A Day of Fire

A Day of Fire

The Day The Aqsa Mosque Dodged a Bullet

Monday, 15 April 2019.

Filled with anguish for what happened to the majestic Notre Dame de Paris, I went to bed struggling to put my mind to sleep with scenes still popping up of the proud cathedral battling the desolating flames. I woke up the following day rubbing my eyes and grabbing my phone to check my email, as usual. There was a message with the title “Al Aqsa”. I hurriedly took to news outlets and social media to see what happened to the iconic mosque, and I was relieved to learn that the blaze there was quenched tout de suite. The fire, that was reportedly inadvertently started by a group of playful children (according to Palestinian Waqf officials), broke out quickly in the guardroom of the courtyard of al-Muṣallā al-Marwanī (the Marwānīd Prayer Hall), better known in the West as the Solomon’s Stables.

The blaze didn’t cause significant damage, but it did endanger part of the worship site that’s ovre 2,000 years old. Image Credit: https://gulfnews.com/world/mena/al-aqsa-mosque-catches-fire-same-time-as-notre-dame-cathedral-1.1555395418351

For many non-Muslims, this fire may have been the first time they had heard of the Aqṣā mosque, despite it being one of the holiest places in Islam. So, I thought this might be as good an opportunity as any to introduce the readers of The Public Medievalist to its storied past and offer a guided historical tour of this edifice that has survived fire, earthquakes, and even a few Crusaders in its time.

Why the Aqṣā is Important

Palestinian Muslim worshippers take part in the Friday noon prayer outside the Dome of the Rock mosque, situated in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 22, 2019. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

The calibre of the Aqṣā mosque for Muslims is, in a way, comparable to that of the Notre Dame for Christians. The Aqṣā was their first qibla, (i.e. the direction Muslims faced when praying), before Makka and one of only three mosques to which Muslim are urged (by the Prophet) to travel to do prayer. The other two are those of Makka and Madina:

“People shall journey to but three mosques, al-Masjid Ḥarām [at Makka], my mosque [at Madina], and the Aqṣā mosque [at Jerusalem]”

said the Prophet in one famous ḥadīth. The Arabic name, al-Masjid al-Aqṣā (the Farthest Mosque), is inspired by a Qurʾānic passage on the Night Journey (Qurʾān 17. 1) which celebrates the Prophet Muḥammad’s miraculous excursion from al-Masjid al-Ḥarām where he lived, to al-Masjid al-Aqṣā, and then up to the Heaven.

The Structure of the Aqṣā

The Dome of the Rock (center), the Qibli Mosque (lower center, with the smaller grey dome), and the Marawind Prayer Hall (in the lower right part of the complex). Image Credit: HellsJuggernaut

The mosque itself, (i.e. the covered prayer space), constitutes only a part of a grander complex that also includes other structures, minarets, and memorials. It is known in the Muslim tradition, particularly starting from the Ottoman period, as al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf (the Noble Sanctum). Situated in the southern side of the ensemble, the silver-domed mosque still preserves very nearly the same features it has had since the time of its foundation. In the present day, the Muslim people use the term ‘Aqṣā mosque’ to refer to the whole complex and to the particular mosque interchangeably. More confusingly, some use the term to refer to the spectacular Umayyad Dome of the Rock that is also included in the complex. A better terminology uses ‘al-Masjid al-Aqṣā’ to refer to the whole ensemble and ‘al-Jāmiʿ al-Aqṣā’ to refer to the mosque itself. The latter is also known as al-Masjid al-Qiblī (as it locates in the qibla side of the enclosure), al-Mughaṭṭā (the roofed part) and Masjid al-Jumuʿa (the Friday mosque).

The History of the Aqṣā

The first mosque here was reportedly put up by the caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb when Jerusalem capitulated to him in 16/637 CE. While mentioned by a number of medieval Muslim chroniclers, the fullest description of that ‘first’ mosque is conveyed by Arculf, a Frankish bishop (Galliarum Episcopus) who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land in around 59-62/679–82 CE:

In that famous place where the Temple once stood, near the [city] was on the east, the Saracens [note: an archaic Eurocentric appellation for Muslims] now frequent an oblong house of prayer which they pieced together with upright planks and large beams over some ruined remains. It is said that the building can hold up to three thousand people.

Jerusalem: The floorplan of the Marwānīd Aqṣā mosque, similar to the plan of the Umayyad-era Aqsa. (after Hamilton, 1949).

While this statement by Arculf is still seen by many as an acceptable account of the structure, some have recently argued that it is generally unreliable. A third group believe that the mosque he saw was founded by the founder of the Umayyad caliphate, Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān and not ʿUmar, seeing that Arculf visited Jerusalem in the former’s reign. To the latter, however, they attribute an earlier mosque of a smaller capacity (suitable for 1000 worshippers). After the works of ʿUmar, the Aqṣā mosque was more certainly rebuilt in the Umayyad period. It was a rectangular structure composed of an axial nave that is surmounted by a high wooden dome sheathed with lead. The nave was flanked with vertical bays.

Due to inconclusive archaeological evidence, nevertheless, there are two theories on to whom the Umayyad Aqṣā should be attributed. According to a majority of early historians and geographers, the mosque was built by the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān in ca. 65/685 CE. Others believe it is due to his son and successor al-Walīd. Based on a more systematic analysis of all the evidence available (i.e. archaeology, papyrology and Muslim as well as non-Muslim early sources), a majority of scholars now come to believe that the Marwānīd construction of the Aqṣā mosque was first commissioned by ʿAbd al-Malik and completed by his son al-Walīd in 87/706.

