Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times brings an American perspective to the catastrophic fire at Notre Dame. Like him I immediately thought of the place accorded to the great cathedral by Kenneth Clark in his monumental BBC series Civilisation I saw when broadcast in the 1970s, and then kept in an old fashioned box set of VHSs for viewing by children as an essential part of their education.
Like Kimmelman, I think of other fires and destruction of the physical heritage, not least by human agency during the Troubles. Although trivial by comparison with Notre Dame, the fire at Bank Buildings in Belfast also coincided with building works and delivered a sharp reminder of how precious and vulnerable is the state of the built heritage. The authorities of the celebrated Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. devastated not once but twice in four years after renovation work, have offered to give advice for the the cathedral’s restoration.
Ireland has nothing of comparable scale to the great mediaeval buildings of metropolitan France. The Irish mediaeval heritage like the two Dublin cathedrals both serving the tiny Anglican minority was regarded as appropriated and contested until recently. But the many monastic sites like Skellig Michael and Glendalough in their own way are as numinous as great cathedrals and certainly as beloved.
The part of the heritage outside my childhood front door is St Columb’s Cathedral in (very definitely) Londonderry, which is a rough hewn Plantation version of a late mediaeval English parish church. Modest in scale, it was the first cathedral to be built these islands after the reformation as a centre of the short lived and ill- fated experiment of Charles 1 to impose uniformity on the Presbyterian planters and Catholic Gaels alike. The king obliged by giving the first five bells as his personal gift. The cathedral won fame as the rallying point during the siege. Today without being too high minded, it helps that people have cottoned on to the fact that controversial heritage can become a financial asset. With its small museum of siege and other historical memorabilia the cathedral makes a significant contribution to Derry’s income as a tourist attraction.
The divisions of the past and even the present evolve into the common heritage to challenge and reproach us for our own failings. This is certainly true of Notre Dame where the high altar was the stage for a prostitute cavorting as the Goddess of Reason during the Revolution. Catholic uniformity, brutally imposed on French Protestants by Louis XIV a century previously, was never restored and the divisions since the revolution still mark French politics today. Even so, Notre Dame belongs to everybody. Finally a late thought; what a reminder of how European we are!”
“For centuries, Notre-Dame cathedral has enshrined an evolving notion of what it means to be French. As smoke and flames wafted into the sky on Monday, the symbolism was hard to miss.
Notre-Dame has occupied the heart of Paris for the better part of a millennium, its twin medieval towers rising from the small central island wedged between the storied left and right banks.
Now, France is burning.
The fire at Notre-Dame happened on the day that the country’s troubled president, Emmanuel Macron, was supposed to explain how he intended to address the demands of the “Yellow Vest” movement. An anguished, restless nation has struggled to cope with the monthslong uprising and with the frayed social safety net that spurred the protests. Generations that had come to rely on this social safety net, as a matter of national pride and identity, see it going up in smoke.
This fire is not like other recent calamities.
When flames killed dozens trapped in Grenfell Tower in London, it exposed a scandalous lack of oversight and a city of disastrous inequities. When a bridge collapsed in Genoa, Italy, also taking life, it revealed the consequential greed of privatization and a chronic absence of Italian leadership. When the National Museum of Brazil burned down, also through unconscionable government neglect, it wiped a tangible swath of South American history from the face of the earth, incinerating anthropological records of lost civilizations.
Notre-Dame, where no one died, represents a different kind of catastrophe, no less traumatic but more to do with beauty and spirit and symbolism.
Visited by some 13 million people a year, the cathedral, established during the 12th century, is the biggest architectural attraction in Paris. It is an emblem of the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change.
Not that Notre-Dame hasn’t changed. Scarred repeatedly, it is a kind of palimpsest of French history. Finding its Gothic architecture outmoded and ornate, Louis XIV destroyed much of the church’s interior and swapped it out for one he regarded as more classically tasteful.
During the Revolution, insurgents ransacked the cathedral, plundering treasures and decapitating statues of Old Testament figures on the building’s facade, which they mistook for portraits of French kings. They rededicated Notre Dame to the Cult of Reason, melting its great bells.
By the time Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” imprinted the cathedral in the minds of countless readers, the building was pretty much a wreck. Hugo called it a “vast symphony in stone” as “powerful and fecund as the divine creation,” and despaired that it had come to be an object of ridicule.
The popularity of his book helped reposition Notre-Dame as a symbol of French identity, inspiring its restoration by the 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet attempted to restore the church’s Gothic character, undertaking a vast project of architectural reinvention and private imagination, redoing the figures on the facade, recreating stained glass windows and adding many ornate touches, including to the spire that just burned down.
When the spire collapsed, all those layers of history seemed to evaporate.
Through its many transformations, Notre-Dame has remained “the great stage where great events in France have been rehearsed and repeated for centuries,” as the historian Robert Darnton has put it — where the cathedral’s archbishop blessed the flags carried by French armies going off to war, before crowds of weeping parents and spouses.
Promising the French people he would rebuild Notre-Dame, which he called “the epicenter of our lives,” President Macron canceled his speech about the Yellow Vests. He still plans to proceed with his proposals.
France today is wrestling with how to reinvent itself for a new age. Considering the great sweep of time, the current Yellow Vest uprising will no doubt come to seem like just another data point in the long evolution of a nation that has survived setbacks and returned, again and again, to an abiding glory.
In his landmark television series “Civilization,” standing before Notre-Dame, the art historian Kenneth Clark asked: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms — yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it.”
He turned toward the cathedral: “And I am looking at it now.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London