“…and the fire and the rose are one.”

Impermanence is a shock, even in a faith that makes clear it’s the way of the world. Yesterday’s terrible fire in Paris was jarring and sad, but all shall be well: Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.

Throughout the day I heard many melodramatic and sentimental pronouncements, most of them by commentators who don’t know much about the history of Notre-Dame. You don’t have to be an expert on the cathedral to appreciate that its survival since the Middle Ages is itself a marvel. By the 18th century, many of its gargoyles had disintegrated or were worn into stumps. Statues over the lintel depicting the dead rising from their graves came down in the 1770s, allowing royal processions to fit more easily through the doors; revolutionaries then denuded the cathedral of statues and artwork that had enshrined cléricalisme and féodalité. Ham-handed attempts to “fix” Notre-Dame in the early 1800s by attaching new stone with quick-rusting iron pins only made the building less structurally sound.

The late Michael Camille tells the story in The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity:

One can hardly recognize Notre-Dame as we know it today from the early daguerreotype made by Vincent Chevalier just before 1840, an image in which the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile. In their 1843 project for the restoration, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus described the structure not as a church, but as a ruin. The second part of their forty-page text is a chronological account of the gradual destruction of this once magnificent Gothic edifice, not only by neglect and time but also by the violence of human hands.

Thanks to Victor Hugo’s efforts to lobby the July Monarchy in the 1830s, the French state agreed to fund restoration efforts, and architects Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus began to rescue the building in the 1840s. They turned a husk back into a cathedral, and their work was so convincing that the world largely forgot that Notre-Dame had ever been in shambles.

The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as “chimeras,” the most famous being “le Stryge,” the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to “look medieval,” but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them.

When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.

Vincent Chevalier’s daguerrotype of Notre-Dame, circa 1840. Note the absent statues and empty niches.

5 thoughts on ““…and the fire and the rose are one.”

  1. This is great (not least for the beautifully serendipitous title, love that line) and for me only serves to increase the awe surrounding the event, which began with the terror and disbelief at the sight of such a massive conflagration in a place so familiar and significant, deepened by the eerie and moving sound late that night of the bells in our own commune’s church tower ringing out in a kind of wild clamour of grief in the darkness. I thought of the words of that old French song ‘les tours de Notre Dame, les clochers de mon pays…’ Sentimental, well maybe, or maybe a rare access to a quite genuine emotion and sense of continuity and value. For a moment the blasé Parisians and frequently morose and pessimistic French in general understood and remembered quite what they had to treasure, in the fear that it might be too late.

    Then, though, it very quickly became apparent that, with the relief and gratitude that so much was spared, including human life, this could be a rather marvellous opportunity. It was a struggle to raise the money for the ongoing renovations, and impossible to close it for the duration, now there is money flooding in and it has to be closed, which won’t stop tourists coming as the work in progress will be an attraction in itself rather than an inconvenience. All kinds of skills and techniques and talents, co-operations and collaborations could be developed and put to use. I only hope it isn’t squandered, though I’m afraid it might well be, being victim to a bit of that Old World/Gallic pessimism (affirmed by experience) myself!

    Also this reminded me of a woman on the British news who was involved in the reconstruction of the Glasgow School of Art after their recent fire, who said that one of the architects working there rebukes her when she’s showing people around and she speaks about new stone and old stone. He says ‘there’s no such thing as new stone, it’s all stone and it’s all millions of years old!’ Though indeed the idea that there may not be trees big enough any more to replace those that formed the woodwork of the roof is a source of rueful wonder in itself; those massive great primeval forests, nature’s own cathedrals, all cut down and shaped hundreds of years ago, with nothing more than hand tools and human strength, no massive plant or power tools!

    Interesting times. Thanks as ever for your wonderful writing.


  2. Lucy, thanks for stopping by with a perspective from France—and a host of interesting thoughts, as usual.

    I wrote this post pretty quickly, mostly because I was appalled by all the nonsense I was seeing and hearing from every corner of the media. I heard one radio commentator assert that mass had been said at Notre-Dame every day without interruption for 900 years. Such statements weren’t even based on bad research; they were based on assumptions by people who get paid to spew words whether or not they’re accurate or meaningful. I’m not usually one to praise the current wave of social media, but this fire was one of those times when scholars and amateurs on blogs and Twitter did much better work than mainstream news outlets and professional pundits.

    I expect the rebuilding will take longer than expected and will cost more than it ought to cost, but the project will have implications for French culture that we can’t yet imagine. As for those roof beams…I do wonder how they’ll handle that, but I suppose we’ll see.


  3. I’m no fan of the gilets jaunes by any means, but it did make me smile that there was a placard on their last outing protesting ‘millions pour Notre Dame de Paris, rien pour Les Miserables!’. Only in France, damn their eyes!

    I also read somewhere that it seems there are forests in Denmark (I think) which were planted in the 18th century to continue to supply wood for shipbuilding. When wooden ships went out of use, no one saw fit to cut them down for other things, and these might be put to use. Also that Wim Delvoye is very keen to get the job for the spire


    which could be a blast!

    Another point someone made which made me ponder, part of the appeal of the rebuild is that however catastrophic the event, however much it costs and however challenging, it *can* be fixed, whereas so many of the appalling, awful, heartrending things that happen are too difficult, complex and human to be solve.


  4. Jeff, someone told me that French oaks were planted at Versailles at the time of the last restoration, but I have not seen that mentioned. Nor do I remember seeing such a plantation there.

    This is a good corrective piece–thanks!

    I do think of so many things, particularly in the Middle East, that have been ground to dust. Monasteries, churches, all sorts of cultural treasures…


  5. Lucy, I’m glad to hear there might be sufficiently large trees somewhere in Europe! The sight of cranes lifting those into place is going to be rather impressive. I just hope that the replacement spire isn’t glass or some outdated modern design that makes the cathedral look ephemeral. Ours is not an age that knows how to build in way that conveys timelessness.

    Your comment about how wonderful it is that Notre-Dame can be rebuilt brings home for me the importance of symbolic and sacred places. It’s a very postmodern, 21st-century thing to say, as some have, “eh, it’s just a building, at least nobody was killed.” But places like Notre-Dame are culture-defining. We’re living at a time when our consumer choices are supposed to be what define us, yet buildings like Notre-Dame (or the landscapes and social patterns of places like the region where you live) give people’s lives such greater meaning and sense of community than any individual choice. I think that’s true whether one sees it as tapping into the richness and depth of human culture or a larger religious truth.

    Marly: Thanks for stopping by! In the past four months, my life has been diverted by a fascinating local-history project. Although the churches, log cabins, schoolhouses, and other 19th-century buildings that have disappeared around here would hardly be considered international cultural treasures, I’ve been affected by my newfound awareness of how much cultural memory a building can hold. The ones that survive tell us about the past and give us advice on how to live in the present. Everything crumbles eventually, but even smaller losses are harder on those of us who feel that caretaker’s urge.


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