Notre Dame de Paris: The Fire and Beyond

Lately, I have found myself talking a lot about how much I enjoy writing.  Particularly, writing what I want to write, as opposed to writing for others or an organization.  It’s an entirely different experience when you get to write for yourself.  Being able to express your thoughts on “paper” is more rewarding than I would have ever guessed. To that end, today is one of those days where I am going to depart from my usual topic of weight loss and healthy lifestyles to talk about something else that is very dear to me. 

Art History:

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Art history texts still adorn my shelves

I am not sure how many of you know this, but my educational background was Art History.  It came to be a passion out of the blue for me.  There is a depth to the topic that I didn’t fully grasp until I had taken several classes. I just knew I was drawn to it. Originally, I was in aerospace engineering. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise most of you. I took my first Art History class (ArtH 1002 with Professor Karal Ann Marling) as a liberal arts requirement in aerospace. But Art History is this curious blend of history, architecture, anthropology and detective work.  Studying the story of the human race through clues left by art is some of the most fascinating work I have ever done. It gets into your blood and it’s very difficult to shake. 

Not Art History:

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Some may not know what, exactly, is Art History?  To be clear, this is not about the quality of a given work of art. This is not connoisseurship. That’s entirely different. We are not concerned about such transitory things as the perceived quality of something when viewed through a lens relative to a given period of time.  This is not about subjective “truths”…for that, go take a philosophy class.  This is about fact and what we know.  It’s about meaning and understanding of who a people were as evidenced through their art.  It’s a story.  We read the story and hope to understand it.

Those of you with military careers have probably heard the saying “once a Marine, always a Marine.”  Well, the same goes for Art Historians.  Regardless of where our careers take us, and regardless of whether we are regularly involved in scholarship, once an Art Historian, always an Art Historian.

Meanwhile, in Paris…

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The fire engulfs the roof

My background still makes me sensitive to events like what recently unfurled in Paris.  That is what brings us to this discussion today. Notre Dame de Paris, arguably (and trust me, art historians WILL argue this point) is one of the most important churches on the planet. There certainly are many landmark churches and cathedrals scattered across the globe but none that have the same stature that Notre Dame enjoys.  To see it endure such destruction and loss at the hands of a fire is crushing.  When I heard and saw the news, my heart sank. I was shocked.  To lose even a portion of such a landmark and beacon is horrific. 

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Rendering of the Library of Alexandria

Notre Dame isn’t the first or most devastating fire to extoll a huge cultural cost. That “honor” would likely go to the fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria in Egypt in ancient times.  More recently we have seen Brazil’s Museu Naczional, in Rio de Janeiro – one of the most important cultural institutions in South America – burn down in September.  In fact, the world sees fires in many historical buildings each year.

Museu Naczional
Museu Naczional, Rio

Why Our Lady of Paris is So Important: 

Notre Dame Facade
Notre Dame Facade

Notre Dame is one of the most well known buildings in the City of Lights. It was started in 1163. The choir and transcript were completed in 1182, the nave completed in 1225 and the façade finished by 1250.  From an art historical perspective, it represents a departure from the Romanesque style into the Gothic, and includes elements of the High Gothic and Rayonnant styles. 

Notre Dame is a fascinating mix of conservative and progressive ideas.  It’s an early gothic building with a high gothic silhouette. It’s innovative use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, naturalism, and abundant sculptural decoration were gateways to the advancement of architectural style.  Why is that important?  Because without it, we would likely be living in a very different, much darker, more oppressive world.

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Notre Dame, east elevation featuring flying buttresses

Trust me when I say that I am not trying to bore all of you with a metric ton of art historical prattle. But understanding Notre Dame’s place in history is important to understanding why it is so revered.  Being the bridge between two different styles of architecture is not so universally celebrated as this.  But as a harbinger of Cultural Revolution, its relevance comes into sharp relief. 

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Romanesque architecture – Cathedral of Pisa

Starting with the Romanesque

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Interior of a romanesque cathedral. Note how dark it is.

