Mourning Notre Dame

No doubt there will be many articles and personal testimonies about the massive fire that has gutted Notre Dame. Even if the bones of the building survive, essential elements, some and perhaps many of its stained glass windows are almost certainly gone or terribly damaged. The reports are uncertain, with an awful heavy use of words like “may”. For instance, the Telegraph says the organ survived but is damaged. Other accounts say that at least one of the great rose windows is intact.

Even if Notre Dame can be restored, the project is likely to take more than a generation, meaning even in best-case scenario, many people will never be able to see it properly again in their lives.

Others who know Notre Dame more intimately, particularly Parisians, architects and historians, will be better able to provide elegies. I nevertheless feel compelled to write about this loss because it lays bare contradictions we manage to navigate in our daily lives and that have become more acute as humans are destroying the biosphere.

The great medieval cathedrals, through their enormous scale and soaring vaults, with their narrow stained glass windows that help pull the eye upward, tell worshipers and later visitors of how small they are compared to God and his works. Yet their seeming solidity and scale also suggests the faithful can find refuge. All of our technological prowess hasn’t found a way to create spaces that inspire the same sort of awe of these centuries-old houses of worship. Modern visitors were further humbled by the audaciousness of its accomplishment: a project executed across generations, reaching heights that seem daunting even now, marshaling the skills and hard work of many artisans and laborers.

In other words, Notre Dame provided comfort and hope against that gnawing knowledge in the back of our heads of the certainty of death and the impermanence of human action. Even though all those who built Notre Dame were long dead, something of them lived on through the cathedral….or did at least till yesterday.

Human existence is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, that we stare down inevitable defeat every day of our existence.

I sometimes refer to a story in the Mahabharata, in which Yudhisthira and his brothers have been tasked to find a deer with mystical powers. They camp but are thirsty. Yudhisthira sends one of his siblings to find some water. When he does not return, another brother is dispatched, and again does not return. This process repeats until Yudhisthira himself goes looking for his missing brothers.

He finds them all dead next to a pond.

In despair, but still parched, he is about to drink, but a crane tells him he must answer
some questions first. They are all metaphysical in nature. The last and most difficult: “What is the greatest wonder of the world?”

Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day, hour after hour, countless people die, yet the
living believe they will live forever.”

The crane reveals himself to be the Lord of Death. After some further discussion, he revives the brothers.

Most of us won’t get off so well from an encounter with the Lord of Death. But on a daily basis, we derive comfort from our routines: our schedules, our interactions with familiar people, like family, co-workers, and other we see in our rounds, and the stability of our physical surroundings. I for one feel a sense of loss when buildings are torn down, even small groupings of modest old walks-ups that sat next to each other as gracefully as snaggle teeth. They were still part of an older Manhattan that being replaced with soulless glass towers.

Some cultures seem to have reached a better accommodation with decay and loss. The Japanese, for instance, acknowledge the sadness of impermanence. The Grand Shrine at Ise, with its first building that is part of the modern shrine constructed before 700 AD, reflects a different idea of how to last across centuries. From Wikipedia:

The old shrines are dismantled and new ones built on an adjacent site to exacting specifications every 20 years at exorbitant expense, so that the buildings will be forever new and forever ancient and original. The present buildings, dating from 2013, are the 62nd iteration to date and are scheduled for rebuilding in 2033.

Some commentators have been quick to depict neoliberalism as the cause of Notre Dame’s demise, that the fire probably resulted from using restoration contractors working on a tight budget who skimped on safety. While that may prove to be true, we don’t know what set off the blaze, and you can be sure there will be an investigation to find out how it started and why steps weren’t taken to protect the cathedral from the risks of its tinder-dry roof catching fire. But neoliberalism will be an obstacle to restoring the great church and creating other important public works. Neoliberalism is allergic to investing in the commons and initiatives that span across generations.

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126 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    Beautifully expressed, Yves.

    Even as a non-believer, I can’t help but being in awe of the great cathedrals. Notre Dame is one of the greatest ones, but maybe the hardest to have experienced because of the sheer numbers who visited. I was only in it once, and it was a pretty unpleasant experience in many ways because of the crowds and queues (but even then, the interior was awe-inspiring. I resolved to visit again one day on a winters Monday morning when maybe there wouldn’t be such a crowd, sadly now I’ll never get the chance.

    The great medieval cathedrals are unquestionably one of the greatest human creations. The engineering and architecture involved in the gothic cathedrals is amazing – and mostly done through trial and error (many collapsed during construction before they worked out the correct massing and angles for the flying buttresses.) And even more impressive, gothic architecture didn’t really ‘evolve’, it seems to have been largely largely invented by one man, Abbot Sugar (in Paris, as it happens).

    What I find most inspiring about the cathedrals is that they were started by people who knew that they’d never see them finished, maybe even only their grand children or great grandchildren would see the roof and spire topped off. Thats true intergenerational equity. Some, such as Koln Cathedral, are still ongoing, never officially ‘finished’. Buildings like this aren’t designed and built, they grow organically.

    The ‘good’ news, if there can be, is that most of the great cathedrals aren’t always as original as people think. Many, including Notre Dame, had a massive amount of 19th Century intervention by people who thought they didn’t look medieval enough (the tour guides rarely talk too much about this). Many have been destroyed and rebuilt by fire, especially after WWII – St. Stephens in Vienna as one particularly beautiful example.

    And its far too early to go blaming neoliberalism or incompetence for the fire. The reality is that these old buildings are massive fire hazards, full of old dry timber and fabrics, not to mention 150 years or more of incremental wiring for electricity, and before this, gas. A couple of years ago I spent time with an architect employed to work on St. Patricks Cathedral in Dublin – it is literally a lifetimes task for him, and most of the work involves simply probing the building fabric to find out what is beneath the plaster and stone – and there are numerous surprises. Its simply impossible to apply modern fire standards to a building like this, its just a risk that has to be taken. Given the intensity of the fire, we may never find out what caused it as the evidence is now dust and ashes settling on Paris.

    And I should say that the fire service there seems to have done a very good job- preventing a complete burn out would have been an epic undertaking given the absence of natural firebreaks. Most likely it involved many firefighters risking their own lives getting up close to the fire in the cathedral interior, so out of sight of cameras. The Paris fire service is, I believe, very well respected and would have a lot of experience of fires in historic structures.

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    1. Carolinian

      One could point out that some cathedrals fell down not long after they were built and other religious buildings fell victim to the vagaries of history from Henry VIII to WW2. Stuff happens, even to great and famous buildings and perhaps especially to buildings. There’s a book about Atlanta, where I once lived, showing all the often quite appealing buildings that were torn down to make way for glass skyscrapers. Americans aren’t very sentimental about such things and if you look at some of the new buildings in, say, London you wonder if increasingly they aren’t either. Keeping great art in a museum is one thing. Making your city itself into a museum takes a certain dedication that may be fading, even in Europe.

      But it sounds like Notre Dame will return–a stirring civic project to save Macron’s bacon?

