the genius of medieval architecture
Having to see one of the great monuments of his own city burning was the very last imaginable thing for an art lover. Yet, surprisingly, while watching the roof burning the first thought was that Notre Dame would be fine. Other medieval cathedrals had survived similar damage, notably Reims cathedral, bombed in 1914 by the German army. Its rooftop was destroyed, but the stone structure remained steadfast.
Caused by accident rather than the folly of man, even with the flames and water having weakened the structure and three vaults having collapsed, Notre Dame survived the disaster nearly intact. The statues underneath the collapsed vaults were not damaged, and the stained glass windows survived the intense heat.
The worldwide emotion illustrated that Notre Dame is a lot more than an architecture wonder, as its stone contains centuries of human memory. For millions of people the cathedral embodies experiences they will reminisce over for their entire lives : their honeymoon, a school trip, or maybe the first time in their life they entered a monument. The awe they felt at the scale and majesty, the wonder at the sunlight becoming divine, as it passed through the stained glass rose windows remains engraved in their minds.
For the Parisians, seeing one of the oldest and most important landmarks of the city in flames was a shock.
The next morning the river bank was covered with people silently taking it in, as if visiting an injured relative.
A second layer of memory has accumulated since 1160, when Bishop Sully decided that the old cathedral wasn’t large enough, and commissioned an architect to design a cathedral on a scale never seen before. From that year on, Notre Dame has been witness to eight centuries of history. At a human level, she has stood witness to the hopes and sorrows of generations of Parisians; likewise she has stood through major events, invasions, religious strife, the coronation of an English child as King of France, and being attacked during the Revolution to the coronation of an Emperor, Napoleon.
Then in one fateful night the wooden ‘forest’ under the roof and the spire burnt; the entire lead covered roof was lost. Worse, the flames spread to one of the two bell towers. If the wood frames inside had burnt, the risk was that not only the tower would have collapsed, but that the entire cathedral might have followed.
It took 600 firefighters fifteen hours to put the fire down, their bravery going as far as fighting the blaze from inside while a raging fire above could have at any time collapsed on them. But even as the ashes were still smouldering there already was talk of rebuilding Notre Dame, without considering what the firefighters had achieved and what the architects had created.
Even after such a dramatic fire, the stone structure remained near intact, so Notre Dame does not need to be rebuilt, but restored. The other misguided word was in calling the cathedral “gothic”.
Gothic means barbarian
The word “gothic” comes from the Goths, the invaders blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire. At the dawn of the Renaissance, reviving the arts of ancient Rome was done at the expense of anything created in the Middle Ages, thus rejecting medieval architecture as being “gothic”, therefore labelling it as being barbarian. An early Renaissance architect said “cursed be he who discovered it! I think that only barbaric people could have brought it into Italy”.
Then art historian Vasari called the style “German”, and rejected it as “monstrous and barbarous”, and as having produced “deformities” which “sickened the world”. He even blamed the medieval architects for the destruction of Rome “this manner was the invention of the Goths, for after they had ruined the ancient buildings, and killed the architects in the wars, those who were left constructed the buildings in this style”.
By the time of Louis XIV, associating “gothic” with the Dark Ages was so entrenched that the great playwright Molière denounced the “tasteless gothic ornaments, those odious monsters of ignorant centuries” blaming their “barbarity” for having “suffocated fine arts”.
Not only is it insulting to think that the architects who created great cathedrals somehow were responsible for the destruction of Rome, but using the word “gothic” actually threatened the survival of the buildings they created. The power of that label, meaning barbaric and belonging to a dark and ignorant age only increased the risk that “gothic” churches would be destroyed to make way for modern replacements. In the 18th century some of the original stained glass windows of Notre Dame were considered too dark and replaced by white glass.
Lack of funds saved the medieval cathedrals, as not only is it costly to destroy such large stone structures, but it is even costlier to replace them with a modern equivalent. So if “gothic” is such a prejudiced label, what should we call Notre Dame’s style?
Medieval Architecture of Light
At first churches were covered with timber roofs and frameworks, and then eventually with stone vaults, whose main disadvantage was their tremendous weight. Since the walls had to carry the weight of the vaulted ceiling the result was a massive structure with small windows. But in the 12th century architects, instead of adding weight, started to remove it to allow for large windows.
The urge to create churches were the walls disappear is not only due to technical advancement, but also a consequence of the religious meaning of light. This idea started North of Paris, in Saint Denis Basilica, where most French Kings are buried, when in 1140 Abbott Suger prompted his architect to let the light in.
Suger was not only guided by the references to light in scripture, but by words attributed to Saint Denis, to the effect that contemplating light in glass and gems lifted the mind towards divine light. So when the architect delivered the result, Suger marvelled over the fact that “the church shines with its middle part brightened. For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright, and bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light”.
Suger and his architect had invented a new style where the walls became “wonderful and continuous light”, luminous tapestries of colour, translucent illustrated scripture. Therefore so-called “gothic” is the very opposite of a Dark Age creation, as it is the architecture of light. We should therefore call it instead “Medieval architecture of light”.
The peak of this medieval architecture of light is near Notre Dame, at the Sainte Chapelle, whose walls are almost entirely made of stained glass windows. The structure is like an immense casket, a gem-set reliquary for the crown of thorns, the gems being the colours radiating from the translucent walls, to the point one witness described “such degree of beauty that entering it one feels like being taken to heaven and imagines being introduced into one of Paradise’s most beautiful rooms”.