The style that preceded Notre Dame is referred to as the Romanesque.  It is large, blocky, heavy, dark, and was influential in how people interacted with churches. At the time, churches and cathedrals were intended to be these massive monuments and centerpieces of a city. The design was such that to build such a massive structure required heavy walls to support the height and weight of elaborate ceilings. That meant you needed as much structure as possible and so few windows were allowed. Too many windows would compromise the structural integrity of the walls.  

As a result it was dark, foreboding, and oppressive.  Eventually, many Romanesque churches even adopted sculptural themes that focused on punishment and the threat of eternal damnation.  In that way, the evolution of how religion was handled within society mirrored the architecture.  While it may not have inspired it, the physical space abetted the implementation of religious practice. 

Tympanaeum at Saint Lazare Cathedral, Autun

The Flying Buttress and the Gothic Style:

One of the key characteristics that Notre Dame is known for is the architectural element called the flying buttress.  This ingenious invention moved the traditional bracing system of a wall and transformed it into a far-flung exoskeleton on the outside of the building. The spider-like arms projecting from the side of Notre Dame serve to counteract the outward pressures on the walls in a way that gives the entire structure self-supporting strength and thus frees up the wall to serve the purpose of design rather than purely support. 

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Closeup of the flying buttress at work

As a result of the flying buttress, with Notre Dame being one of the earliest employments, design turned away from heavy, dark and stolid structures to a sense of openness, abundant windows and lightness. As large stained glass windows were increasingly employed, this added brilliant color to the interior of churches, which until this time had been dark.  Sculptural themes turned to realistic retelling of biblical stories, for their largely illiterate congregations, rather than harsh warnings or threats.  

This is a major element that gave birth to the gothic style. Architects learned from Notre Dame and spread the development of this style across Europe. And, correspondingly, the application of religious practice followed the development of the physical space. It’s what the renaissance is all about …a new humanism, a more humane and compassionate church, and a society which fostered the development of great spaces, great places, and great art. That’s why Notre Dame is important.  That’s why we all suffer when something tragic, like a fire, harms this icon of enlightenment. 

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The interior of Notre Dame. Note how bright and light it is compared to the Romanesque example.

The Fire and the Blame Game:

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The spire about to fall.

At a time like this, often, an initial instinct is to seek the cause and assign blame to a responsible party.  We have all seen the reports that the fire was likely caused by an electrical short during extensive renovations.  Naturally, the reports have implicated the workers on the restoration as the culprits.  However, I look at it in a different light. Let me be perfectly clear here.  I believe that repair and renovation is a failure in our conservational obligations

What do I mean by that? Conservation is the act of maintaining historic buildings, monuments, architecture, sculpture, paintings, -all manner of art.  Letting the condition of any given example decline to the point that it must undergo extensive repair and renovation means that it was not adequately maintained in the first place.  We have a responsibility to maintain art and architecture for future generations. 

It’s difficult to manage that when today’s society has such a short memory.  We don’t build great buildings or monuments anymore. We have been in a mode of tearing things down for some time now.  Each major city in North America has a legacy of lost architecture from some of the most interesting eras of the 20th century.  The amount of lost architecture from the post modern period back to Art Deco just in the Twin Cities alone is staggering. Whether that’s a reflection of changing values or a pathological need to always have everything be “new” in the New World is up for debate. The results aren’t always for the best, however.    

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Notre Dame: interior of a great building

The Cost of Conservation:

What is lacking is funding for proper maintenance.  Most monuments are owned by governments both state and federal and maintenance budgets are far too often a political target or just an easy source for redirecting funds. In Europe, the austerity measures enacted by most governments have left many historical and cultural monuments scrambling for funds just to keep the lights on. Prevention is practically invisible, but renovations are a boon of ribbon-cutting ceremonies for politicians and dignitaries.

