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Remembering Notre-Dame

I first saw the cathedral of Notre-Dame in September, 1966. I had just arrived in Paris for a year of study towards a master’s degree in French. At the time, the cathedral was being cleaned to remove the many decades of dirt, soot and pollution that had turned the façade and other portions a grimy black. Postcards and photos of the era show a Notre-Dame clad in widow’s weeds.

The project had been proposed in 1963 by Minister of Culture André Malraux to mark the cathedral’s 800th birthday. Cleaning techniques requiring chemicals or pressure were rejected as too harsh, and ultimately workers actually washed the tender Lutetian limestone with scrub brushes and plain water in a painstaking manual process that lasted years. When it was at last revealed, the beautiful creamy-white stone was breathtaking. Notre-Dame looked brand new, perhaps as she did hundreds of years ago. She would not stay that way for long, however. Ever-higher levels of urban pollution took their toll, and another cleaning project had to be undertaken between 1991 and 2000.

Over the years, my teaching career provided many excellent reasons to go to France, and Paris was nearly always the starting and ending point of the visit. One of my usual travel windows fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas. During the gray, drizzly days of late autumn, I roamed a Paris virtually devoid of tourists in search of the tucked-away treasures described in my Michelin Green Guide. One of those delightful discoveries centered on the statues of the twelve apostles standing guard around the spire of Notre-Dame.

The spire, a close copy of the one at the cathedral of Orléans, was installed by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to replace a crumbling earlier version removed in the 1780s. The delicate, lacy creation was the crowning touch to his massive 20-year restoration of the cathedral, completed in 1864.

The apostles were arranged symmetrically around the spire, in four ascending rows of three each. Eleven of the apostles gazed out over the city of Paris, but one, at the top of the row on the southeast side, was turned inward.

He looked up, toward the top of the spire, left arm bent, hand shielding his eyes from the sun. In his right hand he held an architect’s scale engraved with the Latin words “Non amplius dubito”—“I no longer doubt.” This apostle is Saint Thomas, according to tradition, patron saint of architects. Viollet-le-Duc signed his work in an unusual fashion, supposedly creating the statue after his own likeness. Whenever I was showing a family member or friend around Paris, I always pointed out the anomaly of the statue of St. Thomas, aka Viollet-le-Duc, gazing up admiringly at his own handiwork.

In recent years the “Ville Lumière” has seen some very dark days. The human tragedy of numerous acts of terrorism cast an unmistakable pall over the city. As if the sting of grief and loss were not enough, there bubbled beneath the surface the threat of social and political unrest. What more could Parisians be asked to endure? In mid-April of this year, a stunned world witnessed the horrific spectacle of the fire at Notre-Dame. The very symol of the nation, around which they had rallied for centuries, had nearly been destroyed. Almost immediately, French president Emmanuel Macron said that he would like to see the reconstruction of Notre-Dame completed in five years. This wildly unrealistic proposal seems to have been motivated largely by national pride, as Paris is scheduled to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Can it be done?

We are accustomed to seeing complex modern building projects completed in relatively short amounts of time. The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years (1869–1883), the Golden Gate only 4 years (1933–1937). New York’s Twin Towers went up in 7 years, Chicago’s Sears Tower in only 3. (I know it’s called the Willis Tower now, but to any native Chicagoan it will always be the Sears Tower!) The Suez and Panama Canals were each completed in 10 years (not counting the 8 futile years of work by the French on the latter). Compare these figures with the 182-year span it took to build Notre-Dame: the cornerstone was laid in 1163, and while the major part of the structure was completed in about 100 years, the last stone was not put in place until 1345.

With few exceptions, the construction schedule of most medieval gothic cathedrals followed a similar timeframe, as have modern attempts to duplicate the gothic structures of the past. Our own Washington National Cathedral was begun in 1907 and not completed until 1990. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City was begun in 1892 and remains unfinished to this day. In fairness, we must take into account the fact that virtually every ambitious building project suffers setbacks, whether a shortage of money, a volatile political situation, an economic collapse, a war or revolution. These issues can shut down a construction site for years, even decades. This was at times the case, not only for Notre-Dame and other cathedrals, but also for their later American counterparts.

The construction of a traditional gothic cathedral is a monumental undertaking, in any age. In today’s world some of the more difficult tasks, such as lifting tons of stone blocks into place, can be easily accomplished. Builders now have access to blueprints, computers and sophisticated measuring systems. But can the techniques of the past be replaced or duplicated by the technological advances of today? In any case, the builders of both the Washington and New York cathedrals chose to stick largely with tradition. They employed the same types of skilled artisans—stonecutters, masons, sculptors and glaziers—who worked on Notre-Dame and who spent a lifetime mastering their particular crafts. This decision meant that a small number of young people were encouraged to learn time-honored and endangered ways of building, thus keeping alive the expertise necessary to repair not only Notre-Dame, but all the hundreds of other cathedrals, churches, châteaux and monuments around the world that require restoration, now and in the future.

In the months since the fire, I have wondered about the aftermath and the progress of the Herculean task of rebuilding. So I did a little digging—on the internet, of course, where so much of our cyber-age research is conducted. I found a recent New York Times article that detailed the harrowing and dangerous attempts to save the 850-year-old structure. Spectacular photos, diagrams and video vividly tell the story of French firefighters’ heroic efforts to battle the flames, giving us a new understanding of how close the cathedral came to being lost. The article’s excerpts from “Scenes from a Firefighter’s Notebook” are a poignant and personal testimony of the event. I discovered the vlog (think “blog,” but with video) of American ex-pat Jay Swanson. He paid a visit to the cathedral in late July to check on the current state of things. You can access his footage and commentary here:

The reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris, already generating contentious debate, will be a fascinating process to watch. Given the extent of the damage, it is unlikely, in spite of all fervent wishes to the contrary, that such an enormous undertaking can be completed in a mere five years. Those skilled artisans, so desperately needed now, are in short supply, a situation that won’t change anytime soon. As for the apostles, just days before the fire and the heartbreaking collapse of the spire, they had been released from duty and removed for restoration. St. Thomas and companions won’t be returning to their post anytime soon, but we can look to the inscription on his architect’s scale—“Non amplius dubito”—to dispel any doubt that Notre-Dame will rise again.


BOOK: Cathedral—The Story of Its Construction by David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1973 (available at the Santa Fe Public Library)

ARTICLE: The Threat After the Fire: The Restoration of Notre-Dame (with a great close-up of the St. Thomas statue), Leiden Arts in Society Blog


Licensed under Creative Commons.

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