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Notre-Dame: this house of prayer has seen many vicissitudes

18 April 2019

That spire may not be such a loss, says Nicholas Cranfield


The fire continues to blaze from the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral

The fire continues to blaze from the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral

BISHOP Maurice de Sully’s vision for a new cathedral on the Île de la Cité absorbed a smaller church with the same dedication and replaced the sixth-century Merovingian cathedral of Saint-Étienne.

Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone in 1163, and, by the 1250s, the west end and nave chapels were largely complete. Those of the apse were still being built in 1330 as the structure seamlessly united Romanesque and Gothic.

In 1871, when the Communards destroyed much of the city of Paris, chairs were piled high inside the cathedral to be torched. The order was called off — not that it was the first time that Notre-Dame was at risk.

Even though Louis XIV rededicated France to the Virgin Mary, he set about “modernising” the building, destroying its medieval tombs and stained glass. Dilapidation continued under Louis XV, and most of the treasures were later stolen or damaged during the French Revolution; the statues of the Old Testament kings over the west portals were beheaded.

The disastrous 19th-century “restoration” carried out under the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, including the unhappy 295-foot metal spire that toppled so dramatically on Monday, often added insult to injury, albeit with the best of intentions.

The firefighters, and those in charge of the building, have seemingly, at the time of writing, carried out a careful plan that has rescued many of the treasures of the cathedral; the Rector proudly announced that the relics of the Crown of Thorns and of Christ’s tunic were safe.

Whether the series of religious paintings (the “Petits Mays”) from the nave chapels that the Goldsmiths Guild offered each year in our Lady’s month of May, between 1630 and 1707, survive is not yet clear. Artists of the stature of Sébastien Bourdon, Laurent de La Hyre, and Charles Le Brun were among those commissioned.

But any church is more than its structure and is a place of prayerful memory. Geoffrey Plantagenet was buried here, Mary Stuart (later mother of James VI of Scotland), and Charles I (by proxy) were married here. Napoleon’s funeral was staged here, and, in August 1944, Général Charles de Gaulle led liberated Paris at a thanksgiving service that was interrupted by snipers.

One of the most moving testimonies to our now much threatened entente cordiale was the dignified memorial tablet erected in pride of place on the south-west pillar of the crossing to the British Fallen of the First World War who are interred in French soil.

When President Macron delivers on his pledge, he has the opportunity to create a mock-medieval building for romantic tourists on the Hunchback trail, or to celebrate the worshipping communities of the city. A visit to Coventry might be instructive: distances may no longer be measured from the west doors of the cathedral, but the façade lies at the heart of more than just French consciousness.

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