Living History: the Next Chapter of the Notre Dame Cathedral
My sister and I couldn’t help giggling when we heard the sudden, overwhelming rumble of the organ pipes. If you’ve experienced the heart-pounding sensation of this particular instrument, perhaps our visceral response will resonate.
Moments before, in a decidedly out of character move for a secular gal from Illinois — a gesture inspired by the overwhelming history and human ingenuity that built this space with gravity defying, soaring vaults designed to inspire us to ponder the heavens beyond our daily lives — my sister had been inspired to light a candle and say a prayer.
Her lighting of the candle created a solemn and beautiful moment. Quiet, reverential and authentic.
As she stepped away from the candles to join my mom and I, in a startling coincidence that sounded like an answer to her prayer, the organ piped up and enveloped devout parishioners and throngs of tourists alike with it’s reverberations as part of the concurrent Sunday mass. Notre Dame is a working cathedral, after all.
Completed in 1868, the organ at Notre Dame is impressive. The sound waves which blast into the cathedral through some 7,800 pipes can be physically felt in your sternum as they reverberate throughout the stone vaults with a power we seldom feel in our secular lives. Especially those of us who spend time listening to music on cheap, tinny sounding earbuds in our small scale timber-frame construction homes.
But in this space, at that moment, the thundering chords of both harmony and dissonance (it was a Catholic mass, after all) met our bodies with an almost foreboding feeling of “Repent! Or else!”
Even as non-believers we couldn’t help but feel something.
My sister and I are both skeptical types, but our reaction was a quick wide-eyed glance at each other and a bout of nervous giggling, followed by an immediate new prayer that this particular score wasn’t some kind of ironic answer to the lighting of anyone’s candle.
Soon the dark tones of the organ shifted to softer, more reverential music. The kind that fit the space so perfectly you can’t help but be moved to tears.
And by the time we rounded the ambulatory around the back of the cathedral, voices of the choir had joined the music of the organ. Incense burned before us. We discovered Joan of Arc’s statue behind us.
And we were thoroughly swept up in the experience of the space, along with some 14 million of people who enter the cathedral each year..
Little did we know we were experiencing the 2nd to last Sunday mass which would take place at Notre Dame in this particular era of the great cathedral’s history. It was a mere eight days before the great fire that — for a few heart pounding hours — art and architectural historians, religious scholars, Catholics and human beings around the globe feared might consume altogether the sacred space that is an icon known the entire world over.
We were only in Paris for four days, but found ourselves drawn to the cathedral’s exterior again the very next day as we wandered from Île Saint-Louis across over the River Siene to visit my next bucket list goal, the Shakespeare & Company bookstore which has looked out at the cathedral for the past century.
We stood on the the Pont de l’Archevêché for a while, gazing at the exquisite exterior of the Notre Dame under a dramatic, springtime Paris sky.
It’s impossible not to feel reverence at the delicate structural beauty of the cathedral. Stories abound of lifelong Paris residents who still stop to revere the magnificent sight daily. The flying buttresses, which seem to defy gravity, are a structurally inspired architectural breakthrough which changed church design forever. This brilliant feat of engineering allowed interior spaces to soar while permitting openings in walls for lacey stained glass windows through which colored sunlight could spill into the cathedral interior.
Back at home, I’d been trying to break the habit of watching the news while at my desk working. Feeling refreshed after our quick trip across the pond, I sat down to work and told myself, “just a few minutes” as I flipped on the news late on Monday morning. After a few minutes of news (news that hadn’t varied much since before I’d left for Paris. Same stories of Mueller Report redactions, discussions of tax refunds being down, blah blah) I was just about to turn it off. But then,
“Breaking News: A fire has broken out at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.”
I jumped up from my desk to face the television and for the next several hours couldn’t tear myself away from the coverage. As the flames became more bright, the situation became more dark.
Watching fire consume the crossing spire, a relatively new part of the Cathedral erected during renovations in the mid-1800s by French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, I recalled the same nauseating feeling I had on September 11th. In both cases I sensed viscerally that the structures would collapse.
When the spire fell, I cried. As did countless others across the globe.
“The next hour will be critical in learning what, if anything, can be saved.”
As a student of art and architectural history, I sent out a prayer for this iconic piece of our story. As a human being, I sent out a prayer that no one was hurt in the fire. Prayers which were undoubtedly sent with those of millions of people all around the globe. I may not subscribe to a religion, but I do believe in the power of collective intention. Call it prayer, call it hope, it is one of our foundational sources of human connection.
Time passed. Fire fighters struggled to contain the fire with water from the Siene. No fire suppression equipment on earth is designed to deal with this kind of fire.
Even when a dire prediction came across the wires that all might be lost, I had an unshakeable faith that at least some of that stone would stand and a new chapter would be written on whatever survived.
