Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre Dame: the power of a "mere building"

I've been remiss in updating my blog since Holy Week of last year--but I simply couldn't let the catastrophe of this week go by without comment! In 2011, I had the privilege of touring the great cathedral of the archdiocese of Paris: Notre Dame. Here, at the starting point of every major road in France, where Saint Louis commissioned the southern rose window and where Napoleon was crowned emperor, I marveled with my own eyes what I had previously idealized in books or New World imitation. True, I was annoyed by the chattering of tourists and the dust collected atop the many neglected side altars. Nevertheless, the faith of many generations before my own was still palpable. I imagined the thousands, or even millions of souls washed clean in baptism at the font. During Vespers, I had trouble following the French service, but when it came time to sing the Magnificat, we did so in Latin, and I sang it as well as anyone else in the congregation that evening. The canticle of Mary has special significance for this church dedicated to Our Lady. In 1944, French and American soldiers were led here by Charles de Gaulle to sing the Magnificat in thanksgiving for the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.

A barricade in front of Notre Dame during World War II.

On Monday of Holy Week, as the world watched helplessly while flames spewed from the roof of Notre Dame, I found myself immensely grateful to have seen the cathedral when I did. It seemed, for a moment, as though over eight centuries of history were about to disappear completely before our eyes. Then, after the five hundred members of the Paris Fire Brigade heroically extinguished the flames, the smoke parted to reveal the genius of the cathedral's first architects. Their names may be forever lost to time, but the vault held fast. The stones remain standing to pass its legacy of faith and awe to another generation.

A diagram of the damage, courtesy of

In hindsight, it's no wonder that Notre Dame's builders would have taken some precautions in the event of fire. In an age when the only man-made light was through torches, and where hundreds of candles burned inside the cathedral's walls on a daily basis, an outbreak of fire was likely considered not just probable, but inevitable. Few surviving structures from the Middle Ages have come to us without any signs of fire damage across the centuries. Notre Dame's own counterpart in London, St. Paul's Cathedral, was wiped out by the great fire of 1666, paving the way for Wren's Baroque mausoleum as we know it today. (The Palace of Westminster survived, only to be wiped out by another in 1834 and rebuilt by Barry and Pugin into the Gothic Revival masterpiece we see today.)

13,000 logs were cut down to support the great roof of Notre Dame. Most of the timber was original, and after eight centuries, had long aged into firewood. Nevertheless, Notre Dame was built in such a way that if (or when) the roof caught on fire, the walls would still hold and the flames would not easily spread to the entire structure. Based on photos, we can see that the spire is gone; but that was part of a Gothic Revival restoration by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (who has, incidentally, been featured on the right hand of this blog since its debut). The original spire was already lost by the 18th century. But the pre-conciliar high altar and the pieta behind it, the great rose windows dating to Saint Louis, and even the pipe organ survived the inferno. We have a chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade (and former Fraternity of St. Peter priest), Father Jean-Marc Fournier, to thank for bravely rushing in to recover the Crown of Thorns, as well as the Blessed Sacrament. He even gave Benediction in the cathedral while it was still burning. For this and other acts of heroism under fire throughout his ministry (including surviving an ambush in Afghanistan while deployed as a military chaplain, and giving absolution to victims of the 2015 Bataclan music club massacre), Father Jean-Marc ought to be recommended for the Legion of Honour.
"The time when the fire attacked the northern bell tower and we started to fear losing it, was exactly the time when I rescued the Blessed Sacrament. And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.
Here I am completely alone in the cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home.
It was probably both this and the excellent general maneuver of the firefighters that led to the stopping of the fire, the ultimate rescuing of the northern tower and subsequently of the other one.
We started Lent by imposing ashes and saying “remember you are dust”, and truly this was a miniature Lent: the Cathedral went to ashes, not to disappear, but to emerge stronger, as we Christians are, after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus-Christ." 
--Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade
The Crown of Thorns is encased in a reliquary commissioned by Napoleon, whose concordat assigned Notre Dame as its resting place. The Crown of Thorns previously resided in the Sainte-Chapelle nearby, but was secularized during the French Revolution.

Now that we can breathe a sigh of relief over Notre Dame's survival, it's worth reflecting: why does it matter in the first place? Yes, of course it's now recognized by most people around the world as a landmark heritage site. But during the Reformation, Huguenots attacked the cathedral as a house of idolatry, shattering windows and knocking down statues. Then, the Jacobins of the French Revolution identified Notre Dame as a power base of the old monarchy; in their foolishness, they cut off the heads of the statues above the main entrance to the cathedral, believing them to be old kings of France when they were really the ancestors of Christ. 

By the 1830's, there was talk of just tearing the old thing down completely until Victor Hugo published a certain famous book. The original novel was not actually called "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", nor was it principally about Quasimodo. Its true title is Notre Dame de Paris, its main character is the cathedral, and its purpose to stir the hearts of Frenchmen to the treasure in their midst. Hugo's efforts were directly responsible for the commissioning of Viollet-le-Duc to restore the crumbling Notre Dame to something of its former glory. In the spirit of the Gothic Revival led by Pugin in England, Viollet-le-Duc attempted to be faithful to the cathedral's Gothic origins, though his flights of fancy couldn't stop him from building a spire even taller than the one which came before.
"And who substituted for the ancient gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels' heads and clouds, which seems a specimen pillaged from the Val-de-Grâce or the Invalides? ... Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions. They have cut to the quick; they have attacked the very bone and framework of art; they have cut, slashed, disorganized, killed the edifice, in form as in the symbol, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. And then they have made it over; a presumption of which neither time nor revolutions at least have been guilty." --Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, chapter 39
The Internet never lets us forget that the barbarians will always be with us. Hopefully you, dear reader, didn't find yourself subjected as I did to as many outrageous comments--whether by gloating Calvinists or leftist iconoclasts--rehashing the same clumsy attacks thrown by their ideological forebears of times past. They are the lashings-out of small minds, altogether less worthy of our notice than that of a single firefighter daring to answer the call of duty, to say nothing of a single peasant laying a brick of the original foundation as a labor of love and devotion, knowing he would never see the fruits of his work in his own lifetime. The naysayers' only purpose is a reminder for the rest of us to be vigilant. The gifts of civilization are not easily understood, much less appreciated, by everyone.

