Notre-Dame de Paris

A phoenix in the making.

Few remember that Victor Hugo’s great novel is actually called Notre-Dame de Paris (and not The Hunchback of Notre Dame), placing the cathedral at the centre of medieval Parisian life.

Notre-Dame“Great edifices, like the great mountains, are the work of ages. Often art undergoes a transformation while they are waiting pending completion – pendent opera interrupta – they then proceed imperturbably in conformity with the new order of things. The new art takes possession of the monument at the point at which it finds it, absorbs itself into it, develops it after its own idea, and completes it if it can. The matter is accomplished without disturbance, without effort, without reaction, in obedience to an undeviating, peaceful law of nature – a shoot is grafted on, the sap circulates, a fresh vegetation is in progress. Truly, there is matter for mighty volumes; often, indeed, for a universal history of mankind, in these successive layers of different periods of art, on different levels of the same edifice. The man, the artist, the individual, are lost sight of in these massive piles that have no record of authorship; they are an epitome, a totalization of human intelligence. Time is the architect – a nation is the builder.”

From Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) by Victor Hugo (Harvard Classics, 1917).

“When I first knew Notre Dame it was, to the visitor from the open air, all scented darkness. And then as one grew accustomed to the gloom the cathedral opened slowly like a great flower – not so beautifully as Chartres, but with its own grandeur and fascination. That was twenty years ago. It is not the same since it has been scraped and lightened within. That old clinging darkness has gone. There are times of day now, when the sun spatters on the wall, when it might be almost any church; but towards evening in the gloom it is Notre Dame de Paris again, mysterious and a little sinister. A bright light not only chases the shade from its aisles and recesses but also shows up the garishness of its glass. For the glass of France, usually bad, is here often almost at its worst. That glorious wheel window in the north transept – whose upper wall has indeed more glass than stone in it – could not well be more beautiful, and the rose window over the organ is beautiful too.”

From A Wanderer in Paris (1909) by E. V. Lucas.

The question to be explored is whether Notre Dame de Paris can actually be rebuilt, with all the implications such a decision has for its structural integrity, history, and tradition, or whether – like Coventry Cathedral in England – a combination of ancient and modern will arise from its ashes in a flight of Gallic artistic and spiritual imagination. My money is on a replica of the 19th century spire made out of lightweight thermoplastic carbon fiber and hi-tech glass echoing the nearby Louvre Pyramid. On verra!

 

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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