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      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Notre Dame isn’t a monument or a memorial. It was a functioning building which was being renovated because its old and still in use. Most people are familiar with the tourist trap aspects, but it was the seat of an archdiocese and everything that is associated with it. To me, this is an overriding issue. The Lateran Palace isn’t the seat of Saint Peter anymore, and Julius Caesar use to work on the site. Julius Caesar. The site is still in use, but it doesn’t hold the position before the Vatican was started.

        Not every building was built up to code, built to last, or built for population demands. Nostalgia aside, these issues need to be addressed. Or the practical demands don’t make sense anymore. When that happens the buildings fall out of use and decay. There are shrines and so forth that pop up, and items worth keeping. I can’t remember the line, but JRR Tolkien’s, despite his complaints about modernity, Minas Tirith was in decline because men became more concerned with the mausoleums of their fathers than the lives of their sons. Buildings that get torn down aren’t in use by the upper middle class anyway. My home town invested quite a bit into preserving older buildings, but many simply had to go, even “beautiful” ones because they simply weren’t good enough to serve the population despite nostalgia or aesthetic appeal.

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      2. rd

        Paris is one of the few cities in Europe that did not suffer the terrors of modern war over the past 150 years. It is virtually indefensible, so not even the Germans made a stand there at the end of WW II. As a result, it is generally declared an “open city” to invading armies once the defensive positions away from the city are breached. It was not even a target of significant aerial bombardment in WW II due to the general lack of industry within its limits.

        Many of the new buildings in British, German etc. cities are due to the WW II bombing and ground warfare with artillery bombardment that destroyed many old buildings.

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        1. Prairie Bear

          This comment reminds me of the film Is Paris Burning?, which was based on a book of the same name. Apparently, Hitler wanted it to, when the Allies were advancing and he knew it was lost. I always keep meaning to watch it and then don’t for some reason.

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          1. steelyman

            In that movie, the German commander of Paris played by Gert Froebe (he also starred as the baddie Goldfinger in the 007 movie of the same name opposite Sean Connery) defies Hitler’s direct orders to destroy Paris as the Allies advanced ever closer. If I recall correctly, the title “Is Paris burning?” is supposedly an actual quote from one of Hitler’s final phone calls to the German general.

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    2. eg

      PK, the future-oriented intergenerational commitment you so astutely identify in the construction of the great cathedrals is the subject of a poem or prayer attributed to Archbishop Romero, which includes these lines:

      “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
      between the master builder and the worker.

      We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
      We are prophets of a future not our own.”

      This idea is particularly near and dear to the hearts of those among us who have dedicated our lives to education in one form or other.

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  2. Jeff

    All of our technological prowess hasn’t found a way to create spaces that inspire the same sort of awe of these centuries-old houses of worship

    May I suggest you take a tour of the interior of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona? When I first entered the place, I was literally struck with awe, and had to sit down for a long moment. I haven’t been able to find words or images that fit what basically one person designed: the architecture, the design, the light, the scumpture… all come together to create a beauty that is not of this world.
    As for Notre Dame, France still has the knowhow to rebuild the cathedral, and the French billionaires have already committed 300 million euros (at 9am CET). But you are right. Past experience shows it takes about 20 years to rebuild.
    As aside, Craig Murray is musing on his site in what world we live, where we can spend countless billions in war adventures, and don’t have time or money to develop the measures that prevent the loss of such treasures.

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    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That’s fair, I have seen the Sagrada Familia on a Sunday morning, when not too crowded, and it is a terrifically inspiring building. But its bones emulate those of a great medieval cathedral. Even though Gaudi modernized it though his flamboyant glasswork and more playful stone ornaments, the structure itself strongly emulates that of traditional great cathedrals.

      In addition, glad to see that billionaires are sometimes willing to do the right thing.

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      1. NoOneInParticular

        We should applaud the billionaires for “doing the right thing” as Yves put it, as we should the individuals who have already begun contributing to the restoration of the cathedral. But the French state owns Notre Dame de Paris, so should not the French state pay for the restoration? Isn’t that the purpose of government?

        These ancient monuments are a gift of the past to the present, as new structures we build ought to be gifts of the present to the future (whether any of our construction techniques will produce buildings that survive is another question – I’m doubtful). So many of these old buildings are beautiful and awe-inspiring, and a few are still functional after hundreds or even thousands of years. They deserve our collective reverence, without relying on the whims of the rich.

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        1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

          To me it feels like a moment. In 1980 Reagan was elected and a month later John Lennon was shot. I’m not sure I ever recovered. In 2019 Assange was arrested and days later Notre Dame burned down.

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      2. Yassine

        In this case, they will be doing the right thing for their wallet. As they are contributing to a work of art, such a “gift” will earn them an income tax rebate of 66% of the value of the gift, that will almost certainly be upgraded to a cool 90% when Notre Dame is legally declared a “national treasury”.

        Of course, the likes of Pinault are such fiscal optimization artists that they do not pay enough taxes for it to matter, so they will not actually give 100 million € of their own money but rather allocate funds from the companies they control (Artemis in Pinault’s case) so that the tax break applies to their company.

        In what seems like a parallel universe, I learnt this week-end that a wildlife sanctuary critical for biodiversity conservation in Vaucluse will be closed next year because the mighty French State will not renew its 40000 € subsidy. I get the symbol that Notre Dame is, yet I cannot wrap my head around how we set our priorities as a society.

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        1. jcorr

          Does it matter where they are getting the money to help rebuild? Why is it important whether or not they are getting a tax break because of their donation?

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          1. Yassine

            It matters because, to respect the rules of the fiscal pact, the loss of revenues due to the tax breaks (which will end up in the billion € range) will be offset by a decrease in government spending.

            So, when all is said and done, only 10% of the rebuild costs will be coming from the generosity of donors, while 90% will be paid in closed schools, understaffed public hospitals, cancelled public housing renovation (in which actual people are dying due to insalubrity) or reduced investments in publically funded research.

            So yeah, I get that this does not matter to the “citizens of the world” who care only about visiting the pristine version of the museum city that Paris has become, living conditions of the indigenous people be damned. For people with different sensibilities, this matters greatly.

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  3. Rana Roy

    Thank you so much for these words – quite the most apposite and quite the most beautiful that I have read on the subject since I first heard the news.

    I too seek to draw strength from the Mahabharata and its profound truths, of which I first learnt as a child, sitting at my grandmother’s feet. And yet, although I pray in the Sanskrit language every day, the first words that came to my mind in the face of this horror was the Latin prayer I learnt from my Jesuit teachers in Calcutta. There are moments when one must put aside all of one’s secular learning, and all of one’s efforts to improve the world, in order simply to “kneel where prayer has been valid” (as Eliot once put it). This is such a moment.

    Ave Maria, gratia plena,
    Maria, gratia plena,
    Maria, gratia plena,
    Ave, Ave, Dominus,
    Dominus tecum.
    Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus,
    Et benedictus fructus ventris (tui),
    Ventris tui, Jesus.
    Ave Maria!

    Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
    Ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
    Ora, ora pro nobis;
    Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
    Nunc et in hora mortis,
    In hora mortis nostrae.
    In hora, hora mortis nostrae,
    In hora mortis nostrae.
    Ave Maria!

