The Fire at Notre Dame: An Easter Reflection

Like a multitude of others, apparently, I was taken aback by the intensity of my reaction to the news of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris.  Until it was ascertained that the great rose windows in the transepts and west front had been spared, Mrs. P and I were on what was rather like a death vigil for an old friend.  The 13th century rose windows enclosed practically the only painted glass that the anti-religious fanatics of the French Revolution—the secular forerunners of the Taliban—were unable to reach.  (Much of the rest of the current structure, including hundreds of stone sculptures and dozens of windows, is the product of a 19th century “restoration” by the erudite, but sometimes hyperactive, architect Viollet le Duc.)  The besetting fear was that the lead came securing thousands of pieces of painted glass might melt, even from the radiant heat of distant flames, and the glass would return to its sandy elements on the nave floor a hundred feet below.

Throughout the Middle Ages, churches have burned, and then they have risen again from their own ashes, like the phoenix of the medieval bestiaries, the mythical bird that became a natural type of Christ’s Resurrection.  In the late 1130s, after the previous 11th century church had been devastated by fire, construction commenced on a new, grander edifice at Chartres.  When all but the west front of the new structure was destroyed again by fire in 1194, the magnificent cathedral that still stands was begun.  As a highly combustible material object, the medieval church is an apt symbol of worldly mutability and transience, as expressed in the double connotation of the Christian liturgical formula, “ashes to ashes”.

Our own modern interpretation of architectural renewal is rather different from the medieval, which is one of the reasons, no doubt, for the widespread anxiety that the damage at Notre Dame might have been plenary.  A completely new cathedral rising from the ashes of the old would probably have resembled the Pompidou Centre, the pyramidal “crystal” at the Louvre, or any other of those  daring experiments in conformism and vapidity that so fetch architects and urban planners today, none of whom seem to have recognized that the reason tourists flock to their cities in the first place is that the medieval and Renaissance buildings they come to see are so aesthetically retrograde.

No such fear would have discomposed the medieval peasant whenever a new cathedral was being contemplated.  However much art historians obsess over the technical or stylistic novelties associated with the distinct periods of medieval ecclesiastical design (Early Christian, Romanesque, High Gothic, Late Gothic), what is overwhelmingly plain is the unbroken continuity of architectural syntax (nave; aisle; transept; choir; pier; column; pilaster; arcade; entablature; tribune; clerestory; vault).  As understood until recently, renovatio (structural, intellectual, or spiritual) is predicated on looking backward in gratitude to the harmonious beauty of the past (with the emphasis always on the re, not the nova).


When a “new” monastic church was being planned in the 1130s just north of Paris at St. Denis—which was to become, in fact, the innovative prototype of the Gothic–, its brilliant architect Suger (also theologian, poet, and abbot of St. Denis) looked decidedly backward for his inspiration to the writings of the late 5th century Syrian mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionsysius (who Suger assumed was even more ancient, since he was identified by tradition with the 1st  century Dionysius the Areopagite supposedly converted in Athens by St. Paul, as recorded in the Book of Acts).  Here is one of the passages that palpably enflamed Suger’s architectural imagination from the Pseudo-Dionysius’ seminal Celestial Hierarchy:

Every creature, visible or invisible, is a light brought into being by the Father of the lights…This stone or that piece of wood is a light to me…For I perceive that it is good and beautiful; that it exists according to its proper rules of proportion; that it differs in kind and species from other kinds and species; that it is defined by its number, by virtue of which it is “one” thing; that it does not transgress its order; that it seeks its place according to its specific gravity.  As I perceive such and similar things in this stone they become lights to me, that is to say, they enlighten me.  For I begin to think whence the stone is invested with such properties…; and soon, under the guidance of reason, I am led through all things to that Cause of all things which endows them with place and order, with number, species and kind, with goodness, beauty, and essence, and all other divine bequests.

For Suger as architect, every “stone” and piece of glass in his new church was likewise a “light” that lifted up the observer to the contemplation of the Light of lights.  As Suger writes in his invaluable analysis of the architecture of the new church, describing his rapture upon seeing the precious stones that glowed on the main altar:

When—out of my delight in the beauty of the House of God—the loveliness of the many-coloured stones has called me away from cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues:  then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.

And in a poem explaining the doors of the west portal which, in gilt-bronze relief, depicted the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension:

Marvel not at the good and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.

Bright is the noble work; but being nobly bright, the work

Should brighten the minds so that they may travel, through the true lights,

To the True Light where Christ is the true door.

In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:

The dull mind rises to truth, through that which is material.


We have heard any number of glib analyses of the mood of prayerful concern that descended over the world in the hours following the outbreak of the fire at Notre Dame, including that it has always been a beloved “tourist symbol of Paris” (to be checked off, one supposes, after the Eiffel Tower). This is especially and ironically anodyne in that, as described in the liturgy of the medieval dedication ceremony, the church is above all a symbol of no earthly city, but of the Celestial Jerusalem.  That, again, is its “anagogical” function:  to make you look “upward”, from the visible to the invisible.

In a materialist, post-Christian age, in which the visible and literal —as opposed to the invisible and symbolic–are the only accepted realities (and everyone is in any case looking downward at the “selfies” they’ve just taken on their I-phones, with buildings like Notre Dame subordinated as background to their own cosmic grandeur), one does not expect the ordinary Parisian to understand anagogy.  But then, how can one account for the emotional effect of the fire?  Might not humans, even in this secular epoch, retain some vestigial, archetypal awareness that they are not merely creatures of matter and time, an awareness which the prospect of the loss of a building like Notre Dame has dimly reawakened into consciousness?

The medieval church, moreover, has been fittingly described as a “summa in stone”.  As the eminent medievalist and art historian Emile Male has pointed out, the Middle Ages was the age of the encyclopedia, and the medieval church, an encyclopedia in visible form, is a veritable compendium of all human wisdom and knowledge.  In sculpture and glass at Paris, Chartres, and throughout Europe, we see emblems and personifications of every human art, craft, and industry, of the liberal disciplines (literature, philosophy, oratory, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) of the ancient and medieval curriculum, of the virtues and vices that conduce to a life of happiness or misery.

Like Notre Dame, medieval churches are thus celebrations and fortresses of the religious, intellectual, and moral traditions and norms that have sustained Western Civilization since antiquity, and are now everywhere under attack by the vandals of post-modernism.   Isn’t the potential loss of that, too, what the people of Paris and throughout the world were–at least subliminally–mourning?

One thought on “The Fire at Notre Dame: An Easter Reflection

  1. Well Harley, my first reactions to the burning of la grande Notre Dame, was that of total grief for yet another symbol of faith going down the tube (removal of all symbols of faith in Quebec, removal of crucifixes in various public places, and such). So many people nowadays are proud to profess that they aren’t part of any religion, they’re just looking for a bit of spiritual something. Churches and therefore Notre Dame cathedral therefore are just – as you say – just selfie backdrops.
    Then, when I heard that the cross over the altar had survived, I thought it was a sign from God, that not all is lost.
    I do hope that the French, who display so much chic in so many other sectors, will find it in their heart to apply a re-spirit rather than a nova-spirit in the rebuild of that beautiful edifice.
    With hope in my heart, Christl

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