Some would choose to blame politicians for not allocating proper funds to maintain these structures.  While they don’t help matters much, I think it’s more than that.  The reason many politicians make the decisions they make is for personal interest.  Usually they are chasing votes.  Put another way, I mean that they are proposing and voting on agendas set forth by a platform that appeals to their constituency. Which means then, that if politicians are not ensuring the proper allocation of funds to maintain art and monuments it is because we, society and the electorate, are not telling them that it is a priority to us. In fact, it is likely not.

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As a society, that is one of our greatest failings.  The fact that we are reluctant about using tax money to maintain landmarks of historical and cultural importance, but fine with paying for dozens of meaningless and purely political projects is a hallmark of a society that can’t see past the tips of their own shoes and refuses to look back at its own history.  If we had any shame, we should be ashamed. Instead society chooses to bask in short-sighted ignorance.  

The Financial Impacts:

I have heard some bemoan the cost of maintenance and repair.  While I understand the concern, even if we look at the numbers for a moment, the impact that Notre Dame has on Paris would far exceed its yearly maintenance.  For example:  Notre Dame is one of the oldest buildings in the entire city.  It sees over 13 million tourists a year.  That’s over 30,000 visitors PER DAY!! The cathedral holds 5 services per day.  Do you know how many staff it would take to handle 30,000 visitors per day?  A lot.  Most of those 30,000 are tourists from outside of Paris as well.  Tourists need to stay somewhere.  They need to eat and shop.  It’s not the cathedral that directly benefits from that …it’s the city of Paris.

Interior ND

Notre Dame is like having a baseball playoff game in your home town…EVERY DAY.  Tell me again about how it’s not worth employing several hundred Parisians to maintain that church and provide a great visiting experience for the tourists?    Notre Dame means jobs, business income, and vibrancy for the city.  It’s not like we are talking about having the largest ball of twine in the world.  The attraction is a bit more significant than that.

The Sayers of Nay:

In the aftermath of this fire, there has been a generous outpouring of donations to help repair Notre Dame. That has led to an equally loud objection from some, citing all manner of reasoning, most of which centers on Notre Dame not being as worthy as whatever their particular priority is …this week.

One of my favorites is “tons of buildings burn down every year! We don’t put up a fuss about them! Why, Moe’s Deli just burned down, and that’s been here for 31 years!”  That’s true.  Many buildings burn down every year.  However the corner greasy spoon burning down because it as been 3 years since Moe has cleaned the grease traps on the grill is hardly the same thing as losing a coveted historic and cultural treasure. At the least, it’s disingenuous to even make that argument. At the most it is a stunning display of willful ignorance and disrespect.

It’s also not a matter of the organizations (or state governments) tasked with maintaining such artifacts not doing enough to raise the private funding that is needed. The pool of available funds is limited, and as I have mentioned before, maintenance is not glamorous – there are no ribbon cutting ceremonies. So raising private dollars is much like getting blood from a stone.  When it comes to raising money in the world of non-profits that is something about which I know. There isn’t nearly enough philanthropy money out there for this.  More importantly, this should not be left to the philanthropy world to assume a responsibility that rightly belongs to society at large. Putting it on the backs of the fundraisers is a tired, ill-informed, dogmatic excuse. No, society, you don’t get off that easy.  Not this time.  

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The Aftermath

My 2 Cents:

We must guard against a culture of apathy that can undermine our obligation of conservation.  Those who decry the preservation of Notre Dame, even while the cinders still smolder, and profess their dislike for Notre Dame and French history or otherwise defame efforts to rebuild the cathedral as a waste of money, still suffer at the loss. They are just too blinded by their contemporary idolatry to realize it.  Perhaps it is a silent acknowledgement that Notre Dame represents something larger than themselves.  That it is a monument that antedates them and will endure, professing its message of enlightenment, until far after they are gone.  That whatever their modern nihilistic angst or fleeting ideals shaped by propaganda and talk-radio messaging, Notre Dame represents something greater, something higher, and something they cannot diminish.  Vive la belle dame.

