Maurice deSully, the bishop of Paris who commanded Notre-Dame in 1163 was the son of peasants. As the arrow shot skyward, Sully’s aspirations were also worldly: he showed his power to his rivals, as well as to the king. The tower of the Archbishop’s palace resembled a castle rampart. The west facade of the cathedral was even more massive.
“In the medieval city, it was completely dominant, overwhelming,” said Bernard Fonquernie, who as chief architect restored the facade in the 1990s, removing decades of car exhaust and pigeon droppings. I was living in France then and I remember this renaissance – how the walls shone when the scaffolding came down.
The construction of the cathedral was financed mainly by donations from ordinary people, said art historian Dany Sandron of the Sorbonne. Their experience of church was not that of the faithful Catholics today. Acting in the chairless nave, they could barely see and hear the services held by the resident canons, eight times a day, behind a wall of the choir. In the side chapels the chaplains murmured some 120 masses a day, but those too were not really for the living; they were for the well-off dead, who had endowed masses in perpetuity in hopes of getting their souls out of purgatory.
Nevertheless, ordinary people flocked to Notre Dame. They sometimes slept on the floor in front of an altar, dreaming of miraculous cures for painful illnesses. The Catholic faith was then vital for most French people. It’s not now.
“Notre Dame is not a museum,” insisted Patrick Chauvet, rector of the cathedral. Before the fire, some 3,000 people came to mass on Sundays, but 10 to 12 million tourists went there each year. Many had little knowledge of Christianity. “How can they be touched by the grace of this place? asked Chauvet. “How can the beauty of this place at least question them about the meaning of their lives?
The plan, he said, is to renew the visit. When the church reopens, visitors will be ushered into a new loop past redesigned side chapels. Going from north to south, from darkness to light, they will first encounter the Old Testament, then the New, in order “to gradually enter into the mystery of God”, says Chauvet.
Will it succeed? Thanks to the huge restoration budget, the cathedral should at least be clean. Work that would normally have taken decades is planned for the next three years. The entire interior of the church, including all chapels and paintings and most of the stained glass windows, will be cleaned – a sparkling renaissance. If, as Georgelin thinks, “the beauty of Gothic architecture is one of the best proofs of the existence of God”, then God will have risen to fight another day in France. The fire will not have been for nothing.
That April evening, my wife and I were with old friends on their first trip to Paris. After dinner on the right bank, we decided to walk back to where we were staying on the left. The banks of the Seine were lined with people watching Notre Dame burn. Crossing Île Saint-Louis, we stepped over a hose that the firefighters were laying to pump water from the river. On the Pont de la Tournelle, we stopped near an impromptu choir, softly singing hymns to Notre-Dame. I have admired this view, along the Seine towards the apse of Notre-Dame, dozens of times. I can’t imagine what it would be like if he disappeared forever.
“It was beautiful – you have to emphasize the beauty of the fire,” said Leniaud. “It was beautiful. But once it’s beautiful, then it’s ugly. There is only ruin. At the beginning, there is only darkness, darkness, death. Until that he comes back to life, as he should.