What we lost when Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire

Before the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire last April, it had the dubious distinction of being the most visited monument in the world. Five million people a year visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Five million people a year visit the Colosseum in Rome. Four million go to the Statue of Liberty, and three million visit the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. But 12 million were visiting Notre-Dame.

I say dubious distinction because one gets the impression that not many of the people who visited actually knew what they were looking at. The cathedral had become a celebrity, famous for being famous. If you have been to Paris and have seen Notre-Dame, then ask yourself this question: What is the chief feeling that you experienced upon visiting it? My guess is that you experienced its “oldness,” its antiquity or, somewhat vaguely, the aura of its “fame.” That is, you felt this strange sensation of being in the presence of something you knew you were supposed to admire, even if you couldn’t put your finger on what it was you were supposed to pay attention to.

The cathedral had become a celebrity, famous for being famous.

This explains much of the global reaction to the burning of Notre-Dame: We felt weirdly helpless because we knew that something irrecoverably beautiful was being lost, but we were not exactly sure what we were losing.

Shortly after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron of France not only promised to rebuild the cathedral within five years. He added, provocatively, that the French would make it “better”; that is, they would make a “contemporary architectural statement.” And this, of course, has triggered massive debate. The French Senate rejected the idea, while the National Assembly, controlled by Macron’s party, supported it.

One architectural firm proposes to turn the roof of Notre-Dame into a greenhouse, updating the monument and bringing it into the green age. Others propose to rebuild the tower virtually, with a beam of light technologically soaring into the heavens to fulfill the dream of the Gothic builders. Others, I think more cynically, realize that the cathedral is just a popular place for tourists to come and so propose to turn the roof into a swimming pool. Other proposals suggest a roof of stained glass or a contemporary sculpture. And then there are those—polls show that the majority of the French favor this—who propose to replace the roof and spire to be as close as possible to what was built in the 19th century by the imaginative architect and restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

What did Notre-Dame mean? What did it feel like to step into it in the Middle Ages?

These various architectural solutions have provided an opportunity for a conversation about the original meaning of the building, a question, I think, we now realize we had forgotten to ask: What did Notre-Dame mean? What did it feel like to step into it in the Middle Ages? And ought we to build it back new in some way, so that it is not just a dead monument?

Mute Stones Speak

In the midst of all of these questions, the work of the late Catholic Belgian scholar Andrew Tallon has become newly relevant. Tallon died a few years ago at 39, but before his death from brain cancer he created a laser-scanned map of Notre-Dame, accurate down to five millimeters. He used digital lasers and sensors, which emitted hundreds of thousands of signals per second, to create a data cloud of measuring points. The images are eerily beautiful. The raw data creates the sensation that we are looking at a kind of ethereal skeleton—pointing to the cathedral’s hidden spiritual reality. Tallon’s data cloud images not only help us know in detail what was structurally there, but also inspire the desire to re-see the spiritual heart of the cathedral.

Tallon was able to show, for example, that the choir loft has perfect geometrical ratios. Just beneath the skin, as it were, is a series of perfect circles; vertically, a great equilateral triangle spans the whole choir. In other words, geometrical realities are hidden beneath the surface of the visible, and these geometrical realities frame the viewing experience of the cathedral.

To modern visitors, utilitarians to the core, it seems a little absurd that one would work so hard to create geometries that cannot be seen but only felt, as it were. But I suggest that this is exactly how medieval builders felt about nature and how they felt about their cathedrals, which were meant to reveal nature at deep levels. For the medieval mind, there was an extraordinary interaction between the many textures and colors and designs on the surface and the deep patterns underneath. It is this interaction between surface variety and deep patterns that gives the sense that the cathedral is spiritually porous.

Imagine the feeling that you would have walking into a haunted house on Halloween: rickety old boards, unusual light coming from under the doors, occasional eerie laughter. If you can, maintain the uncanny feeling but flip it, so that it is positive, and you might have a sense of the spiritual porousness of the cathedral in the medieval experience.

Visual Opulence

We are fortunate to have a piece of medieval travel writing by a scholar at the University of Paris, Jean de Jandun, who wrote his Tractatus de laudibus Parisius in 1323. In his short, overwrought rhetorical treatise, he spends time praising the small town of Senlis for its natural beauty but spends most of his time proclaiming that Paris is the greatest city in the world. In particular, he praises three buildings in Paris: Notre-Dame de Paris; the palace of Philip the Fair (now destroyed); and Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel built to house the most famous relic in medieval France: Jesus’ crown of thorns. I will focus on what he says about the cathedral.