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The color and majesty of Notre Dame

6 Responses

  • Tavia

    Wow. So much education there & passion. I had no idea you were an Art Historian. When you put 30,000 people per day into perspective of a baseball playoff in our city every day – that is quite an impact. Without all the knowledge you have, but as a Catholic, what touched me the most were the people outside, kneeling, praying, holding their rosaries & crying.

    • I always love hearing your perspective, Tavia! Yeah, it really is shocking to think about what it must take to handle 30,000 people per day. The costs to maintain the building and provide services for those 30,000 visitors is tremendous! But your observation of the mourning crowds bespeaks the importance this building represents not just to Catholics but to people in-general. Notre Dame is indelibly linked to France and remains one of the major symbols of the country and it’s history. The sadness of this moment should touch us all.

  • Maximilian Steel


    Fun article, and informative. Thanks!

    On subject of maintenance and priorities, I tend to agree with what you write for truly significant, such as Notre Dame. But I take issue with the statement “We have been in a mode of tearing things down for some time now.” Society has always (ALWAYS) torn down and rebuilt on top. Just look at any new construction in Europe (London, Rome, etc) where they’re constantly digging up an old foundation during a new project. Look at all the old cities in the Middle East, they’re all built on hills of their own crumbled walls and foundations. It is only relatively lately, where the clamorous wailing of extreme preservationists demanding the right to do unto other’s property without having to pay for it themselves, have we ended up with “historic” districts, architectural control committees, etc. forcing their wills onto others so some people can sit in their more modern conveniences and feel smugly content about their memories of grandma and grandpa’s place (or rather, a place that reminds them of grandma and grandpa) where change supposedly doesn’t happen, but not have to deal with the everyday reality of why things change (for the better) to begin with. Obviously, I’m not talking of Notre Dame any longer. But I feel that comparing her, with some neighborhood in Dinkytown, is a conflation. We’ve had that discussion down here regarding the Astrodome. The simple matter is that eventually it costs too much money to maintain, and requiring everyone to pay to keep it going so some can revel in their past is unfair (and why the referendum to increase taxes to do so failed miserably, although the powers that be have changed plans and scaled back, perhaps coming up with a better plan). Keeping the old simply for the sake of it being old, rather than being truly significant, can end up being a serious detriment to society and the improvement of the general well-being. Just think, what would’ve happened if the Romanesque architects codified their “historic district” into law and demanded the new Parisian chapel be built just like everything else? As a person wiser than me wrote: “Live in your imagination, not in your memories.”

    • I agree with much of what you are saying here. In fact, Notre Dame serves as a great example of your point too! Notre Dame was NOT the first church built on that spot. Churches have been there for hundreds of years prior to Notre Dame. Excavating the ruins yields that very event you referenced – discovering the foundations of previous churches! I even agree that not everything can be saved – and preservation districts in a country that is barely over 200 years old is somewhat dubious. That said, controlling the appearance of new construction for the sake of some kind of artistic congruence is idiotic. Clearly, it’s not practical for everything to be saved. I imagine the historic district thing is mostly driven by politics and not actual historians and architects. That seems to be the underlying theme to many of those situations in North America. Additionally, this is North America …there isn’t THAT much history here compared to Europe. Which is more to my point about being in a mode of tearing things down. Especially in North America, we rip things down if a new style is desired. It is a LOT less about efficiency and lower maintenance costs than it is about just always wanting the latest, greatest and newest. That’s THE major reason why so much great architecture from the mid century back to the turn of the century has disappeared. It’s not that it was too old and too high maintenance costs – it’s freaking less than 100 years old, give me a break! It’s that someone had a burr under their saddle and wanted some glass plated, anonymous and soulless skyscraper there instead. It was about making American cities look new, and advanced. It’s a cultural predilection toward “newer is better.” And sadly, it’s been a defining characteristic of the United States since inception. That is what I mean …we can do better than that. We can exercise conservation in a smarter way.

  • Fran Flatten

    A Great article E! I feel you hit the nail exactly & with a sledge hammer!


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