“All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, was a great flame ascending … with whirlwinds of sparks; a great flame, irregular and furious, a tongue of which, by the action of the wind, was at times borne into the smoke.” — Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831
I read the above words in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral in the early days of this young century. My husband and I sat sipping robust French espressos out of tiny cups through the long afternoons during our graduate studies in Paris; I was then writing my Master’s thesis on French architecture. Victor Hugo had prophesied and warned us that “this will kill that”—referring to the book versus historic architecture. He cautioned that, perhaps, the glorious “catechism in stone and glass” of Notre-Dame cathedral would be replaced by the catechism in text.
But as I sat in my office watching the live streaming news coverage of Notre Dame in flames, it wasn’t the book that killed “that”; it was fire. The world gasped and wept over an event as a collective, international community. We mourned the loss of something profoundly beautiful and a piece of our interior social memory, something we were losing that didn’t merely spark in us a fear of terrorists or a loss of human life; this was a worldwide moment that we haven’t shared in quite some time—a pure, passionate loss of one of our greatest human and historical treasures.
The word “passionate” makes me catch my breath; it is Passion Week, Holy Week, when this nearly thousand-year-old edifice raged ablaze, its flèche (the actual architectural term for what the media has called the “steeple” of Notre Dame) collapsing with smoke billowing. In the captured film footage, two or three birds flitted in front of the belching smoke as centuries of history, art, texts, and relics fed the greedy flames. Students and faculty stopped by my office in shock and horror, unable to look away from the live streaming footage running on my computer screen throughout the day.
Why did this hold us so captive in a time when we have become, far too often, collectively numb to disaster and destruction?
In 1731 Johann Sabastian Bach wrote a chorale cantata often translated as “Sleepers Awake.” As I was carried along in a wave of intense emotion during the hours that we watched Notre-Dame consumed by flame, our gaze following the seemingly tiny streams of water arching into the vast cavern of fire, my mind flitted about, landing like a butterfly on certain ideas.
One of the thoughts that rose in the tide of feelings was of Bach’s music and this phrase, “sleepers awake”. As crowds gathered in the streets around the Île de la Cité praying and singing, crowding onto ledges up from and paths down to the Seine, the world watched an icon go up in flames. A group of young French Catholics intoned the “Ave Maria” while kneeling in the streets with rosaries in their hands; in front of them was the cathedral of Our Lady glowing as it seemed to disintegrate as they sang. Each viewer undoubtedly felt that a little piece of this building lives inside of her or him; it speaks to us, who we are, who we wish to be. There is an experience of profound wakefulness that an event like this causes because it rouses us from our usual dreamy state of complacency.
The power of monuments
Of all the weeks for Notre Dame to go up in flames—it is the week that the Catholic faithful will fill churches to remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection, the week they will set aside earthly cares, the week they will die to self a little. What is the power of monuments? I asked my students this in 2015, in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal that decimated a multitude of Buddhist temples and took numerous lives. In this class on ancient art history the students expressed an outpouring of concern for those left behind in the rubble, unable to find solace in their former places of worship, deprived of the very structures that provided a center to their lives.
As I watched Notre Dame burn, I remembered these students and I meditated on the power of monuments. Twentieth-century American architect Louis I. Kahn may have been a complex man, but, as we analyze in my history of American architecture course, he left a legacy in the built environment that has infused meaning into countless lives. In the film My Architect, one tearful man expresses poignantly what Louis Kahn’s architecture did for his country, giving an entire nation a feeling of hope for democracy. Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka was a monument of profound inspiration in what kind of futures might be possible.
Notre Dame was such a monument on a grand, historic scale. And while the historic unity of that structure may be lost, it reminds us of the powerful transcendence of such structures and why we need them. They make us our better selves; they are the landmarks of our real and imagined memories.
In these waning hours of the day we are hearing reports that the damage may not be as dire as we feared. While many lament the loss of what we once had, we have instead a particularly Paschal message that glows hopefully in the embers: what we had considered lost, we may yet still have.
In a Christian reading there is much here regarding redemption and forgiveness, but in a worldly sense, I wish to dwell just a bit more on the idea of loss and the importance of “the real.” In an age of fleeting social media we ponder the centuries-old cathedral of Our Lady in Paris, with its subtle details, its slightly bending nave, its advance in ribbed vaulting, soaring interior heights, the twelfth century increased window sizes, all innovations of their time now marred, scarred, or entirely gone. What are we to make of this erasure of history?
It cannot simply be rebuilt, only replaced with a new twenty-first-century imagination of what only medieval builders knew how to do. Something can be built, certainly nineteenth-century restorations by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc did possibly as much disfiguration to Notre Dame as they were restorative, but yesterday we witnessed something distressing. An entire symbol melted before our eyes. “This will kill that.” A chapter closed in the story of Notre Dame; another chapter in our history remains to be written.
Wilfred R. Childe wrote of the Great Fire of London and the burning of St. Paul’s. The following is a poem, inspired by yesterday’s events and Childe’s poem, by Anthony E. Clark:
Our Lady of Paris
I would that I had seen with my two eyes
the steeples of the Gothic kingdom rise,
Ere the world grew too wealthy and too wise
to adore the Mother Maiden and her Child,
Ere greed and distraction, and misdirected attention,
and frozen zeal defiled,
and the great fire returned all to the wild,
when the cathedral crashed down into flames
with all her multitude of carven names,
angels with harps and alabaster dames.
I would that I could see again those buttressed walls
of that splendid edifice my memory now recalls.
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