First, Jean praises Notre-Dame for its dazzling variety of shapes, sizes and textures. He praises the cathedral for how the “whole and the parts” interact, for how “high, large, and strong” its towers are, for the “multiple variety of ornaments,” for the “multipartite arrangement,” for the “light-filled amenities,” for the different types of windows (some are small and circular, some gleam with precious colors, some have pictures). In other words, there is a riot of shapes and visual textures, colors and geometrical designs: sharp angles, round surfaces, long and high lines. The key words in this analysis are “multipartite” and “varied.” Jean imagines looking around, visually drinking in the multiplicity of things: “I believe this church offers the carefully discerning such causes for admiration that the soul may barely be satiated by its inspection.”

Jean de Jandun praises Notre-Dame for its dazzling variety of shapes, sizes and textures.

In other words, Jean describes a situation of visual opulence, excess of meaning, superabundant gratuity of patterns and textures and colors. He is not so much overwhelmed by the fact that Notre-Dame is beautiful but that it is beautiful in so many ways. Some things are high, some low, some round, some square, smooth, ornate, intricate, colorful, gemlike, light-filled. In short, the church is a place of variety and magnificence.

The Cambridge art historian Paul Binski has found that those two words, variety and magnificence, were often used in connection with Gothic church construction. In an aristocratic culture, there was an assumption that royal or aristocratic patrons would put on a feast that was splendid or a tournament that was opulent. The magnificence of the display would manifest the magnanimity of their souls. Architectural projects, too, sponsored by the same aristocratic patrons, were thought of in such terms. As Professor Binski puts it, in an age of epic, chivalric and knightly heroism, the buildings erected by kings, dukes, aristocratic bishops and conquerors strove to embody “magnitudo” and “varietas” (what we might call “heroic spaciousness” and “mind-boggling opulence of detail”).

For instance, a chronicler (William of Poitiers) compared William the Conqueror’s crossing of the English channel to Julius Caesar’s expedition to conquer Britain. When William the Conqueror later offered to have his daughter become a nun in 1066, he was said to be following the example of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. We can understand the building practices of the day as an extension of this heroic cultural mindset, one in which medieval builders and patrons were eager to recreate the glories of antiquity and myth.

Medieval builders and patrons were eager to recreate the glories of antiquity and myth.

Great souls build great-souled buildings. And thus it was particularly desirable to surpass the old buildings of Rome. English and French clerics obtained measurements of the great basilicas in Rome or Jerusalem to ensure that their own creations were longer, wider and had higher towers. It was during this age of heroic emulation that the old classical proportions were distorted, elongated, stretched up and made to reach out, creating that dream-like effect of magnificent magnitude and sublimity for which Gothic cathedrals are famous.

And so we find contemporaries praised churches for the sheer Herculean feat of importing so many and such heavy and exotic materials, which required the struggle of men and rope and cargo ships. The feat of engineering, shipping, transporting, harvesting, digging and extracting displayed munificence, magnanimity, magnificence. Stones quarried locally would be mingled with stones from all across the world. They built in the “heroic” mode.

But Professor Binski argues that magnitudo and geometrical design were not the only ways medieval builders tried to create the feeling of heroic transcendence. There was also varietas, which I translate “mind-boggling opulence.” Over the walls, ceilings and floors of medieval cathedrals we find a riotous variety of forms at play within the sober, governing architectural patterns: carved stones, interlacing rib vaults, bundles of differently sized stone columns, ornate friezes, windows of different sizes, polychromatic stained glass.

Great souls build great-souled buildings. And thus it was particularly desirable to surpass the old buildings of Rome.

Rib vaults spring from columns, like massive branches leaping from huge trunks; intricate patterns laid into marble floors swirl and loop. Master builders signed their names within carved mazes of Daedalus, as if they thought that their genius lay in the intricacy of the labyrinthine designs. Then, as now, the experience of the riotous and playful shapes that are found all over the walls and on the floors and ceilings created a kind of release from the ordinary preoccupations of the day. They free the mind from its cares and lead it to a sense of being lost, immersed in wonder, overwhelmed by the hilarity of joy.

Craving Color

Jean de Jandun was also particularly sensitive to color. He describes Notre-Dame as “terribilissima” (awe-inspiring) because it “shines out” like a “sun among stars.” The chapels are “light-filled,” and some windows “gleam” with “precious colors” and are “beautiful with the most subtle figures.” Later, when describing Sainte-Chapelle, Jandun adds comments on its “select colors,” “precious gilding,” “beautiful transparency,” “gleaming windows,” the “beautiful altar cloths” and the “dazzling gems” on the reliquaries. And when Jean takes all of this in, turning this way and that, he has to resort to mystical language to describe it: One feels “as if rapt to heaven [quasi raptus ad celum], to be entering one of the best chambers of Paradise.”

Before we dismiss Jandun’s account of the color as simply rhetorical exaggeration, we should remember how deadened our senses are to color and light in contrast to the medieval world. In a world of ubiquitous electric lights, which are always on and have become so bright that we are literally causing spring to start a few minutes earlier each year, it is hard for us to imagine the visceral feeling that medieval people enjoyed upon entering a sun-soaked chapel. Similarly, in a world of chemically created neon colors, we are not surprised to find bright colors on metallic cars, in digital images, fast food restaurants and our clothing. In this cluttered landscape, our senses are deadened to color.

