphs of spiritual glory.
As a church dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, it can’t be called unique, as most of the great Gothic cathedrals are also dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, including her older, bigger and stunning sister in Chartres, and Rome’s St. Mary Major claims greater venerability as the first church to Mary in the West.
The world watched an empty building ravaged by fire and held its breath with almost the same fear as it would for a human being. Perhaps because that building was the fruit of what many human beings, working together, from the grandest to the humblest, can achieve when attuned to the transcendent.
The first seedlings of Notre Dame of Paris were sown in 1163, a collaboration between King Louis VII of France and his boyhood friend Maurice de Sully, who became archbishop of Paris. The two had studied together at St. Denis under Abbot Suger, the pioneer of the Gothic style.
Along with the king and the archbishop, the third founding member was the master mason, in charge of the construction, perhaps a certain “Richard the Mason.” All three estates joined forces to produce this marvel of the faith of France.
The region of Ile de France provided the resources: millions of tons of stone quarried, and 51 acres of forest felled. Thirty-foot foundations were dug into the long-buried Roman temple to Jupiter, submerging France’s pagan past under the feet of the Virgin Mary.
Initially the building conformed to the Romanesque style, living its heyday in the 12th century. Thick, round columns of ashlar masonry conveyed the solidity and endurance championed by the Benedictines.
But the power of light, evidenced by Suger’s new choir at St Denis, soon enticed the builders of Notre Dame toward the innovative Gothic manner. Suger believed “Bright is the noble edifice that is pervaded by the new light,” his “new light” not only consisting of the large windows with stained glass, but also the light of Christ filtering into the sacred space.
Working on a grander scale, the stonemasons sought to open the entire apse to light, creating a shimmering, colorful vision of a luminous paradise in the West. To accomplish this, they needed to support the roof and 100-foot walls without cumbersome structures that would block the sun.
Thus, the flying buttress was born. The airy arcades cascading around the apse of the church, often compared in the case of Notre Dame, situated on an island, to oars propelling the barque of the Church.
At the same time, the interior columns were transformed to look like slender bundles of tree trunks rising to cover the wooden roof with vaults caressed by tendril-like branches. The towers of the eastern facade jutted high over the city, propelling the cathedral heavenward.
For a moment, one can imagine how Quasimodo, hero of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” felt, perched at its summit, that “the cathedral was not only company for him, it was the universe; nay, more, it was nature itself.”
The ingenuity of the builders spurred the creativity of the decorators. Twelve-hundred sculptures adorn the church: The reliefs on the facade narrate the apocryphal stories of the birth of the Virgin and the climax in the Book of Revelation, while the Kings of Judah watch over the entrance, and the celebrated gargoyles jealously guard the eaves.
The new feature of the spire adorned the church as early as 1250, but the most splendid of the decorations, harmoniously blending with the structure, were the rose windows.
Notre Dame’s first great rose window was completed just as France’s one and only sainted king, Louis IX, came to the throne. It spanned 32 feet, the largest of its day, and contained close to 35,000 pieces of colored glass — the fine tracery deceptively distributing the weight.
The windows would grow through the years, eventually reaching a diameter of 42 feet in the north window completed at the end of the 13th century.
When inaugurated in 1345, Notre Dame stood as a tribute to the Christian faith, passed on from generation to generation, demonstrated by the thousands of people who had dedicated their lives to the project, knowing they would never see it completed in their lifetimes.
Rooted to the ground yet straining toward heaven, it gave hope to a brutal world of crusades and conflicts, of disease and disasters, that there was a greater destiny for all.
All things made by human beings, however, are subject to their same mortality, and Notre-Dame has not escaped the centuries unscathed. The Protestant Reformation brought desecration, and the era of King Louis XIV saw the precious stained glass replaced with clear panes to reflect the radiance of the “Sun King.”
Revolutionaries gutted it, but kept it as a temple to their “goddess of Reason,” soon overthrown when Napoleon stage-managed the church for his coronation.
A long age of neglect set in when rot and weakness threatened to allow the cathedral to collapse in lonely desolation. This was the moment when Hugo observed “the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”
Outcry to salvage the building, perhaps not as a sacred space, but as a cultural monument, rescued Notre Dame when Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was chosen to rebuild it. His love of the Gothic era shone through all of his additions, although not necessarily authentic, a nostalgic homage from the dawn of the industrial age.
Today, Notre Dame stands at another historical crossroads as plans to rebuild the fallen roof and lost spire begin to take shape. In many ways the beauty of the cathedral is its inextricable link with the long and difficult relationship that France, eldest daughter of the Church, has had with the Christian faith.
Notre Dame has withstood damage, neglect, vandalism and now, devastation by fire, much as its Christian population has been through every trial of faith imaginable. But like the delicate tracery of the rose window, the web of faith is still there, and there are still bright shards of believers in it.
The Parisians singing to Mary on their knees while a human chain retrieved the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament seemed like an echo of the glorious day of consecration in 1345, when all the Parisians sang and prayed and streamed into their new church filled with love and pride.
Some will want to transform the church with a Babel-like addition to reinstate the goddess of Reason or Modernity of whatever the present deity may be. Some will want to preserve a fictional vision of the past, a more medieval throwback than even Viollet-le-Duc.
But the building started in one style and morphed into another, then received gracefully her 19th-century additions. Notre Dame Cathedral remembers her past, bears the marks of suffering, yet is ready to face the future. Let us hope that the new builders will approach this task respecting the beauty “ever ancient, ever new” that she so magnificently represents.
Elizabeth Lev is an American-born art historian who lives and works in Rome.
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