“She tore down Paris on the tail of Thom Paine, but the left wing’s broken the right’s insane. A pretty pink rose.
Have a nice day, it’s a killer, turn a cheek. It’s a Christian code. A pretty pink rose.”
As an avid admirer of architecture and a willing scholar of history it’s never a happy sight to see a legendary landmark on fire. But it’s doubly distressing to see Notre-Dame Catholic cathedral, that grand Gothic icon of Paris and an immense cultural symbol of France, go up in flames.
The incandescent orange flames and column of thick grey and black smoke belching into the pale Parisian sky at dusk augured some new, inevitably lesser era—the near-death of one of the most iconic buildings of western civilisation. A resurrection seemed almost unimaginable.
The burning of Notre Dame felt apocalyptic, and as historian Jon Meacham called it, “an elemental crisis of faith and fire,” disfiguring the revered Paris skyline, unfolding, moreover, during Easter Week, and in a France gripped by social unrest and a perennial state of emergency. And it felt so even after it was announced some 15 hours after the fire began that the cathedral’s main structure, its famous stained-glass windows, and its two emblematic towers had been saved.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris to give it its official name (literal translation: Our Lady of Paris), is located in Île de la Cité, a natural island in the River Seine and the very heart of the French capital. Indeed, as is the case with Charing Cross in London it’s the geographical centre of the city from where all distances in the country are measured.
Having been born in Charing Cross I feel a strange affinity with Notre-Dame, a UNESCO World Heritage site, obviously.
So this week I find myself wondering why that since I’ve been visiting Paris for over 23 years have I never bothered to venture inside these iconic twin towers.
The only answer I could possibly volunteer is that being of fervently anti-religious belief I find the interiors of churches and cathedrals rather oppressive. Beautiful to look at and study but resolutely gloomy in atmosphere. They’re not just a monument or tourist attraction but, above all a church, which is to say, it is a place of Christian worship and fervour and therefore you should behave accordingly.
I often prefer to admire from afar, and marvel at how such a building could have been constructed a millennium or so ago.
There’s also the issue of how these incredible feats of civil engineering were funded, but, alas, that’s a rather sore subject this week of all weeks. At least French officials investigating the fire have ruled out arson and terrorism, indicating the fire that led to a roof collapse may have been tied to ongoing repairs at the cathedral. Phew.
The impossibly handsome President Emmanuel Macron has declared the restoration will be completed in five years (in time for the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024), but having been a French resident of the last two (albeit part-time) I’ll believe that when I see it. Things generally run VERY slowly in France, often close to suffocation under masses of red tape and petty bureaucracy.
For good and bad, France is an insular country bound by centuries of procedural traditions, rather like Japan, another historic and fascinating country from where I returned just a few days ago, and one that’s host of the next olympiad in 2020.
In case you were puzzled by the lyrical reference at the head of this piece, the pretty pink rose are the cathedral’s celebrated trio of immense round stained-glass windows over the building’s three main portals that date back to the 13th century. Amazingly, the Archbishop of Paris said all three have been saved and do not appear to have suffered catastrophic damage. To put that in context, not even the French Revolution and two world wars could topple them. Now that’s what I call construction.
There is comfort in reading about Notre Dame’s history. Little about this marvel of French Gothic architecture ever stood still, ever came perfectly and completely into being. What is most remarkable about it, one can argue, is the way in which it is the product of centuries of human effort and enterprise mingled with periods of neglect and even outright destruction—by “killers,” as Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s renowned “public intellectual, put it, referring to the wholesale vandalisation of the cathedral, including the decapitating and crushing of large statues, during the French Revolution of 1789-1794. And alterations and repairs are as much part of Notre Dame’s history as the original vision for it was. A monument built from stone but ever in some sort of flux.
“Renovation. What’s that about?,” enquired the alleged President of the United States of America, Herr Donald Trump.
Was that a rhetorical question or is the would-be dictator content to be the world’s most famous slum landlord?
What has been lost is still largely unknown, however, and will not be made clear until after cleanup efforts are completed. The church’s pews, doorways, the frames of artwork and the delicate paint used on masterpieces from centuries ago were potentially susceptible to the heat and power of the fire that engulfed Notre Dame. The fate of the building’s exterior stones and classic gargoyles is still unknown, too, but experts are hopeful that pieces inside the cathedral, like one statue of Madonna and Child that dates back to the 14th century, survived.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for “the citizens of this country and the whole of Europe to support the reconstruction of Notre Dame” and added that the cathedral “is not only a great building, it is a great European landmark, a landmark of European culture and an important document of European history.”
Never let it rain, never rain on the pretty pink rose.
Look, ma, I got through a post about Europe without mentioning Brexit. Oh, fuck.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
And speaking of The Dame…
Postscript: Notre-Dame’s school of composers played a notable role in the north of modern western music. During the 12th and 13th centuries they are credited with leading the development of polyphonic, or multi-part compositions.