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  4. eg

    I never got to see it in person, though my wife did.

    Looking around me I don’t see any evidence that our culture is building with any consideration of permanence or legacy.

    If we are remembered at all, I fear it will be as object lessons of the folly of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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  5. vidimi

    thanks for this post. i feel a great sense of loss this morning, as if a member of the family had passed away. i surveyed the damage this morning and it was comforting to see that the main structure was indeed saved, although the beautiful roof and spire is completely gone. the loss to humanity is incalculable, even if it is, as i hope, much less than feared.

    tourists today can marvel at the ruins of the acropolis, angkor wat, macchu picchu, but few if any can imagine what these monuments looked like in their splendor. i hope france will rebuild so future generations won’t have to imagine, but i also expect that this will take much time. furthermore, the artisans required to do the work are very few, so they will have to be diverted from other worthwhile projects. perhaps this will increase apprenticeship.

    i admit i also immediately thought that the intersection of capitalism and neoliberalism must be to blame, but we will know soon enough, when the smoke clears and the ashes settle.

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  6. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    I nearly visited the old lady once, but the crowds put me off & had likewise like PK resolved to visit again under the same circumstances. It is incredible the awe that these buildings can still conjure up in our world of constant imagery & other structures that now dwarf them. I still recall how I felt as a nine year old on a school trip wandering around Salisbury Cathedral with a feeling of that there was something in the air, besides the reverberations of a distant choir practice.

    My atheist Father later had me imagine what it would have been like to visit such a place in the Middle ages, when even small English village churches were decorated in a vivid Catholic style. All contrasted by a small scale world with very little in the way of imagery or bright colours – imagine he said,, visiting Saint Peters during the high Renaissance & seeing the works of Michelangelo, Raphael etc, before returning in your rags to the squalor of your everyday existence from what he described as a magic show that somehow manages to touch the mystery.

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  7. AdrianD.

    Excellent post. I hope the sheer shock of the awfulness of this will lead to a re-evaluation of the system that you mention in your final paragraph, but I fear that what we’re in for is just a few weeks of hand-wringing about our ‘shared heritage’ from the kind of people who have given less than a toss about that of Greece and Italy over the last few years.

    https://www.newsweek.com/italys-ancient-monuments-and-cultural-heritage-crumbling-68467

    https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2018/09/20/greece-privatization-cultural-heritage-chania/

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  8. David

    Thank you Yves. If I may, I’ll widen the focus a bit and talk about how this loss is being perceived and what it might mean.
    One of the things about ND (picking up PK’s point) is that it is representative of the monumental architecture of its day, the height of technology, taking decades if not generations to construct, and by far the largest and most imposing building that its worshippers could ever expect to see in their lifetimes. As Kenneth Clarke famously remarked in the last episode of his TV essay “Civilisation”, the Middle Ages built temples to God, whereas the modern world builds temples to Mammon.
    In many ways, ND itself is the centre of France: literally, because distances are conventionally measured to the parvis of the cathedral. It is built in the oldest part of the city, on a defensible island, and it was effectively the dividing line between the area to the South (the Left Bank) where the universities were and the area to the North (the Right Bank) where the tradesmen lived. This is still the fundamental division of Paris today. Likewise, as Paris expanded to the West, the working class was progressively pushed out to the East of the city, with ND being roughly athwart the dividing line. As you walk along the Right Bank (where the power has always been) you pass the Palais Royal, the Louvre, the Elysée, the Opera, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe and then in the distance you see the hideous new buildings of La Défense. It’s the evolution of the French state. This is why, in 1944, De Gaulle began his victory parade after the Liberation by walking from the Arc de Triomphe down to Notre Dame, taking symbolic possession of French history for the French people and the Republic again.
    There are also going to be some interesting political repercussions. Logically, in a France which is largely secular, where only about 5% of the population attend Church regularly, there should not have been the outburst of popular grief that we have been seeing. To say that France is historically Christian and Catholic should be just a mundane pragmatic judgement. But in recent years it has become unsayable, and interpreted as racist, sympathising with the extreme Right, or even being openly fascist. French history as a whole is now regarded in some quarters as downright suspect. Macron’s is the last generation to have been taught anything like traditional history. The fashion in state schools today is to teach history not sequentially, but as a series of “themes”, largely divorced from dates. So it’s not unusual (it’s happened to me) to meet young people who don’t know whether the French Revolution came before the First World War or after. In turn, this has created a hunger for films, TV series and most of all books of popular history, largely written by authors of Right-wing romantic opinions, because people actually do want to learn about their own history, and don’t particularly want to be ashamed of it. The fixation with slavery, the Empire and the Vichy regime, as though that was all that French history consisted of, is quite different to the traditional enthusiasm for the history of France across the political spectrum, extending even to the Communists, who could use terms like “national glory” unselfconsciously. The acme is probably a book published a few years ago called “France in the World”, intended to put French history in its place as a relatively minor blip in humanity’s story, except where its role was negative. The book received saturation coverage in the right-thinking media.
    What we’re seeing today is distantly related to this, to the gilets jaunes, the “sovereignist” movements of Left and Right, and the general reaction against Neo-liberalism. People want their identity back. How this will play out is far too early to say, but Macron is particularly ill-suited to manage the public mood. We’ll see some signs in the European elections next month.

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    1. flora

      …and the general reaction against Neo-liberalism. People want their identity back.

      Yes. If Thatcher was right – ‘There is no society, only individuals’; if Macron was right – ‘Nationalism is treason’ (to what?, one wonders) – then according to their philosophy my response to the fire should be only a momentary interest. After all, I’ve never visited France and am not Catholic. They can tell me society doesn’t matter, country doesn’t matter, democracy doesn’t matter, and western civilization doesn’t matter. I don’t believe them.

      The Notre Dame fire is heartbreaking.

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      1. dearieme

        “If Thatcher was right – ‘There is no society, only individuals’” She said no such thing. What she said was:

        I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

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    2. NotReallyHere

      Excellent post and loved Yves thoughts.
      I read a biography of Frederick the great many years ago. In the introduction the author told about how, when communism in East Germany was failing, statues of that king – previously destroyed by the bolsheviks – reappeared in town squares across East Germany. Locals hid the fragments away for over forty years.

      Relating this to this current tragic event makes me wonder if France will experience a similar moment. The feeling is palpable that the cultural glue that holds the country together is failing. I wonder if this event will trigger a fight back whatever happens, it will be a very sensitive process for France’s politicians.

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  9. shtove

    Well, it looked like the entire place had been gutted, but the stone vaults seem to have been breached only where the spire collapsed. Bloody hell – tempered in the fire! So basically a forest fire on top of a rock.

    It is interesting to watch the media hyping tradition and religion.

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  10. Dan Fitzpatrick

    My first visit to Paris was in the early ‘70s. At that time, the exterior of Notre Dame was pretty much black, the patina of decades (if not centuries) of smoke and other environmental filth. Though I knew of the treasures it contained, I was then still at a high level of vehemence in the anti-religious backlash to my strict Catholic upbringing and I disdained to go inside.

