It’s too early to know what’s been lost, what’s been saved. It’s too early to know what started the blaze. All we know is that a beautiful place has been ravaged by fire, and that not only those whose city it graces but all of us who care about history and beauty feel a sense of shock and loss.
The great cathedrals were intended to inspire a sense of worship, a turning of the heart and the mind to God. For me, what they inspire is certainly awe, but awe of the human beings who imagined and then built something so extraordinary. Without any of the knowledge we now have of materials science, of engineering and physics, they built something that has survived (and survives still) for centures, that has outlived wars and revolutions, and has remained (and will remain still) a place of contemplation and stillness.
A place of Christian worship has occupied this site since probably the 4th century. Notre Dame itself dates from the 12th century – obviously since then there have been alterations, additions, refurbishments, renovations and repairs. The flying buttresses were added in the 13th century, and then strengthened again in the 14th. The Cathedral suffered damage at various times – Huguenot riots, the Revolution, the street fighting during the Liberation. The spire which collapsed in the blaze yesterday was from the 19th century.
That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circlets, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius[
For me, Notre Dame has other connotations. In this place, inspired by this place, composers such as Léonin and Perotin wove extraordinary, other-worldly sounds with human voices, using the acoustics of the cathedral to worship God in song. The idea of polyphony was regarded with suspicion by some – the fear was that the listeners would be swept away by the beauty of the sounds and forget to take heed of the words:
Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.
John of Salisbury (1938) . Pike, Joseph B, ed. Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum [Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosophers: being a translation of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury]
It is deeply touching that the response of Parisians to the sight of this place, so deeply a part of their (and our) culture and history, engulfed in flames, was to sing.
• «Tous les yeux s’étaient levés vers le haut de l’église. Ce qu’ils voyaient était extraordinaire. Sur le sommet de la galerie la plus élevée, plus haut que la rosace centrale, il y avait une grande flamme qui montait entre les deux clochers avec des tourbillons d’étincelles…»
Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).
One is not, sadly, surprised to note not only an outbreak of ‘whataboutery’ (as if those of us who care about the damage to this beautiful place must therefore not care about, for example, the burning of black churches in Louisiana) but a rush to blame, to line up the usual suspects. I won’t dignify the latter with any further words.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Notre Dame will survive. Notre Dame reminds us how extraordinary human beings are. That we can imagine and create something like this, envisage something bigger and finer and more beautiful than we have ever seen and then make it reality. That we can hear the way sound echoes in the vaulted roof and creates harmonics, and compose music – and systems of notation which enable us to see and study and play that music today – to glorify God with many voices weaving together. Many voices, making harmony. That we could do those things must surely give us hope for humanity.