France is the land of great medieval cathedrals par excellence, and over the years they have awed me with their grandeur, both spiritual and temporal. Would-be progressives today would have us believe that the Middle Ages were a Hobbesian hell of wretched poverty and exploitation, when life was inexorably solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It is true that life then was not as physically comfortable as today. But neither, as far as we can divine, were its intense inhabitants bored, blasé, or dependent on uppers, downers, and Prozac to get through the day. Medieval spirituality dwarfs anything the Western world has since known, thanks to every object, every deed being infused with rich symbolic meaning relating to Christ and eternal life.
The cathedrals, expressions in stone and stained glass of Christian doctrine that could be read like an open book, summed this up for peasant and noble alike. As the British medievalist Philip Ball has noted, “There are few buildings in the world that exude such a sense of meaning, intention, signification—that tell you so clearly and so forcefully that these stones were put in place according to a philosophy of awesome proportions.” In an extraordinary burst of faith-driven fervor from about 1050 to 1350, an astonishing 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches, and several thousand smaller ones were built in cities and towns across the land. As French schoolchildren learn, it was then that “France was covered with a white mantle of churches.”
There was Chartres, with two soaring spires, one Norman, the other Flamboyant Gothic, visible to marching pilgrims for miles across the Beauce plain southwest of Paris. Its unique stained glass flooded it with a mystical, reddish-blue light that even Napoleon admitted would make a militant atheist feel uneasy. Reims, in the Champagne country, had no fewer than 2,300 sacred statues, including a charming angel with a beguiling smile; it was here in 1429 that a victorious Joan of Arc led Charles VII to be anointed king. Vast Amiens, the archetype of classical Gothic architecture, had a nave nearly 500 feet long and a vaulted ceiling 140 feet high, the maximum possible with the building techniques of the day.
But inevitably it has been the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris that has been central to French Christendom for 850 years. (Geographically central as well: It is from a bronze plaque planted in the parvis in front that official distances to everywhere in the country are measured.) Built on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter on the Ile de la Cité, where the city first began, Our Lady of Paris has been the setting for many of the nation’s triumphs and tragedies: glittering royal celebrations and bloody revolutionary madness, papal visits and funerals of chiefs of state. It was here that a barefoot Louis IX carried the Crown of Thorns relic to his coronation in 1239; here that Napoleon impetuously grabbed his crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and set it on his own head; and here that bells tolled wildly on August 26, 1944, as General Charles de Gaulle attended the Mass celebrating the liberation of Paris.
Like most French cathedrals, Notre Dame de Paris was a long time abuilding. After Pope Alexander III laid the first stone in the presence of King Louis VII in 1163, it took nearly 10 generations of architects, artisans, and laborers to finish the job 182 years later. (Exceptionally, Chartres was built in only 26 years.) Along the way, they had to innovate when the ever higher and thinner load-bearing walls dictated by the new Gothic style, together with larger openings for stained-glass windows, began to fissure. Their solution: the flying buttress. Those dramatic, graceful exterior braces were one of the signatures of the High Gothic style and were used centuries later at Washington’s National Cathedral.
Conceived on a grand scale to accommodate at least 6,000 worshippers, Notre Dame had a nave 427 feet long and 160 feet wide. Once all the light-gray cut stone was in place, finishing touches were added: vivid colors, now worn away, painted on the façade; grotesque gargoyles set on outside ledges; a 7,800-pipe organ installed in the choir; three stunning, 30-foot rose windows placed in the western façade and north and south transepts; and 20 massive, finely tuned bells hung in two towers. Today the edifice looks harmonious and complete, but it is actually missing what was to have been one of its most striking features; the tall spires, intended to top off its towers, were never built.
For 450 years, Notre Dame served its purpose as the seat of the archbishop of Paris, both a place of worship and a convenient glorification of the monarchy. Then came the revolution. Rampaging regicides tore through the cathedral, plundering, pillaging, and desecrating its treasures in an attempt to eradicate religion in France. The rabble removed crosses and crucifixes and replaced statues of the Virgin Mary with Lady Liberty. They beheaded statues of the kings of Judah, whom they mistook for French kings, on the façade. They replaced the Mass with political rallies, dedicating the shrine to the Cult of Reason and Cult of the Supreme Being. They stole all the great bells except one (which was kept as an alarm), and melted them down to make cannons. They turned the House of God into a food warehouse. Ultimately they intended to tear it down and sell it off piecemeal as building materials, but Napoleon acted in time to block that. Ever aware of the importance of symbols, he decreed that it be salvaged and redecorated for his coronation.
The cathedral, now the property of the state, then began a long, gradual period of stabilization and restoration. When Louis Philippe became king in 1830, he saw popular sentiment in favor of the restoration of medieval buildings. That received a boost in 1831 with the publication of Victor Hugo’s monumental novel, Notre Dame de Paris. (Translated into English, oddly, as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it had some puzzled 20th-century football fans searching for a hump on Fighting Irish quarterbacks.) Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a major Gothic Revival architect, was commissioned to bring Notre Dame back to life. He took a controversially creative approach, attempting to capture a medieval ideal rather than simply restore things as they were. The kings of Judah were put back on their ledge, even more garish gargoyles were added, and a spire was erected atop the nave.
Today some 14 million annual visitors come to see the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and other unique relics in the treasury, and be dazzled by the bright blues, greens, reds, and yellows of the 13th-century rose windows. They can also contemplate my personal favorite: a medieval stone statue of the Virgin, shown as a frivolous young Parisienne carelessly holding the Christ Child on her hip, her large crown as Queen of Heaven heavy on her girlish brow, her eyes half-closed in a sophisticated glance, her mouth set in a pouting little moue. Many also climb the 387 steps for a close look at those gargoyles and a panoramic view of the city that the writer Jean Giraudoux once called “the thousand acres of the world where most has been thought, spoken and written. The planet’s hub, the most free, the most elegant, the least hypocritical.”
This year they will also be attending the celebration of Notre Dame’s 850th anniversary. The government has budgeted $8.5 million to clean the great organ’s thousands of pipes, as well as to sponsor lectures, concerts, and evening son et lumière shows. On May 6, the cathedral and its organ were commemorated by World Organ Day, with 850 organ recitals in concert halls and places of worship around the world. But the most ambitious project has been replacing the cathedral’s old, discordant bells with nine new ones. Financed with $2.6 million in private donations, the resplendent bronze bells, totaling six tons, were on display for a month in the nave before being hoisted into the north and south towers. They rang out melodiously for the first time to mark Palm Sunday.
I suspect that Victor Hugo, the old romantic, would have been pleased by all the hoopla over his beloved church. As he wrote of it, “Assuredly, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice.”