    I didn’t return to Paris for maybe 20 or 25 years and when I did I found that the intervening sand-blasting project had been completed. Couldn’t help thinking ‘My, oh my, old girl. You do scrub up well’. Still didn’t go inside, though. That wasn’t until about ten years ago and, of course, I was — and am — extremely glad that I did.

    A propos of the contradictions between ancient magnificence and modern ‘whatever’ thinking, I am reminded of something amusing I saw in Venice a few years ago. There was a church (sorry, don’t recall the name) which wasn’t as old as Notre Dame, maybe ‘only’ 400-500 years, which was undergoing renovation. On the fence that had been erected around it, there were large placards explaining the various aspects of the work that was being done; very informative. And on the last one in the sequence it said ‘For more information about this project, go to www.(whateveritwas).it’. I had to laugh.

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    1. harold

      I first visited as a child in the 1950s and the Paris in my mind’s eye is still the one of black, silvery, smokey buildings, grey skies and vacant streets.

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  11. Boris

    I have seen a lot of places in Europe and the USA, but nothing came close to the experience I had when I entered Notre Dame five years ago. In a certain sense I’ve always been homeless–I can not feel patriotism, not even “european patriotism”, and I have no religion. But when I was standing there in Notre Dame it came over me like an epiphany: This is christian Europe, and like it or not: This is my home. I belong here. This is me.

    No other place…

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  12. William Beyer

    Thanks, Yves, for the thoughtful and heartfelt words. As an architect who has visited the grand old lady several times, I was stunned seeing live footage of the roof being consumed. Recalling that the roof timber was at least a thousand years old, I knew the damage would be severe, but seeing this morning that the the stone vaulting largely survived gives hope. A significant part of Notre Dame’s visual impact are the views across the Seine of its buttresses, apse and towers. We can only hope they are all repairable. My daughter was able to travel to France for the first time a couple of years back, and I made sure that she saw the place. She texted me a very nice photo, which I will pass on for your use, if you decide to collect readers’ images for an off-content Antidote or two.

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  13. Stanislav

    This was truly wonderful, thank you Yves. I have seen it from the inside only once many years ago, and I still cherish that memory. On each subsequent visit to Paris, I was, just like PlutoniumKun, deterred by the crowds.

    I do agree that Sagrada Familia or Koeln cathedral evoke a similar sense of awe, but imho the ultimate statement of the sentiment so beautifully expressed in your post would be the Chartres cathedral. If you ever find yourself in Paris nostalgic for that particular feeling, a short train trip is well worth it.

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    1. vidimi

      notre dame obviously has a very special place in my heart, but perhaps the two religious structures in europe that floored me most were the hagia sophia and the mesquita in cordoba. the former was built in only 7 years.

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      1. Stanislav

        oooh mesquita, i forgot about it. spectacular building, i agree. nowhere else had i had such a palpable sense of history.

        however by “similar” i meant “gothic catholic cathedral similar”, and mesquita ain’t that.

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        1. vidimi

          yeah, for sure. i’ve been to a number of gothic cathedrals in france, britain, germany, and maybe elsewhere, and i haven’t seen one that holds a candle to notre dame de paris. koln is taller, but more austere. rheims has stained glass by chagall. NDP has it all, though. the history, the stature, the treasures, the grace.

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        1. The Rev Kev

          Mention was made that the wooden tower that burned at Notre Dame was only built in the 19th century as an add-on. The same once happened with the Pantheon. Some Bishop got it into his mind to add a tower on either side of the main entrance and the Romans of the time hated it. They said that it made the Pantheon look like a donkey with the towers being the ears. Eventually they were removed. When I was inside it once, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a Roman building that was still in existence and that Romans of the Empire once worshiped here. Suddenly the generations between us and those ancient Romans did not seem so vast after all.

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    2. Prairie Bear

      Chartres is indeed remarkable. My partner and I took a day trip on the train from Paris in 1995. Aside from wandering around and looking, there was a formal tour. I was struck by hearing that the mostly illiterate people of the day were all capable of “reading” the stories in the relief sculptures on every surface. There were hundreds or maybe thousands. They grew up with it and lived it and knew them all by heart.

      This was a winter trip, BTW. All of our European ones were. I mention it because several have referred to the crowds. Some places were still very busy, but much better I suppose than in peak season.

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  14. dearieme

    My favourite cathedral is Ely. But each to his own.

    If you want to see another side of medieval buildings intended for permanence, visit Hermitage Castle. Then you’ll realise what dreadful really means.

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      1. dearieme

        You really need to go there. It’s the anti-particle to Yves’ “Notre Dame provided comfort and hope”.

        We went once and will never go again.

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  15. CBBB

    I had a long layover in Paris this past Christmas and decided to take the train into the city for a few hours – to Notre Dame since there is a direct train from CDG. At the time I had felt it to be a bit of a stupid decision since CDG is so far from the city and its a 10€ charge each way even with an 8 hour layover it hardly makes sense to do it. Now I am glad I did.

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  16. Jeff

    Latest update is that all three big stained glass windows survived (though one is in bad shape), as well as the big organ.
    While there is no lack of carpenters, ciselers, or other craftsmen to rebuild the cathedral, and apparently no lack of money either, there could be a lack of building materials, eg nobody stocks the required types and quantities of timber.

    Reply
    1. vidimi

      i read that some of the wood were 110m long beams of oak. imagine that, a 130m oak, felled in the 12th or 11th century. it must have been thousands of years old already then.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        There’s no beam of single oak that long. In fact, there was no known oak taller than about 45m (which would give you shorter beam).

        When you look here you can see that it was a large number of beams put togehter – the 100+ is the total length of the structure. When you look at the photos, you can actually see why it burned so well (in a lot of places,it’s basically stucked like a nice ovresized kindling stack)..

        And, unfortunately, you can also see that there was very little done in terms of fire-prevention measures (it’s not a complete picture, but I can’t see anywhere the tell-tale shapes of fire detectors, and I’d expect to see one at least in picture 4).

        I don’t know of any oak (living or historical) that would be tousands of year old, IIRC they tend to live around 500-700 years, a single thousand on the outside.

        Still, doesn’t make your basic argument any less valid :)

        Reply
      2. dearieme

        Hundreds maybe. Not thousands.

        Woodland can be thousands of years old, but the individual trees will be much younger.

        Reply
  17. Darius

    I’m hoping a silver lining in this will be a renewed interest in traditional architecture, craftsmanship, and techniques, although perhaps applied in artful new ways in some instances.

    Would it have been so difficult to plumb a temporary water supply to the job site? I would think it a prerequisite where blowtorches are being used in the presence of so much old oak.

    Reply
    1. vidimi

      it’s a few meters away from the seine. all that firefighting water, with all its pollutants, must have made it back to the river.

      Reply
  18. Joe Well

    Beautifully expressed, this tragedy is both example of and metaphor for our current society’s poor stewardship of everything.

    The reason I blame neoliberalism is that this is such a typical preventible disaster of our time, like the California widfires that were started by transformers or the Houston chemical fire: renovation fires are just so common, great steps have to be taken to prevent them and obviously weren’t in this case and I am sure no one at all will be held accountable except the lowest level idiot who maybe forgot to unplug something.

