When I first saw the news about the fire destroying the spire of Notre Dame de Paris I was sickened, appalled, and ultimately grief-stricken. My post on Facebook said it all – “Notre Dame. Oh no, oh no, how tragic”.
Although I was raised in a Christian (Protestant) household, I have been for many years an atheist, so my response might seem a little odd, so let me explain.
I had always been interested in history when I was at high school, but the history teacher inflicted upon my class in my final year did his level best to beat that out of me. Even so, when I enrolled for my first year at Uni, I decided to take one unit of history, in an area we hardly learned anything about in school – Medieval Europe. That is, the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the Renaissance. The lecturer was one of those rare academics who could make the subject come alive. It wasn’t just a string of dates and dynasties, she talked about the people and their lives in those very different times. The world was divided into nobles, artisans, and peasants. Jobs and skills were handed on from father to son, mother to daughter. The only tall structures were castles – and they weren’t very tall, either, once you’d walked up the hill on which they were built. Everybody believed in God and the Devil, and the Catholic church, having survived some turbulent times, was wealthy and powerful. It was in this context that the great Gothic cathedrals were built.
I was entranced. Our lecturer showed as slides of the great cathedrals, the soaring vaults, the wonderful flying buttresses to keeps those walls upright, the wonderful gargoyles spilling rainwater from the roof to the ground, the statues of saints and nobles carved into the stone above the entrances, the magnificent carvings around the pulpit, the choir, the organ. And the statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Apostles, all decorated with gold leaf and bright paint. Just being inside these places with their towering arches three and four storeys tall is a humbling experience, even to a non-believer like me.
Notre Dame is much more than ‘just’ a Catholic cathedral, it’s a monument to the ingenuity of mankind.
It was built by humans equipped with nothing but hand tools, building on the foundations of structures that had stood there before, combining two earlier basilicas into one. Think about it. The two bell towers are sixty-eight metres tall, and the roof is thirty-five metres high. The work was carried out without cranes or hydraulic lifts, each stone and oak beam put into place by hand. And it’s not just a matter of placing blocks of stone on top of each other. Figures are carved into doorways and windows – saints and kings and characters from the scriptures. The incredible rose windows were put in place high above the ground, each piece lovingly created before it was fitted into the whole. Women wove tapestries. Artists painted murals and paintings. Generations of craftsmen worked on this project. Some of their skills we’ve never been able to reproduce – at least not the way they did things then.
I’ve been to Notre Dame many decades ago when cameras had film. I’m sure the pictures are somewhere, but it’s easy enough to find photos of this French icon, as I’ve shown on the post. However, I recall the wonderful rose windows which still (and thankfully even now) have their 13th century glass. We’ve lost the art, you see. Crafts were handed down from father to son. Nothing was written down. And when many of the lower windows of the cathedral were damaged during the French Revolution and the 20th century wars, they were replaced with modern glass. Compared to the original glass, the new glass lacks… something. An inner glow, a lustre.
Now, a few days after the fire, we know the organ has survived relatively intact, as have the irreplaceable rose windows. The main structure has survived and many of the statues and holy relics were removed to keep them safe while the main spire was renovated. So there’s much that has been saved.
I have no doubt that Notre Dame will rise again. After world war II many buildings in Europe were resurrected, including cathedrals. That was because the people thought they were worth the effort. The ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden – not much more than one wall and a pile of rubble – were carefully guarded by the citizens of Dresden until after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when they could finally rebuild.
There are those who point fingers at wealthy firms and billionaires who pledged hundreds of millions to a restoration fund within days of the fire, asking why the money didn’t go to feeding the hungry and other worthy causes. This IS a worthy cause. The cathedral is part of the soul of Paris. And remember, those donations will pay artisans, purchase raw materials, put factories to work. Those donations will make their way through the city, the country, all of Europe – and bring a community closer together. And that has to be good.
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