Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Medieval Architects Could Build!

The Virgin of Paris as I saw her last.
French, Early 14th Century
Paris, Notre-Dame de Paris

If one every doubted the genius of the medieval architects who built the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, any doubts were laid to rest today.

After watching in horror as the entirety of Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames on Monday I was forced to leave the house for an appointment.  The last image I saw on my TV screen was of a drone flight over the stricken building.  It looked entirely hopeless.

Drone view of the burning Notre-Dame.  The west end, with the bell towers, is at the left of the picture.  The rounded apse at the east end is to the right.  The building seems to be completely engulfed.
However, returning home some hours later a glimmer of wonder greeted me.  What had burned, tragic as it was, was only the roof!  In spite of the dramatic fall of the great 19th century spire and the destruction of the roof, the interior was virtually intact!

For this we have to thank those 12th and 13th century men who planned and built the bones of this great church with little more than a basic understanding of geometry, practical experience and manual construction skills.  The wonderful structure of stone which they created with their minds and hands had withstood the collapse of the wooden and lead roof.  In a few places it seems to have given way, as photos taken inside revealed, but in the main it had held the building secure as it was meant to do.
View showing damage to two of the vaults, with the fire still raging above them.  One can just make out the red hot structure of the wooden beams supporting the roof, which provided the fuel for the fire.
One hopes that the vaults will continue to hold the building steady in this damaged state.  Stone, especially limestone, can be weakened by high temperatures and the future depends on how much of it suffered sufficient heat, as this interview with one of the professors from my alma mater points out.

However, for now the great news is that the interior is largely intact, in so far as the stone structure is concerned.  A view of the altar area, underneath the crossing of the nave and transepts, which would have been directly underneath the spire shows some serious damage to some of the wooden furnishings.  And, according to the cathedral authorities, some of the large 17th century paintings could not be moved out of harm's way.  Some may have suffered burn damage, but some may have been protected by their placement in side chapels.  Therefore, all is not gone, though there was presumably at least smoke damage and, probably water damage as well.
The Crossing area of Notre-Dame during the fire.  It is clear that something has fallen into the area (probably the spire) and is smoldering all around the altar area.  While the pulpit on the far right seems unscathed, as does the Virgin of Paris (you can just about make the statue out attached to the pier on the right hand side of the crossing), I am not sure that the wooden choir stalls and organ console have survived.  The cross and the grand marble monument with the Pieta in the background seem to be unharmed as well.
Also hopeful was news that most of the precious relics, including what may be the Crown of Thorns, were saved, appropriately enough by the chaplain of the Sapeurs Pompiers (i.e., firefighters).

While it looked bad for the famous rose windows of the transepts, there is  happy news there too.  Only the smaller windows that are at the roof line were damaged, and that damage was severe.  The stone tracery is intact, but there is no glass left within it.  But the bigger, more important windows survived intact.

Roof line rose window of one of the transepts, empty of glass.  
This is fortunate for, while a window can be reconstructed, a reconstruction is just that, a remaking.  And, no matter how good, it is not quite the same as the real thing.

I rejoice that much has been preserved, however, and that so far as we know no lives were lost.

May the Blessed Virgin watch over this greatest of the cathedrals named in her honor and may she and the many saints of Paris and of France watch over the people who live there.  May the faith of those who responded to this tragic day with prayer and hymns inspire the world who watched.

It is my hope that once again the cathedral can open its arms to the world with the Easter song of Alleluia, for death has not conquered and will not.
This photo of the crossing area, taken the day after the fire, show the charred remains of the spire and the roof and the stone blocks from the broken vaulting.  The wooden choir stalls, which stood on each side of the crossing are gone, presumably burned to ash.  However, the structure of the central piers withstood the shock, the apse area seems complete, the old high altar area with its signature image of the Pieta and the Virgin of Paris can be seen, blackened by smoke, but largely intact, as is the large metal cross and the old altar frontal.  The Virgin of Paris appears to have lost her right arm, which held an unopened lily (a fleur-de-lys).  However, I would be surprised if this is the first time that has happened.  The newer altar survived (it can be seen in the above earlier picture, taken during the fire), but is buried under the debris..
The priority for now is to make the structure safe to prevent further damage, but we can be very thankful that our medieval forebears built for God and the ages, not for profit.

Saints Genevieve, Denis, Louis, Peter Julian, Jean Marie, Therese, Mary Magdalene, Francois de Sales, Anne, Bernard, Vincent de Paul, Jeanne d'Arc, Martin of Tours, Bernadette, Margaret Mary, Catherine and all the numerous other saints of France pray for us all.

In the middle of the 12th century the cathedral of Chartres burned down.  All that was left of the church was a newly constructed west facade and the crypt.  Out of that experience, the first great Gothic cathedral was born.  Notre-Dame de Paris was the second one, may its near destruction today be the seed for something great to emerge as well.

© M. Duffy, 2019

Photo credits to Reuters with the exception of the first image, of the Virgin of Paris, which is my own.

No comments: