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Notre-Dame de Paris, 16 April 2019

April 16, 2019 3 comments

I’ve woken early with Notre-Dame de Paris on my mind. And am relieved to see, as was already looking likely last night, that this probably isn’t the complete destruction of a cathedral that was being reported as I went to bed.

Let’s deal with that first. A Gothic great church is vaulted: that’s a sheath of curved stone that covers the interior, looks amazing, and (among other things) protects the interior from the enormous timber roof that rises above it and shields it from the elements. These timber roofs are among the unsung miracles of cathedrals by the way; enormous spaces in their own right, rarely glimpsed. As a result of the presence of the stone vaults, many times in history sparks have caught in the dry, timber attic space among them, and a spectacular conflagration has taken place — while leaving the architecture and fittings of the church below mostly intact: that seems to be what is happening here. The loss of the roofs alone is a tragedy, but it is by no means the same as the loss of a cathedral. Well done, twelfth-century master masons.

The danger starts if vaults become unstable and burning timber falls through them into the church below. As a result, timber fixtures and fittings on the floor of the church are the next thing to worry about, followed by other things sensitive to heat such as stained glass windows. The stone fabric of the building itself is the last thing to go (which is why so many survive). I can show you this story playing out again and again, from York minster in the 1980s to Norwich cathedral, which suffered a major such fire in the medieval period (indeed before its vaults were built) — its eleventh-century stones are visibly redenned by the flames to this day. Having said all that, my biggest worries regarding Notre-Dame at the moment are for things that are both fragile, and precious, and high up: the organ, and (above all) the incredible medieval stained glass that fills the rose windows in the transept, and will be sensitive to heat.

Meanwhile, why does this building matter? First and foremost, it embodies a quality that many such structures, from St Paul’s cathedral to your local parish church, have acquired over time. It embodies the identity, the history, the roots of the city in which it stands. Not for everyone maybe, but – as the silent crowds gazing from the Seine make obvious – for many, and regardless of spiritual affiliation. Of course it is an iconic structure, a symbol of the city; but it is also by some distance the oldest large landmark in that city, marking a site that has been one of the tap-roots of its history even before the current church was built. People don’t know this, yet somehow they feel it. The statement could be made of thousands of churches across Europe, but this one dominates the heart of one of its greatest metropoli.

Of course, there is a spiritual dimension, too. The name says it all: for many, certainly when it was built and to an extent still today, ‘Our Lady of Paris’ is a religious protector for the metropolis itself. It contains precious relics, including the ‘Crown of Thorns’ won for Paris in the early thirteenth century: guff you may say, but historically and culturally (and for some even today, spiritually) of the greatest significance.

Which brings me on to the art-historical aspects. This church is the largest structure to survive from the very first flush of a remarkable moment of 12th-century experiment, significant in the architecture of the world: the invention of Gothic. A handful of buildings are testament to this period, and most are within close reach of Paris. It’s not aesthetically the greatest moment from this series, but its undoubtedly a work of great power and was always both the biggest and the best-known among them. It predates the crystalisation of the new architecture into a ‘style’, a story that starts at Chartres and finishes at Reims. It seems reasonably likely that this will survive, or be restorable. But that is just the start of its story: for the church was hugely enlarged in the 13th century, when Paris was the undisputed centre of learning and culture in western Europe. The transepts, crystalline elegant mature Gothic, with their sculpture and stained glass, are the most obvious testament to that. The architecture and the external sculpture should be fine; the stained glass is at greater risk.

Notre-Dame, like so many European great churches, had a hard time in the passage from the medieval to the modern world: a focus for destruction and attack in the Revolution, for example; as well as for great national events such as the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor. It was in a bad way by the mid-19th century and a lot of what one sees today, especially outside the building and high up, is the work of Viollet-le-Duc, an architect of that period. So that’s the final reason to hope: the fleche, for example, the thin and beautiful timber-and-lead spirelet that has been utterly destroyed: its loss is a tragedy, but it’s also one of the youngest and most replaceable parts of the cathedral. So there’s still hope.

But Notre-Dame remains an embodiment of something, and current reactions to the conflagration help to illustrate how these buildings remain relevant. There is a social-media fed rumour mill abroad in France that Muslims are deliberately setting fire to churches. In spite of the early statement, by the Parisian fire department I believe, that the fire probably began as a result of current restoration work, this possibility is already spreading like wildfire. Once again, Notre-dame becomes a lightning conductor for history. So close to Easter, and with Europe in greater turmoil than at any time since the Second World War, this is a kind of spiritual/heritage Grenfell, a fire that will be read for all kinds of metaphors. Peace be upon us.

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