Viollet-le-Duc's restoration plans were much more ambitious than what he could actually achieve.
Above all, as nations and benefactors around the world pledge money and personnel to restore Notre Dame, the medievalists must continually remind them of the cathedral's first and highest purpose. Notre Dame is not just an icon of French culture (though it is that). Nor is it just a monument to the ingenuity of western civilization at large (though it is that too). Notre Dame was built by free laborers over the span of two centuries, most knowing they would never see it finished, to point the hearts of those within heavenward. Dead stones and trees were fashioned to worship the living God. The Parthenon may have long outlasted the cult of Athena, but the sacrifice of Christ was renewed on Notre Dame's altars daily right until the roof collapsed. Even the Temple of Solomon was built chiefly for the use of one race, but Notre Dame was always a house of prayer for all nations, inspiring imitations on every continent of the earth. 

A perfect story to illustrate Notre Dame's universal appeal: King Amon of Sanwi (in the Ivory Coast) just pledged to send a contribution, saying,
"the pictures disturbed my sleep and I could not spend the night, because this cathedral represents a strong link between my kingdom and France." 
His 17th century predecessors in Assinie sent Prince Aniaba to France to learn French ways. Aniaba was baptized at Notre Dame by Bishop Bossuet--his godfather was the Sun King himself. During his time in France, Aniaba was tutored alongside the Dauphin and made a cavalry officer, where he fought in the War of the League of Augsburg. Before returning to Assinie, he was invested as a Knight of the Star of Our Lady, again at Notre Dame.

Let's remind the world, then, that Notre Dame de Paris doesn't rightfully belong to Emmanuel Macron, or the billionaires who have pledged to restore the roof, or even the archbishop of Paris himself. They may try to remake the cathedral in their own image, but Notre Dame belongs to God and Our Lady. The archbishop of Paris and the people of France hold Notre Dame in trust for one reason: to call every man, from the lowliest serf to the most exalted emperor, to bend the knee in worship. In the words of the Virgin, "my soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour."

"Mass Said by the Canon de La Porte", by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet. This seems to show the Parisian Rite of Mass (note the acolyte returning the chalice after Mass, and some servers wearing full-length albs). A 1766 Parisian Missal may be read here.

Some key events in Notre Dame's history: 

1160: the bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, has the old Romanesque cathedral torn down to make way for a Gothic structure like those in Saint-Denis and Sens. 
1163: Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII (the same who hosted Saint Thomas Becket during his exile) lay the cornerstone of the new cathedral. 
1260: Saint Louis IX commissions the south rose window. 94 medallions depict the life of Christ, the apostles, and patron saints of Paris. 
1302: King Philip "the Fair" convenes the three estates of the realm--the Estates General--for the first time. 
1345: the cathedral is considered complete, nearly two hundred years later. 
1431: during the Hundred Years' War, Henry VI of England is crowned King of France in Notre Dame as a response to the French King Charles VII's coronation at Reims (led by Joan of Arc). Henry was 10 years old, and was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey two years before.  
1548: Notre Dame is partially damaged by rioting Huguenots. 
1558: Mary, Queen of Scots is wed to the Dauphin at Notre Dame. 
1625: Princess Henrietta Maria is married by proxy to King Charles I of England outside the doors of Notre Dame. 
17th-18th century: the Sun King moves the royal court away from the masses of Paris to his father's hunting lodge in Versailles. Notre Dame is increasingly neglected as a site of royal events, and becomes seen more as a house of the people. However, Notre Dame nevertheless hosts the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 
1793: during the Reign of Terror, Notre Dame is "rededicated" as a Temple of Reason. Sophie Momoro is enthroned over the cathedral's altar as "goddess of liberty". The cult of reason (and its successor, the cult of the Supreme Being) is short-lived, but the damage is done. Notre Dame is converted to a warehouse for the rest of the Revolutionary period. 
1802: Napoleon signs the Concordat, re-establishing the Catholic Church and restoring Notre Dame as an active church. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste de Belloy celebrates Mass (on Palm Sunday) for the first time at the cathedral's high altar in 12 years.  
1804: Pope Pius VII anoints Napoleon as Emperor of the French in one of the most expensive and elaborately staged coronation ceremonies in the history of the world. A new ceremony is drawn up, which combines elements from the Roman Pontifical, the ancient French ceremony at Reims, and some of Napoleon's own making. (Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon did not take the crown out the pope's hands to crown himself. He ascended the steps and took the crown from the high altar: an act which was approved and rehearsed beforehand.) Napoleon also crowns Josephine as empress, much to his mother's dismay. 
1831: Victor Hugo publishes Notre Dame de Paris, bringing a new level of cultural awareness to Notre Dame's significance. 
1844: spurred on largely by the success of Hugo's book, King Louis Philippe authorizes a restoration of the cathedral, led by Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. A new spire is added to replace the one lost in the 18th century. 
1944: French and American soldiers, led by Charles de Gaulle, converge at Notre Dame to celebrate the liberation of Paris. 
2013: a new grand bell is added to the tower as part of the cathedral's 850th anniversary celebrations.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David really depicts the coronation of Josephine as empress. The pieta behind the high altar is partly seen on the right-hand side.