    Reply
  19. Tim

    Thank you, Yves. I’ve only been there once, am hardly religious but felt an odd sense of loss this morning which you helped me understand.The Noble Truth of Impermanence lies behind so much of our foolishness.

    Reply
  20. David

    I have a longer comment stuck in moderation’ but just to add two quick points on the wider context.
    First’ to state the obvious this is Holy Week, when there were large -scale events planned for every day, leading up to Sunday. Quite what’s going to happen now is unclear. Likewise if you wanted to identify a week when a tragedy like this would have the maximum impact in all sorts of areas, well, this is the week that would come to mind. Because the Church in France is organized and hierarchical even non-believers tend to be more conscious of its activities.
    The other is that poor Paris has been through a lot recently. From the attacks of 2015 and 16, the soldiers, the security, the refugees, the beggars, the gilets jaunes, the pollution, the traffic, people have wondered what else could possibly go wrong. To many people this is going to seem like the end of the world.

    Reply
  21. Krystyn Walentka

    In 1987 I was dating a French woman and she invited me to stay with her in Paris for the summer. One day while wandering around Paris alone I ended up at the Notre Dame Cathedral. While inside I had my second spiritual transformation. The experience harmonized my cognitive dissonance and I learned to let go.

    The building that can be built is not the eternal building. That is what the Dao taught me.

    Reply
    1. Foy

      “The building that can be built is not the eternal building. That is what the Dao taught me.”
      Me too…how to let go…I’m with you there Krystyn

      Reply
  22. orlbucfan

    Beautifully written, Yves. Thank you. I have never been to Paris though I have traveled to Europe. I visited London, and had good weather. I walked over to Westminster Cathedral. The interior was closed for the day so I circled the whole structure. You could feel the age, and the history. I could almost smell it. Nothing like that exists here in America. I have seen old churches and the Tiffany Collection of stained glass. That is a fine art form that is simply wonderful. I’m glad to read that the stained glass windows of ND were not destroyed. Still, all things are impermanent. Change has always been the center of life.

    Reply
  23. Louis Fyne

    on the plus side, only the timber roof/spire burned (versus structural damage to the stone) and all the artifacts were human-chained out by first responders.

    Completely ignorant, wikipedia says that the French Government owns the cathedral (and most historic cathedrals in France). ….and that deferred maintenance has been decades in the making

    So I guess that the onus of maintenance was on France (and the Catholic Church for just shrugging their shoulders and point the finger at the gov’t)? Just saying as an ignorant person remote viewer

    Reply
  24. DJG

    Thank you, Yves. Your evocation is poetic, which means prophetic, too. We spend a lot of words here and a lot of time reading here about the doings of the world. We don’t always get time here or observations here about our civilization and our place in it.

    Just as Handel and Bach are high points in Western art and in understanding the Western mind, the great old cathedrals and churches are the embodiment of years of worshippers entering and leaving, years of art donated and accumulated–and often very little dogma evident. (I noticed this recently in the wonderfully odd little church of Santa Maria in Aquiro, in Rome, which is filled with paintings and sculptures of angels, many playing musical instruments, and a painting of Saint Sebastian, the body-builder saint, and hardly a dogma in sight.)

    The great Gothic cathedrals all were built over many years and are something of a patchwork. Being a patchwork, like Western civilization itself, means that it may be slightly easier to repair Notre Dame.

    And as I was reminded at Santa Maria, with its angels and gentleness, Notre Dame is dedicated to a very old divinity, on a site that has been sacred for generations, a divinity who is likely the first Western divinity, a rather humble and immanent and accessible divinity, the very opposite of the severity of the various Organized Churches and all of their seeming glory. Even a bad Catholic and bad Buddhist like me knows that this event has touched us in a deep part of our (oh so distracted) hearts.

    Reply
  25. Eclair

    Yves, thank you for your lovely reflection on impermanence, the brevity of life and our puny attempts to deny death.

    One of my most vivid memories is of, not Notre Dame de Paris, but Notre Dame de Chartres. My spouse and I were bicycling from Paris to Chartres, along a rural back road, an agricultural track really, that probably dated from early Medieval, if not from Roman, times. It was August, and we rode slowly through fields that were golden with ripening wheat and nodding sunflowers. The road unraveling, the arc of blue sky overhead, the fields stretching to infinity, we were becoming drowsy just rolling along.

    Then we glimpsed a tiny finger pointing skyward against the horizon before us. Another half mile, and a tower appeared, stark against the brilliant blue sky. I called to my spouse, “It’s the Cathedral!” We were electrified and picked up our pace. I felt like a pilgrim reaching the end of the journey, drawn in by the sacred space before us. To the medieval dwellers in the countryside around Chartres, the solid bulk of those stone spires, visible for miles, must have been the comforting center of their universe, unchanging, reassuring, blessing.

    Reply
    1. Yikes

      the solid bulk of those stone spires, visible for miles, must have been the comforting center of their universe, unchanging, reassuring, blessing.

      During the inquisition, St. Bartholomew massacre, and so forth; they might well have been the exact opposite, a tower as fearsome as Barad-dûr, a marker of evils’ domination of the world.

      Reply
    2. Prairie Bear

      That sounds like a wonderful trip. I mentioned going to Chartres above, but we went there on the train. Still, very moving. I had an experience of excitement similar to what you describe here when I first laid eyes on the aqueduct in Segovia. We took a bus from the new town to the old and I was watching eagerly out the front and had that same “There it is!” feeling.

      Reply
  26. Eudora Welty

    This is so lovely, Yves. Thank you.

    I must confess that when I read “Notre Dame in flames” on my phone, I initially assumed it was about the university in Indiana.

    It sounds off-topic, but last week I mentioned the Pieta to a colleague (early 30s, masters of divinity, ordained Protestant minister) who didn’t know what the Pieta was.

    I wonder how many Americans under age 35 even feel a connection with places like Notre Dame. Art History & World History seem optional.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      I always felt that Europeans were surrounded by history in their buildings, which had to influence their way of thinking that most Americans could never appreciate, as our buildings are mundane mostly, with scant historical status, even more so on the west coast, where something pre 1900 is gee whiz! territory.

      Notre Dame is but one building, imagine rebuilding Warsaw as it was previously, after the Nazis had laid waste to it late in the war?

      We would’ve put up condos…

      Reply
      1. Joe Well

        The vast majority of continental European buildings are from the late 1800s onward, because that was the population explosion of the Industrial Revolution, so before then, not many people and not many buildings. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia look older, once you get out of the medieval or classical sections of the continental European cities, because they industrialized much earlier. In East Asia, it’s even more stark. As Yves noted about Japan, they don’t embody their cultural heritage in long-lived buildings or even cities (successive wars have made that impossible), but in intangible cultural memory and portable works of art.

        Anyway, California != USA, thank God.

        Sorry, I have heard some variant of this every time I leave the country and I’m sick of it.

        Reply
        1. Wukchumni

          Take a walk in Prague and not feel as if you’re traipsing through time, I dare you.

