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With images of the fire that raged in Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral spreading around the globe, let’s celebrate one of the icons of European civilisation. We had a clip in our trailer of Kenneth Clark turning around and looking at the Notre Dame for a reason:

“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it. And I am looking at it now.”

The Notre Dame is a focal point of civilisation. How true that is, only becomes clearer and clearer when the history of its location is taken into account. During Roman Times, Paris was of little importance. Called Lutetita, it is described in the 4th century AD as

“a small island lying in the river; a wall entirely surrounds it, and wooden bridges lead to it on both sides.”

This small island, now known as the Île de la Cité (Isle of the city), became a stronghold against barbaric invasion. First the Huns, then the Vikings. Especially important in this regard, is Paris resisting the 885-886 siege. Local resistance denied the Vikings the city, but more importantly, the slow and disappointing response by the ‘central government’ of the time inspired the Parisians to fall back on their own devices. They elected their own king, in the process creating a powerbase from which the Kingdom of France would grow.

The Île de la Cité, therefore, is an important location, one of France’s lieux de mémoire (anchorages of memory) and a node of temporal, ecclesiastical and cultural power and projection. It is in the heart of Paris, and therefore in the heart of France, both of which are an essentially Medieval development. The Notre Dame is the crowning achievement of this first phase of European development. It is a great symbol of what Clark calls “the Great Thaw“. It is built, literally and figuratively, on top of the victory over what Clark calls ‘forces of barbarism’.

Like many churches in Medieval Europe, the Notre Dame was built in place of a previous church. It had a church in the 4th century, when it was only a fortified island. In 857, it was made into a cathedral. Replaced, remodelled and enlarged, archaeological research has found the traces of at least four churches before the Notre Dame.

But by the early 12th century, it was decided that the Romanesque church no longer sufficed. It was to be replaced by a larger cathedral, in the then well-established Gothic style. Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris, ordered its construction, and the old cathedral was torn down. Its stones were to be re-used in the construction of the new church.

In fact, something of the old survived in what was then the new. One of the statues on the right of the facade – Sainte-Anne (below) with her son on her knees – is said to be from the old church. Stone carvers saved the statue from the mid-12th century, placing it in the new portal. There it has survived desecrations by the Huguenots and Revolutionaries.

Portail Sainte Anne

After the clearing of the old, work started on the new cathedral with the laying of the cornerstone between 24 March and 25 April 1163. Both the French King, Louis VII, and Pope Alexander III were in attendance.

Construction took place in phases. First, the choir and its ambulatories were built. The choir was completed in 1177, the high altar consecrated by the bishop and the papal legate on 19 May 1182. Construction would continue well into the 1300s, however, with redesign and rebuilding taking into account changing fashion as well as new technological development. The famous rose windows – the largest of their time – are typical for the Rayonnant-style, which developed between c. 1240 and 1350.

Rayonnant rose window from Notre-Dame de Paris (North transept).
Photo by Julie Anne Workman. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Likewise, the flying buttresses that dominate the outside of the Notre Dame were only invented in the 13th century. Those most prominently seen today, are actually 14th century replacements of 13th-century additions. One of the great marvels of the Medieval cathedrals is the vast span of time invested in them. The great ingenuity, but also the drive to innovate that is apparent in their construction.

Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris: East side.
Later flying buttresses of the apse of Notre-Dame (14th century) reaching 15 meters from the wall to the counter-supports. Author: Lusitana 

Not all developments have been positive. The 16th century brought damage in the form of Protestants taking sledgehammers to some of the Notre Dame’s statues for being idolatrous. In the 17th century, rebuilding work saw many of the 12th and 13th century stained glass replaced by white glass to improve lighting. In the second half of the 18th century, the original spire was removed after being too damaged by the elements.

But it was the French Revolution that brought the greatest destruction. Most famously in 1793 the decapitation of 28 statues of Kings of Juda, thought to be French kings. Of these heads, 21 and some fragments were recovered during work on a private house in the 9th district of Paris in 1977. The Cluny Museum, where those heads are now housed, calls it (French only):

“one of the most important archaeological finds in Paris of the 20th century. It contributes considerably to the knowledge of Parisian sculpture of the first half of the 13th century.”

Heads of the Kings of Juda; no. 14: source Musée de Cluny.

In the same year, the Notre Dame was rededicated. First to the Cult of Reason, then to that of the Supreme Being. Destruction of the exterior and interior took place on a massive scale. At the end of the 18th century, the cathedral was used as a storage room. Neither transfer of ownership back to the Church, nor Napoleon’s 1804 coronation or 1810 marriage could prevent delipidation. The Notre Dame would enter the 19th century “half ruined inside and battered throughout.”

Only in 1844, a restoration was ordered. This took 25 years and was a mixture, as was the custom of the time, of restoring, repairing and adding new things ‘in the spirit of the old‘. The missing spire was replaced by a new design, for example, and new sculpture was added. Since then, the Notre Dame has been cared for. After surviving WWII relatively unscathed, the church was cleaned in 1963 to celebrate it’s 800 year existence. A program of renovation was started in 1991 to combat erosion and prevent sculptures from falling off. Despite this decade-long effort, a new program had been ordered and was under way to preserve the church, just before the 15 April fire.

The reason this fire is such a shock to Europeans, is that in the back of our minds we realise the enormous worth of these monuments. There is a reason tourists as well as the religious folks flock to the great cathedrals of Europe. They offer a tangible link to the past. More than that: they are themselves living history. They offer something to (almost) all the senses.

You can see it, feel it. Not just the stones, not just the brick and mortar or the sculptures. It is the whole atmosphere of those places. They are serene and quiet, the temperature is different. Light from the stained windows intermingles with the dark. There is the smell of incense. For the believer, there is even the host with which to almost taste the ecclesia the building is a part of.

None of these sensations can be replicated through the internet. However, with one sense we can. One silver lining remains: the Notre Dame’s organ was saved from the flames. The church you can hear. This is an old recording, and a fitting one. It is the Revolutionary song par excellence, the Marseillaise played in the Notre Dame for the President of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, on 11 November 1977. Is there a better way to illustrate the survival of the Notre Dame?

We leave you on a positive note, with a documentary by ARTE on the organist of the Notre Dame. Partly for the music and partly for the beautiful shots of the church. So we know what was lost, and what was retained.