The Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire chronicled tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s travels between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. The lack of footage for the 1974 stunt meant that the most captivating footage in Man on Wire involved his walk three years earlier between two other towers, those of Notre-Dame Cathedral, where he juggled and moved in the skies for an uncomfortably long time. Amazingly, the daredevil still stands tall. One cannot say the same for the two most famous settings of Philippe Petit’s life.
The shocking conflagration of Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday emitted a 9/11 feel minus the human loss. On September 11, the functioning symbols of American money (the World Trade Center) and might (the Pentagon) fell and experienced partial obliteration. During 2019’s Holy Week, Christendom lost, hopefully temporarily, one of its most recognizable symbols.
Whereas 9/11 foreshadowed a post-American Century in which the United States would lose standing vis-à-vis other powers, Monday followed the long, painful collapse of Christian civilization. Perhaps the cathedral merely caught up to a situation centuries in the making.
Terrorists planned a thwarted attack on Notre-Dame a few years back. But Monday’s inferno seems to stem from the type of accidental fire that consumes nondescript homes around the world on a daily basis. Though a blaze of pedestrian origins destroyed the structure, the structure itself appeared as anything but.
A commonplace fire laying ruins to such an architectural masterpiece seems a cruel irony. World War II destroyed the Church of St. Nicholas in Hamburg (its tower remains), once briefly the tallest building in the world; leveled St. Michael’s in Munich, frequently described as the largest Renaissance-built church north of the Alps; and destroyed the 14th-century Coventry Cathedral, among other magnificent churches, castles, museums, and structural wonders.
It as not as though history did not abuse Notre-Dame. Riotous Huguenots damaged it during the Reformation. In the name of enlightenment, the ignorant decapitated statues of 28 Biblical kings of Judah — the mob believing them representations of French kings — during the French Revolution. They looted treasures. They carved “To Philosophy” over the church’s doors. They redubbed it a Temple of Reason. During World War II, its stained glass sustained bullet wounds. What sectarianism and revolutions and wars did not do to bring down the cathedral, they combined to bring down the religion that raised it.
The most brilliant structures in the skyline once served as places to worship God. The most brilliant structures in the skyline now serve as temples to make money.
The civilization that constructed the Notre-Dame Cathedral differs so dramatically from the one forced to rebuild it. As Will Durant wrote about cathedrals in The Age of Faith, “The population was small, but it believed; it was poor, but it gave.” We outnumber them but do not believe as fervently; we exhibit exponentially greater wealth, but tithe primarily through taxes. Their patience allowed for perfection, or close to it, to develop glacially. Current cravings for instant gratification likely dictate a quick fix that does not do justice to its past glory. Our population sees Notre-Dame Cathedral as a design marvel or a symbol of Paris or as a stone history book but not, primarily, as a place to worship God. We look, superficially, at the outside of the church. They concerned themselves with what happened on the inside. One imagines that these differences mean that what rises from the ruins does not quite replace what rose there over the course of almost two centuries a long, long time ago. Whether the building changes dramatically or not, its purpose changed dramatically well before the fire.
Will Durant summarized the lifecycle of cathedrals thusly:
So, stage by stage, through ten or twenty or a hundred years, the cathedral rose, defying gravity to glorify God. When it was ready for use it was dedicated in ceremonious ritual that brought together high prelates and dignitaries, pilgrims and sightseers, and all the townsfolk except the village atheist. Years more would be spent in finishing the exterior and interior, and adding a thousand embellishments. For many centuries the people would read on its portals, windows, capitals, and walls the sculptured or painted history and legends of the faith — the story of Creation, the Fall of Man and the Last Judgment, the lives of the prophets and patriarchs, the sufferings and miracles of the saints, the moral allegories of the animal world, the dogmas of the theologians, even the abstractions of the philosophers; all would be there, in a vast stone encyclopedia of Christianity. When he died, the good Christian would want to be buried near those walls, where demons would be loath to roam. Generation after generation would come to pray in the cathedral; generation after generation would file out from the church into the tombs. The gray cathedral would look upon their coming and their passing with the silent calm of stone, until, in the greatest death of all, the creed itself would die, and those sacred walls would be surrendered to omnivorous time, or be ravished to raise new temples to new gods.
It took 182 years to build Notre Dame. It took many more to burn it down.
From the ashes, a repaired cathedral someday appears sans the soot and boasting a new spire. And then, our progeny, in tourist pilgrimages, can utter that there stands Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a high-wire artist once walked and juggled 200 feet above the ground.