          Old edifices shape us because of the mythical value of all those that came before us that also enjoyed what we’re glimpsing…

          Reply
          1. Off The Street

            Cathedrals, neighborhoods and other physical manifestations speak out to those who may find themselves listening. Whether bells, statuary, architecture or fellow humans there is something to behold in Notre Dame as there is in Prague, Venice and so many other areas of living history.

            A history professor taught about how cathedrals were designed to accommodate the hordes of faithful on pilgrimage trails. With little effort one may tag along figuratively or literally with those pilgrims while reading Chaucer, hiking to Santiago de Compostela or visiting another cathedral like Chartres. The statues alone tell quite a story before one gazes up at the rose windows and myriad details.

            Those are analogs to the natural world of National Parks, each evocative in its own way.

            Reply
          2. Joe Well

            Take a walk in Prague and not feel as if you’re traipsing through time, I dare you.

            You completely ignored what I wrote.

            You could say the same about Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, and not just in the city centers but for far around, you’re surrounded by the 19th century’s slow transformation into the 21st century.

            I’m going to guess you’re talking about the scenic tourist version of Prague, which is the problem: people compare the most quaint parts of country X with a suburban strip mall (which is the vast majority of the built environment west of the Mississippi). Do a Google image search on “Prague suburbs” or better yet, “Paris suburbs.” It’s a sea of concrete high-rises with the occasional nineteenth century brick building like you’d see in an Eastern US downtown.

            For me, it is a tragedy that so many North Americans go to Europe and don’t return to their home countries with new eyes to appreciate what they have, but instead just appreciate it even less.

            And let me just add: there are still plenty of places west of the Mississippi that are worth appreciating if you took the time to do so.

            Reply
            1. Yikes

              Hear, hear! There is a mighty weight to all that too, and often not a positive. One of the attractions of the new world was the possibility to own land, taken cheaply with a one sided blood bath, from it’s former owners – a near impossibility in Europe.

              Reply
            2. Wukchumni

              The most interesting buildings one tends to see in the west are the WPA art deco efforts of the 30’s, really the last vestige of art in architecture, and all of them for public use. I grew up with an awful melange of 50’s kitsch and 60’s space age nonsense in L.A., with really only the Bradbury Building as something old, revolutionary, and inspiring.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradbury_Building

              Reply
      1. WobblyTelomeres

        I was inside in 1957 when I was one. My 21yo Mom was happy and beautiful and so very young in the photo.

        Reply
        1. orange cats

          Oh yes. I have a picture of my 20 something mom on Market Street in San Francisco in 1957. She looked like a movie star.

          Reply
    1. juliania

      Thanks to Yves, for a beautiful piece. And thanks, WT, for your link. When I went to it, somehow this came up after, which is I think a different link:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQUOl8VnudA

      I watched this twice through and found it very informative, answering some of the questions by means of a guided tour. Well worth the time, even though at the beginning the young man seems more interested in the cathedral’s royal patrons (as well as another wealthy patron,)than the beautiful Pieta occupying the central altar space. Also interesting is the description the guide gives of the three rose windows and their relative age as renovations were made down through the centuries.

      Reply
  27. Debra D.

    Thank you. Your thoughts very much resonated with me. When my husband and I were in Paris in 2010, we visited the archeological displays on site under the plaza of the Cathedral, but not the Cathedral itself.

    On my reflection, my first look over the Grand Canyon near the El Tovar Lodge raised that experience of awe and mystery.

    Reply
  28. Roger Smith

    As terrible as it is to see this incredible architecture burn, I can’t help but see it as that powerful edifice speaking to the world, reflecting the decadence around it.

    Reply
  29. PKMKII

    My mind goes to, while not skipping over the loss, what the restoration will look like and how it will end up being part of future history. Centuries from now, people will look back and what was done in the reconstruction effort of the “nouvelle” Notre Dame and how that was a reflection of the era, just as how we saw it prior to yesterday impacts our reflection of the high medieval. Which means some hard choices as to how much to restore to historical detail, and how much to reinvent, re-imagine, and how much to make totally new, in material as well as design.

    And even when it is restoration of the original, which original? The way as it looked on Sunday, or the way it would have looked to parishioners in the 13th century? One of the points made in the wake of the damage is that the western facade may have originally been painted, and that much like old roman statues, the way we’ve grown up seeing it is as it has decided to be “preserved.” So the rebuilding will not just be a restoring of the past, but a decision of how France decides to see itself in this moment, how it sees its past as shaping the moment, and where both will take it going forward. The silver lining in all this is that while much of the history has been destroyed, France has the opportunity to write its history now in a way that rarely is available in this age of Mammon.

    Reply
  30. The Rev Kev

    A beautiful post, Yves. I only ever saw Notre Dame from the outside but you could see that it was in a class of its own. A beautiful Cathedral. I saw about a minute’s footage of it burning and after that I did not want to see it any more. I bet that those fire-fighters did a helluva job saving what they did. I know that the cathedral will be rebuilt and this time with more safety measures built in but I am sad that we no longer know how to build beautiful buildings like this. St. Paul’s in London is fantastic and the Florence Cathedral is simply stunning. There was so much of art in their architectural design work in so many details back then. I once saw a row of windows in a centuries old building near the Lourve which stopped me in my tracks. Its hard to describe but the windows were in the exact proportion that they should have been in with the right amount of spacing. I know this sounds stupid and perhaps most people would not have noticed them but I did and have never forgotten them. In Rome you walk down a street to St. Peter’s Square and when you reach it, it just opens up on either side of you in a sense of grandeur. I look at modern buildings that are all concrete, metal and glass with no ornamentation and I ask myself to whom does this sort of design seem to be a good idea. Maybe that is why so many old charming buildings are torn down – in shame. I suppose that right now the firefighters at Notre Dame are stabilising what they can, watching for any re-ignition points and are starting to asses what damage the Cathedral has incurred. But it will be a generation before it is rebuilt. Would you believe that while Notre Dame was burning, that there was also a fire at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Temple Mount? Fires like these can occur anywhere there are such precious buildings and they must be protected both for us and future generations for centuries to come.

    Reply
  31. Ekatarina Velika

    Beautifully written, Yves. Thank you.
    When I saw this on the news yesterday, my first impression was the description of the library burning in Umbero Eco’s The Name of the Rose:
    “We looked at the church, now burning slowly, for it is characteristic of these great constructions to blaze up quickly in their wooden parts and then to agonize for hours, sometimes for days. The conflagration of the Aedificium was different. Here inflammable material was much more abundant, and the fire, having spread all through the scriptorium, had invaded the kitchen floor. As for the top floor, where once, and for hundreds of years, there had been the labyrinth, it was now virtually destroyed.
    ‘It was the greatest library in Christendom,’ William said. ‘Now,’ he added, ‘the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more.'”

    Reply
  32. Keith Newman

    So sad about Notre dame. I have been there a number of times and found it remarkable each time.
    Your piece was beautifully written Yves. Thank you. Perhaps one day you’ll try your hand at a novel or other form of literature. Maybe in Alabama (good luck with the move by the way) you’ll have a less hectic life once you’ve settled in and will be able to give it a go.