I knew it in my bones.
I’d first visited the cathedral in high school along with several other cathedrals and churches throughout Paris and Italy. There’s no feeling on earth that compares to stepping inside these centuries old structures. The scale, the ways in which light and sound move about the space. The story of humanity is etched in blood and tears and recorded forever in the stone columns, the flying buttresses, the lead and stained glass windows, medieval timbers, gold tiles and religious art.
While we were touring the cathedral last week though, something new caught my attention. It was a display that was set up towards the back in the apse area of the cathedral.
On this display was series of panels depicting a timeline of the Notre Dame’s architectural story in historical phases over the centuries.
I stood before those panels pondering the story of each phase. New ideas, new building methods learned with new materials every few hundred years. I was struck with an entirely new sense of awe for the space in which I was standing, and had flashbacks to my last reading of Ken Follet’s novel, The Pillars of the Earth (which is a work of fiction, nevertheless I find myself wanting to read it again in the wake of this event).
It’s hard to comprehend, gazing at the stone vaults which reach to 115 feet overhead (!), that this structure was built before power tools and cranes. Before cement trucks and engineering software to calculate the loads. Before architectural licenses or technical degrees were designed to ensure the safety of building inhabitants.
A decent portion of the arc of humanity is represented in the centuries of STORY which live in the walls of buildings that survive this long.
Transformation. Destruction. And in the case of this cathedral, rebirth. Over and over. The phoenix, rising from the ashes.
As I stood in the apse, soaking in the extraordinary history on these panels — history on a scale which is hard to comprehend — history which began many centuries before the “United States” was even a dream, I notably (an odd foreshadow in hindsight) took a moment to think about our current place on that particular timeline, almost 160 years since the last major overhaul in this monument’s story. I wondered when the next chapter might be written?
An interesting piece of context for those of us in America, the construction on Notre Dame started around the same time as the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace (1190–1260).
This photo is from a visit to Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado with my son in 2007. A UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is a place that feels ancient and full of mystery — as though from a long forgotten part of our human story — despite being the same age as the original Notre Dame Cathedral.
As a student of art history, it was the evolving story of this cathedral that I held onto as I watched the images of the burning rooftop and spire.
The idea of the evolution of the Notre Dame became like a grounding ember of hope in my mind. Hope for a new chapter in the life-line of the cathedral’s story.
And along with that hope came an inexplicable faith that stone walls would remain in the morning. Walls of story on top of which humans — of today — could write a next chapter.
I pondered the fact that there would now be a next panel to display on the timeline. And that we were watching that moment of history in real time.
As I was about to fall asleep Monday night still feeling the effects of jet-lag, I realized that the sun would be rising over Paris right about then. I checked Twitter for first photos of daylight to see what parts of the cathedral had survived the night.
Tears sprang to my eyes again as immediately it was obvious how much of the structure was still standing. The word “miraculous” kept coming to mind as I examined the pictures. Not only had no lives been lost, there was barely a sign at all of the blaze on the front facade where the towers still stood. The damage appeared to be contained to the “timber forest,” the tons of medieval oak that made up the roof trusses which sat over the stone vaults. And of course, the Viollet-le-Duc spire at the crossing which was gone.
Somehow, miraculously, those soaring stone vaults were built with enough structural integrity to withstand almost all of the heat and tumult of the raging fire above.
And now, real and historically significant questions remain. One might argue, given the state of the Catholic Church, if religiously significant questions of self reflection and a new image are now posed. Which parts of the cathedral will be restored in perfect detail? This is an especially important question for historians, given the mish mosh of ages of the material which burned.
Will architects of today choose to design a new spire to represent a new chapter in the life of this living cathedral? Perhaps there’s a powerful metaphorical opportunity to build a new narrative on the foundation of the old.
Evolution, after all, is part of the cyclical destiny of an iconic and globally significant structure of this age. In the evolution of a building is a piece of the story of humanity, told in art and architecture.
This is the story of a living, breathing cathedral.
And as long as there are humans to love her, her story will not end.
Destruction and resurrection. And this happened during Holy Week. I mean, it’s hard even for a skeptic not to see the beautiful symbolism in this story.
No souls were taken. Relics were saved. And a cathedral that had fallen into desperate disrepair — unable to procure appropriate funds for restoration — now has earned a renewed sense of spiritual meaning and historical relevance in the eyes of the world.
I’ll never forget giggling with my sister in the nave, the sound of the thundering organ all around us, just one week before the fiery ushering of a new chapter for this spectacular cathedral’s story. I’m inexplicably grateful for having just visited, grateful for what remains, and I look forward to what is to come.
I hope that our children, and theirs, will one day be moved in their own way within the walls of the next chapter of the Notre Dame.
A potent reminder that we are living in a moment of history. Always.