The light emanating from the windows and the shimmer of the gold and gem set precious vessels brightened spirits towards meditation and contemplation.
We do not have the names of the geniuses who invented the new style. In Saint Denis abbott Suger made sure he would be represented in sculpture and in the windows, for his name to be written all over the abbey, yet the person who helped him realise the new architecture of light has been consigned to oblivion.
For Notre Dame as well the names of the great minds who conceived and built this large monument are lost, except, tantalisingly, in the very year in which construction began, when in passing, we have a witness to a contract — a certain Ricardus cementarius, Richard the stonemason. Wether he was a humble stone cutter or the man whose powers of imagination envisioned such a monument, we will never know.
The creation of an immense cathedral was such an undertaking that everyone involved knew it would take generations to build. So one day Bishop Sully and his architect poured over plans and models, and choose a design. Both must have peered at the plaster or wood model, letting their imagination run, mentally travelling through a cathedral they both knew would only be finished long after their death.
While the first six architects able to conceive Notre Dame were forgotten, eventually recognition came to Jean de Chelles, who build one of the rose windows. He was so respected that his name is carved in stone with an immense inscription naming him master stonemason. His successor Pierre de Montreuil was even honoured with the title of doctor. Then Pierre de Chelles and Jean de Ravy put the last touches to Notre Dame, completing it after nearly two centuries of work.
Such masters invented an architecture where the forces at play are clearly visible : inside the ribbed vaults carry the weight of the ceiling, and at the exact point where they touch the walls, outside the flying buttresses hold the entire cathedral together. The result is a structure with the least amount of walls feasible, making it akin to an immense ribcage.
The architects stretched the physical limits of stone to the point of needing steel reinforcements, as far as ‘chaining’ entire cathedrals in steel. In Notre Dame steel is used, not only for the window frames, but also in sections of the cathedrals reinforced by stapling stones with one another, in effect creating a ‘girdle’ holding parts of the cathedral.
The result is transforming an enormous mass of stone into a slender and harmonious latticework, like a graceful and immovable ship. With the emulation to build cathedrals higher than the previous ones, if stainless steel beams had been available at the time they might have built cathedrals as skyscrapers.
Renaissance architects revived the knowledge contained in the one and only book about architecture from Antiquity that had survived destruction. In contrast medieval architects did not copy others but created something new and compensated their lack of theoretical and mathematical knowledge with boundless ambition.
This sense of purpose was bigger than themselves, as many lived on a meagre salary and conceived monuments while knowing they would never see the finished result, since it took generations to build cathedrals. The creators of medieval cathedrals should be regarded with the same awe than the builders of pyramids, temples and Renaissance churches.
Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame
Over the centuries Notre Dame had been assailed by time and by man. During the Revolution its statues were thrown to the ground, and the cathedral was used as a wine depot, leaving Notre Dame in very poor condition, a dangerous situation at a time when churches were dismantled for their stone and lead roofs.
Salvation came from a writer, Victor Hugo. The man who waged “war on the wreckers” had a creative solution to preserve the monument, writing a popular novel called “Notre Dame”, so the readers would “fall in love with architecture”. Hugo successfully swayed public opinion to understand the need for a costly restoration.
Notre Dame needed partial reconstruction, the weakened stones had to be replaced, and the spire was rebuilt. Architect Viollet-le-Duc, over the course of twenty years of renovation, mixed accurate restoration with pure fantasy and saved the cathedral for future generations.
Notre Dame cathedral lives on
After 850 years having survived time, upheavals, rain, pollution and fire, Notre Dame is nevertheless wounded. Consolidating the buttresses has already been done, but there still is a lot of strengthening work needed to avoid further disaster. Once done, it would then be time to rebuild the roof and spire, and if needed to replace the stones weakened by the fire and water.
The restoration should be respectful of Notre Dame’s history and memories. Heritage experts should be listened to. For such a monument, the timescale is in centuries, so the pressure on the restorers is not on speed, but on ensuring Notre Dame will live on for many more centuries, hopefully millennia.
Notre Dame, as illustrated by the outpouring of emotion and financial help from all over the world, not only belongs to the French people, but mankind. A successful renovation would ensure that, for the generation who saw the fire, the tragedy would only be a bad memory.
And for generations to come, Notre Dame will carry on gracing Paris, being part of the life story of millions, a lasting example of humanity’s genius.
Guillaume Deprez is an art historian who always wondered about the intentional destruction of works of art. As a child unable to understand any of the reasons why Notre-Dame cathedral is a masterpiece, even blackened by pollution and time, he still felt awe and respect towards it. His book Lost Treasures explains and quantifies the intentional destruction of human memory over millennia.
Sources: on “gothic” — Il Filarete untitled treatise VIII, Giorgio Vasari, Of Architecture, III 28 — German Work (the Gothic Style), Molière, La Gloire du Val-de-Grâce.
On medieval light — Abbot Suger, De Administratione, XXXVIII and De Consecratione IV, Jean de Jeandun, Traité des louanges de Paris, 1323 for the Sainte Chapelle.
The French title of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” actually is “Notre Dame de Paris”. Both photographs are public domain images.