    Reply
  33. John

    Great, good fortune has allowed me in this lifetime to stand in the interior of Notre Dame to see the colored light of the sun streaming through the great rose window. Great good fortune has also exposed me to the teaching of Yama, Lord of Death where he tries to get humans to understand: impermanence is the human condition.
    I saw this on a temple wall in Kyoto a while ago:

    For why are you trying to please your eyes,
    That the master and his house are hasting each other to their death,
    Surely resembles the fate of the dew on the morning glory.

    I love the wisdom of the people of Paris who decided to sing a song as they stood while their cathedral burned.

    Reply
  34. stefan

    The French have, far and away, the most highly trained and skilled architectural restoration artisans in the world. They also maintain special forest preserves and quarries for this sort of eventuality. Looking on the bright side, this event will be an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion, mobilizing in creative and innovative ways.

    Keep in mind that everything we cherish is eventually crushed and returned to dust, lost in the long range of time. What we can do, and should do, is conduct ourselves appropriately during our lifetimes, and care for what we love as best we can.

    Reply
  35. Eclair

    We mourn the destruction of a great architectural creation, the work of thousands of human hands and hearts over hundreds of years. As is right and just.

    We so seldom mourn the destruction of the great creations of Nature. The clear cutting of centuries-old majestic forests on a mountain-side, the dynamiting of a wilderness peak to expose seams of coal, the poisoning of a once clear-running river by industrial effluents, the crushing of thousands of acres of snow forest in the Athabaskan wilderness to create a black, oily, toxic scar, elicit perhaps a passing sigh. No Go-Fund-Me sites, no urgent governmental funding of repair projects, no crowds of people praying and singing, except for, perhaps, some faithful remnants of former Native Nations, who regarded these mighty works of Nature as sacred, protected sites.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      I feel blessed to live on the front porch of the back of beyond, where 405,000 acres were set aside from scant development other than Mother Nature’s whims, in one of our national cathedrals.

      …a Sequoia tree as old as Notre Dame is a teenager in the hierarchy up high

      Reply
  36. Wukchumni

    One of the aims of the Taliban & ISIS was to destroy ancient structures, such as the Buddhas in Bamyan went boom, and more recently Palmyra was laid to waste in Syria.

    This mysterious blaze comes about a month after the mass murder of 50 Muslims in Christchurch (think of the unintentional double meaning there in the name of a big city in a country that isn’t really that religious), and Notre Dame a perfect historical target, in that construction started smack dab in the middle of the Crusades, to rid the Holy Land of Muslim rule there.

    Reply
        1. Off The Street

          Gauloise is divided into three parts, the cigarette, the pack and the matchbook.
          Julius ‘Tabac’ Caesar

          Reply
    1. Susan the other`

      It’s possible, too, that they realized the planned restoration would run way over budget and last much longer. This in a time of social austerity. There could be lotsa people with a motive to set fire to Notre Dame. It was an interesting factoid that the fire didn’t start until evening services were over and everyone had left the cathedral. But coincidence does sometimes happen. Who knows? Notre Dame was such an intricate and complex masterpiece I question whether it could be restored. It would be better to turn its ruins into a monument than to create some replacement as tacky as the Church of the Sacred Heart.

      Reply
          1. flora

            Adding from Wikpedia:
            In the Medieval era, linseed oil was boiled with lead oxide (litharge) to give a product called boiled linseed oil.

            It’s possible the ND restorers were using linseed oil on some wood surfaces to keep the restoration materials period correct. This is just a guess.

            Reply
  37. urblintz

    Very relieved that the organ was not completely destroyed, although repairing the historic pipe organs of history is mostly a lost art. Many organists were dismayed that it was “computerized” in 1992, although its original “tracker” action (all the pipes are opened with a direct mechanical connection to the keyboard) had already been replaced with electronic action before that. And it seems that, although it wasn’t completely destroyed, it may need to be replaced. Flentrop, a Dutch company that specializes in tracker instruments, would be a great choice if a new one needs to be built.

    https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Notre-Dame-s-pipe-organ-its-fate-unclear-awed-13770694.php

    Reply
  38. mega mike

    most of the great cathedrals aren’t always as original as people think. Many, including Notre Dame, had a massive amount of 19th Century intervention by people who thought they didn’t look medieval enough (the tour guides rarely talk too much about this). Many have been destroyed and rebuilt by fire, especially after WWII – St. Stephens in Vienna as one particularly beautiful example.

    Looking around me I don’t see any evidence that our culture is building with any consideration of permanence or legacy.

    If we are remembered at all, I fear it will be as object lessons of the folly of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    Reply
  39. stevelaudig

    The French state, which owns the cathedral, already devotes up to 2 million euros a year in upkeep, or about $2.4 million.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/world/europe/notre-dame-fire.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer

    Chump change. Assuming this is all the French state spent on ‘upkeep’ maintenance and ‘upgrades’. I’ve not seen any other figure as to amounts spent say on ‘fireproofing’.

    I wonder how much the French state ‘spent’ on the wars on Muslim states. But that would be seen as being petty in this time of tragedy however informative it is on choices the French state has made.

    Reply
  40. barrisj

    I first visited Notre-Dame in 1966, well before the arrival of mass tourism, advance ticketing, timed visits, the lot. I remember a sunny day, sitting undisturbed for several hours on one of the wooden chairs, marveling at the riot of colours cast upon the floors as the sun moved past the stained-glass windows, a sight duplicated nowhere else in its majesty and brilliance. Then one could quite leisurely walk up the narrow, spiraled stone stairwells within the South Tower up to the roof of the cathedral, and take in the most remarkable of views, absolutely stunning in its scope. We were last there two years ago, and – as previously noted – the experience in the era of mass regimented tourism fell rather short of that earlier time. But one cannot gainsay the sheer grandeur and splendor of the structure, whether one is an atheist or believer. It transcends humanity in its grace.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      I saw the Sistine Chapel before and after restoration, and what was previously a darkened overhead metaphorically and otherwise, cleaned up to show Michelangelo to truly be the painter of light™. (with no offense to Thomas Kinkade)

      Reply
  41. Otis B Driftwood

    Many years ago I read a book of essays by Ingmar Bergman, reflections on his craft as a filmmaker. In one of those essays that has stuck with me over the years, he compares the collaborative process of making movies to the construction of Notre Dame. The former being animated by ego, whereas those craftsman who built Notre Dame did so anonymously and for the glory of God.

    In trying to find the exact quote (unsuccessfull), I learned with sadness that Bibi Andersson has died at age 83. One of Bergman’s many muses, she is probably best know for her role in ‘Persona’, but my favorites with her are ‘Smiles of Summer Night’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.

    Reply
  42. David in Santa Cruz

    Yves, your reference to the parable from the Mahabharata is most appropriate. Memento mori.

    My daughter, who is in her early twenties and living overseas (not far from the recent tragedy in Christchurch NZ), wrote last night to thank me for taking her to see Notre-Dame de Paris when she was a young child. I reminded her that the cathedral that she saw was mostly the result of XVIII and XIX century reconstructions.