It is hard for us to imagine the visceral feeling that medieval people enjoyed upon entering a sun-soaked chapel.

But in the medieval world, where even the sight of a saturated color was rare enough to be memorable, there was a sensitivity to stars, the moon and flowers, in which intense colors were visible but only seasonally. Gems and stones from exotic parts of the world were imported, ground up and used as pigment to make a pure color of blue (lapis lazuli), for example. The wool-dying industry was the medieval equivalent to steel and railroads, the great industry of the day precisely because pure colors were hard to come by. Medieval culture craved color, maybe the way we crave isolation and freedom from noise.

But in a Gothic cathedral, you could find not only pure saturated colors; you could find many of them, all gathered together in the same place. It was like seeing every color from throughout the year gathered into one permanent flowering, a kind of sensory overload, analogous to what it is like for us to watch a Christopher Nolan film in an Imax theater. Walking into a cathedral was dizzying, vertiginous, giddy. It made you giggle and gave you a shortness of breath. Meaning was everywhere, full and rich.

In a Gothic cathedral, you could find not only pure saturated colors; you could find many of them, all gathered together in the same place.

Jandun also uses a fascinating term: “O how peacefully are praises sung to the most holy God in these tabernacles, when the hearts of the singers are analogically beautified with the virtues through the pleasing pictures of the tabernacle!” The term “analogically” (analogice) refers here to the way the hearts of those singing praise feel pierced and penetrated with divine light, analogous to the way windows are pierced by the power of the sun.

We can compare Jandun’s comments on the varietas of Notre-Dame with other theological reflections on varietas from the same period. Hugh of St. Victor, for example, also wrote about the diversity of the things in the natural world:

[T]his world is a sensible book (mundus hic sensilis liber quidam) that has divinity written into it. Individual creatures are letters and reveal some aspect of divinity. For the immensity of the world (immensitas mundi) reveals divine power; the beauty of the world, divine wisdom; the utility of the world divine goodness.

Hugh then goes on to show how studying these natural “traces” lifts the mind up to God. Note, in particular, how sensitive Hugh is to diversity of shapes and variety of patterns:

The immensity of the world is subdivided into multitude and magnitude. See how the [world’s] multitude clearly figures forth power: look at the stars of the heaven, the sands of the sea, the dust of the earth, the drops of water, the feathers of birds, the scales of fish, the hairs of animals, the grass of the fields, and the fruit and leaves of the trees. The individual creatures (singula) are not only innumerable, but the kinds of creatures are also innumerable (set etiam innumerabilia genera).

What follows are pages and pages devoted to cataloging all kinds of creatures. Hugh turns, for example, to contemplate the category of “magnitudo” and enumerates “the mass of mountains, the courses of rivers, the spaces of fields, the height of heaven, and the depth of the abyss” as examples. Later he argues that the beauty of the world can also be found in extraordinary shapes, variety of color, that which is huge, tiny, unusual, particularly beautiful or even monstrous. All these things cause us to marvel, as we do at giants among men, whales among fish, griffins among birds, elephants among quadrupeds, dragons among serpents.

Hence that sense of “awe” and “fullness,” or what medieval theologians call “sapientia” and “visus cordis,” an uplift of the heart, a sense of deep insight that has come to the threshold of worship. The world feels too full, almost painfully joyful, one in which bright colors cut and burn. There is too much goodness to take it all in, too much variety. God is too good, too benign, too loving toward us. He did not just choose one path to make himself known but an infinite number of them, and they are all enveloping us, clamoring for our attention, like the superabundant variety of patterns and colors and shapes and sizes in the cathedral.

This, then, I think, is what we lost at Notre-Dame de Paris: a sense of the world as super-saturated, with an infinite number of joys surrounding us, rushing toward us, pressing in us. The cathedral gave us a glimpse of an infinitely benign God: through the visible toward the invisible God. One could say that the cathedral was a kind of laboratory for creating an experience of depth by means of an experience of plenteous multitude, and in this way, it stood as a mystical laboratory for making visible the love of God.

I have a proposal in mind for the rebuilding of the cathedral, even if it is not very practical. I like the idea of a glass roof, in which glass panels would be fitted into arches, which themselves were formed in imitation of the old, Gothic groin vaults. Paris, needless to say, has had success updating its landscape with metal and glass. Think of the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramid at the Louvre.

However, my caveat is that we grant the modern addition only if, on all major Marian feast days, Paris goes lights out at night, as Toronto regularly does. In that case, I think we would have something that would make the medieval builders nod approvingly, in awe, at something they would have done had they had the technological means to do so.

Imagine an evening service of Compline, lit only with candles, and the ability to watch the stars rotate above our heads in the vault above. That would enable us to see the old building anew.

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