“But no matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such disasters.” — Becky Clark, Director of Cathedrals and Churches of the Church of England, April 17, 2019
The destruction of the sacred will engender moving reactions. But the scope and particularity of this response vary. The fire which affects Notre-Dame de Paris, located on the Ile de la Cité, has become a phenomenon of saturation twenty-four hours a day. Thirteen million annual visitors, a privileged geographical location in the center of Paris, and a vast repository of France in all religious, cultural and political domains, would have ensured this.
Attention to other sites of sacred value tends to be limited. Pledges of up to $113 million, pledged by François-Henri Pinault to help with the reconstruction project, are unlikely, for example, to pave the way for the most obscure sites in desecrated or damaged history. A parish in southern Louisiana, for example, is in desperate need of funds to rebuild three historically significant black churches burned down under “suspicious” circumstances. “There is clearly something going on in this community,” suggested State Fire Marshal H. Browning. The GoFundMe campaign fundraising goal is $1.8 million. To date, $1.5 million has been secured.
Our Lady will do this to all millionaires and billionaires: attract the attention of the well-heeled and a chance for celebrity posterity in the premier league of culture. (Even wineries such as Chateau Mouton Rothschild redirect money from auctions to the cause.) While the idea of buying a paradise location isn’t as popular as it once was, it does still some influence in the secular world through the idea of enduring reputation. Such gestures of financial promise also stoked the pot of misplaced empathy for the cultural artifacts of a former colonial power.
In short, people are not allowed to have their own ways of commemorating or mourning a damaged or lost icon: they must be reprimanded with appropriate acknowledgments and qualifications. A fine and slightly perverse example of this came in responses to a remark by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who was chastised for suggesting that Our Lady could be considered in the same breath as “the art and architecture”. Former Congressman Joe Walsh fumed. “It was a place of worship. A Catholic cathedral. It wouldn’t have been hard for you to recognize him.
Looking at such structures is also an exercise in mutual and mass deception. Gothic architecture hasn’t always shared the enchanting mystery that has made structures such as Notre-Dame de Paris the subject of slimy adoration. Fallen into a mysterious, almost barbaric past life, before the preferences for the Romanesque and classicism, such architecture was redeemed by the calls of Romanticism. Victor Hugo’s pen praised the Gothic form for its freedom, boldness, “encouraging license and dissidence from authority”, asserts John Sturrock in his introduction to the 1978 translation of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) , commonly referred to in English-speaking circles as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame de Paris. Hugo’s pen, in making the cathedral the protagonist, did the trick: interest in restoring the weathered and damaged structure was stimulated, halting the hitherto relentless drive to demolish Gothic Paris.
The fire that ripped through the cathedral has been variously described as catastrophic and disastrous, but the nature of these creations is their permanent vulnerability and susceptibility to change. One scene from Hugo’s masterpiece is worth recounting, depicting the flames as the hunchbacked ringer Quasimodo attacks the Truands in an effort to save Esmerelda. “All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They saw an extraordinary sight there. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with swirls of sparks, a vast, disorderly, furious flame, a tongue of which was carried away in the smoke by the wind from time to time.
The building is all (well above all, now) points, sharpness. It’s jagged, skyscraper consistency. But to suggest that its body and shell were pure in its medieval form is to fall into the trap of a common deception perpetuated from the 19th century. The gothic restoration mania of the time had the effect of transforming Notre-Dame into a modern mutilation.
Eugène Emmanuelle Viollet-le-Duc, aided by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, tended towards heavy restoration between 1845 and 1864 on the grounds that the original Gothic idea of the cathedral needed fuller realisation. They knew better. Being in some way in contact with these spirits, they set to work, warned by the archaeological curator Prosper Mérimée of the dangers of too much retouching. “A restoration can be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.” Hugo, in the same spirit, observes “the innumerable disfigurements and mutilations that men and time have subjected to this venerable monument”.
The now destroyed barbed spire of wood and lead (the spire) was itself an addition. Viollet-le-Duc also added a new chair; the original statues have been removed from their resting places for centuries; spectacular gargoyles became a feature; and the rose window on the south facade has received excessive attention. Parisian photographer Danie Aubry aptly observed that the Gothic-mad restorer “should have worked for Disney”. Ironically, Monday’s fire is “potentially linked” to the $6.8 million renovations that were already underway.
The visceral and rapid response of French President Emmanuel Macron was that of reconstruction. Cathedral spokesman André Finot said the structure had suffered “colossal damage”, with the framework obliterated. Not so, replied an optimistic Macron, taking on the inspiring guise of Viollet-le-Duc. The reconstruction project would be grandiose and rushed. Forget the decades; the president wants the structure to be completed in time for the reopening of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. “We are going to rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautiful, and I want it to be completed in five years.” To this end, an international design competition to reconstruct parts of the building has been announced.
The Gothic concept was itself a bold act on the part of Abbot Suger, who embraced lightness and light in his 1137 design for Saint-Denis. Platonism, Christianity and religious architecture were married. The reconstruction of Notre Dame might dare to be something different, but many expect a simulacrum of the original.