    The courageous and skilled Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris saved the medieval walls and towers. Let us reflect on our impermanence, but let us also rejoice in the basilica of Notre-Dame de Paris as Sir Kenneth Clark did in the introduction to his great television survey of Western art: it will continue as the representation of Civilisation long beyond our temporary existence.

    Reply
  43. boz

    Thank you Yves, for a beautiful piece that increases my affection for NC.

    Mrs boz and I have been to Notre Dame on our travels and this has had a deep emotional impact on us.

    Rod Dreher has posted a few pieces, but in particular this one I recommend.

    It felt apocalyptic watching the spire collapse in flames – human achievement being swallowed into fire.

    I am also reminded of the gruesome act of self destruction by a Catholic historian a few years ago in protest against same sex marriage laws. He shot himself beside the altar in Notre Dame, a peverted and deeply profane act at the heart of the place of worship.

    There is tremendous symbolism in all of this: set against increasing desecration of Christian places of worship in France, and during Holy Week, when we remember and celebrate Christ’s suffering and ultimate victory (The forging of a path to the transcendent, hitherto impassable).

    I thought this tweet from Gavin Ashenden (h/t Rod above) summed it up very well:

    “Christians understand what fire means. It either burns in judgement or purges in healing and preparation for restoration, healing and resurrection. The difference between them is repentance.”

    It is heartening to know we can rebuild, and so we shall. I for one will be chipping in to build my own little bridge across the troubled waters.

    One day I hope to be able to take the boz litter around Notre Dame and explain their connection to that amazing place.

    Reply
    1. Basil Pesto

      “He shot himself beside the altar in Notre Dame, a peverted and deeply profane act at the heart of the place of worship.”

      I’m not so sure about that – I’ve been reading James Alcock’s ‘Belief’ (psychological non-fiction about more than religion) and he relates that early Christianity was rather pro-suicide and martyrdom until it became clear to the hierarchy that this was rather counterproductive (do forgive me as I’m parahphrasing and on the road so I don’t have the book to hand to draw on its references and sources).

      I suspect the man who did kill himself would’ve believed his act to be the opposite of perverted and profane, and with some justification coherent with his belief system. A sad state of affairs in any case.

      Reply
      1. boz

        Thank you, Basil.

        I don’t wish to criticise the dead, but briefly, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

        2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

        2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

        2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

        Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

        The altar is a held as a sacred place and to enact such a grave, intentional and sinful act next to it, adds to the gravity.

        He may have been earnestly committed in his assumption about what his act could achieve, but as you say, all that became was a very sad story. At such times all we can do is pray for him, the horrified onlookers, the parishioners, and those who had to clean up afterwards.

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        1. Synoia

          I don’t recall anything like that in the NT. And the Church was quite slow about confronting the death penalty when applied to Peasants for a couple of thousand years.

          It does state: “Thou shalt not kill” in the Bible in a manner that does not contain many exceptions.

          Reply
          1. boz

            Thank you, Synoia

            Catholics draw their faith from the Bible (OT + NT) combined with the tradition (traditio: to hand over) and teaching authority of the Church.

            This is how the Catechism is formed. The link I provided shows where the Bible or other Church teaching documents provide the basis for these statements.

            In any case, Jesus does say that the first and best commandment is to love God. (Mt 22:37)

            Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            The scholars amongst us will see this is a re-affirmation of Deuteronomy 6:8.

            The act of suicide is to reject the gift of life that God has given us. It is not exactly an act of love towards our neighbours, family, or anyone else inevitably affected by the act of suicide.

            This is a sad topic and for years the teaching has been framed in judgement, not mercy. I earlier omitted the final part of the section on suicide from the Catechism:

            2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

            Reply
    2. Synoia

      The forging of a path to the transcendent, hitherto impassable

      Really? The OT is replete with comments about “sitting on the right hand of God.”

      Making the passage to the transcendent possible before Christ.

      Reply
      1. boz

        Thank you Synoia

        If you could be a bit more specific, I could comment.

        Regards your later comment about loaves and fishes: The Church does have a substantial amount of wealth, a large part of which is tied up in real estate and buildings that are expensive to maintain.

        Most churches, is they have a hall, will open them to their local community for use.

        More visibly, in Rome, the church is putting its money where it’s mouth is.

        As to Paris, the State is responsible for the cathedral as explained by the excellent correspondents above. It ultimately is up to people to allocate their resources as their conscience dictates.

        Reply
  44. Basil Pesto

    I must say I haven’t been partaking in the sentimentality over this unfortunate event. While I understand the impressiveness and monumentality to a point, cathedrals tend to leave me rather cold in a way that, it seems, post-war architecture
    does to a lot of NC readers.

    However I don’t wish to be overly disagreeable, so i thought I would share this little tidbit when I was reading some of the comments expressing concern that France might have a paucity of suitable artisans to work on the restoration. I can’t speak to that but I don’t think the situation is as dire as many might assume!

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compagnons_du_Devoir

    I learnt about this tradition a couple of years ago in a design and craft museum in Vienna, and was impressed by it.

    Reply
  45. lordkoos

    It’s a real shame, but it felt much worse to me when the Taliban dynamited the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, which were 1700 years old. But then I’m peronsally much more in line with Buddhism than Catholicism so I guess I’m prejudiced.

    Reply
  46. Synoia

    I’m a little saddened at the speed of large donations given to restored a building, however wonderful and historic, before giving large amounts for feed and house the poor.

    5 loaves and seven fishes seems to appliy….

    Reply
    1. Yassine

      90% of the donations will be offset by tax rebates, which is why the large donations come from the coffers of the companies controlled by the “philantropic” billionaires. As we say in French : “Charité bien ordonnée commence par soi-même”

      Reply
  47. Lunker Walleye

    Thank you, Yves, for a beautiful article and the chance to comment. My reaction was similar to yours. The only video I saw was what seemed like the spire sinking down into the nave and it was traumatizing (maybe a ptsd moment like watch the North Tower antenna fall?). From what I recall it was unusual for Gothic cathedrals to have spires. I did not watch the video again. Luckily, I visited the cathedral when in my early 20’s after receiving a degree in the history of art. My husband and I will be in Paris in July and I’m so sad he will never see it in it’s prior state. But mostly I am sorry for all humans who knew it and loved it as it was until yesterday, for the city of Paris and France.

    Reply
  48. freedomny

    This was beautifully written Yves. I was only at ND once – in the 70’s as a teenager. It wasn’t a tourist trap then so we were able to stay there/explore for quite a long time without crowds. It’s one of my best, and most profound, memories.

    Reply
  49. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    The beginning of the inevitable squabbling…..who pays…..tax breaks for billionaires etc, before they get to the always battle of the how in respect to the methods used to putting the old girl back together. I wonder how much is original & as is the case as far as I know with these Gothic buildings, how much consists of later editions. Salisbury cathedral being the one I know best has for instance a Victorian frontage by Gilbert Scott – it will be interesting to watch.

    https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2019/04/16/dons-pour-notre-dame-de-paris-c-est-la-collectivite-publique-qui-va-prendre-en-charge-l-essentiel-du-cout_5450972_3224.html

    Reply

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