Northeast exposure of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Image Credit: Andrew Shiva.

In its many years, the structure has been through a lot. The Umayyad Aqṣā mosque was later struck by an earthquake that destroyed the domed mughaṭṭā towards the end of the Umayyad period in 128/746. It was thus reconstructed in the ʿAbbāsid period by the caliph Abū Jaʿfar al-Manṣūr in 136/754 CE. The only surviving remnants from the Umayyad structure are the arches, which are supported on squat marble columns with stiff Byzantine foliage situated to either sides of the cupola near the entrance. Some also attribute the lower part of the present walls of the main aisle to ʿAbd al-Malik’s time. In 163/780 CE, the mosque had to be rebuilt again, this time by al-Manṣūr’s son and successor al-Mahdī, after being struck by another earthquake. In 424/1033 CE, al-Mahdī’s mosque was largely destroyed by a third earthquake and thus rebuilt by the Fāṭmid caliph al-Ẓāhir li-Iʿzāz Dīn Allāh two years afterwards. Al-Ẓāhir’s architects reconstructed the dome of wood and sheeted it with lead enamelwork. That is the mosque that remains standing today. Today’s mosque retains the layout of the Fatimid structure as well as some of its decorative programme.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, interior. Image Credit: Eassa.

The Aqṣā and the Crusades

After Jerusalem was seized by the Crusaders in 492/1099 CE, the Aqṣā mosque was renamed ‘the Temple of Solomon’. The Dome of the Rock was converted into a church and rechristened ‘the Temple of God’ (Templum Domini). The mosque was first used as a royal palace, and then as the headquarters of the Templar Knights. During the Crusades, the architecture of the mosque was largely refashioned to better serve its new functions and many structures were added in the enclosure. Later in 583/1187 CE, these alterations were undone and the holy site regained its Islamic character when the first Ayyūbid sultan Ṣalāh al-Dīn recaptured the city. Subsequently, and thanks to its prestige in Muslim culture, the Aqṣā benefited from numerous amendments: it has been restored, refurbished, and refurnished by patrons from several different Muslim epochs: Ayyūbid, Māmlūk, Ottoman and modern. In 1969, the dome was rebuilt with concrete and plated with anodized aluminum; this was later redone with lead so as to better resemble its medieval Fāṭimid predecessor.

Into the Halls

The Marwānīd Prayer Hall, interior.

Constituting the biggest covered space in the modern Aqṣā mosque (at 4500 m2), the Marwānīd Prayer Hall, where the fire broke out, comprises 16 riwāqs (arcades) made up of stone pillars. It is located beneath the south-eastern plazas of the Aqṣā mosque and can be reached through a stone staircase in the north-western part of the Qiblī mosque. Otherwise, it can be accessed through the recently discovered northern stone gates that run vertical to the eastern wall of the Aqṣā mosque. Many of the walls, pillars and arches of the Marwānīd Prayer Hall (particularly in the riwāq abutting the eastern wall of the Aqṣā mosque) already suffer from a poor condition of reservation. They show many cracks as well as significant buildup of dust and dirt residuals because of increasing moisture. This situation calls for urgent solution.

The pre-Islamic history of the subterranean vaulted space, i.e. the Marwānīd Prayer Hall, is greatly disagreed upon. Equally disagreed upon is whether this space, that served as an armoury and horse barn during the Crusades (particularly in the reign of Baldwin II), was used for Muslim prayer as early as the Umayyad period. From ‘stable’ to ‘prayer hall’, the name of the places, like many other aspects of this holy site, is laden with implications. It bears the traces of a renowned medieval conflict between two prominent civilizations in its stones. The rings to which the horses were reportedly tethered can still be seen in the pillars of the Muṣallā. The Marwānīd Prayer Hall is said to have been cleaned and then closed when Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn recaptured Jerusalem. In the West this space is typically called the Solomon’s Stables.

What’s in a Name?

This leaves us with a final set of questions. This place, which has been contested, is called many things by different people—many of whom believe it to rightfully be one thing, belonging to one people, or from one historical period only.

But whether the holy site is better described as the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah or al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf,

whether the Marwānīd Prayer Hall were stables that were turned into a prayer space or vice versa,

whether it assumed the character of a prayer space lies in how it looked in 1996 or in its earliest Islamic years,

whether the platform that pre-existed its construction was built by the Umayyads to level up the sloping southern part of the holy site or by King Herod to extend the platform of the Temple Mount southward onto the Ophel

… all remain rather secondary to the fact that we are dealing with a notable historical site that is used for prayer and thus assumes an exceptional religio-cultural significance for many.

Like Notre Dame, the Aqṣā mosque means many things to many people. Its long and complex history is written in its stones, its furnishings, its spaces. In April, the Aqṣā mosque may have dodged a proverbial bullet. But at the very least, this may offer the opportunity for more people to know this magnificent edifice, and its history, a little better.

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A Day of Fire

“Like The Sun Among Stars”: Why the World Paused for Notre Dame

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded? – 1 Kings 8:27 

The world watched with horror and sadness as Notre Dame, the iconic and beloved cathedral of Paris, suffered immense damage in a catastrophic fire on April 15, 2019. As a Catholic, a medieval historian, and a Francophile, I was heartbroken to watch this historic landmark engulfed in flames. Notre Dame represents both a sacred space and the life’s work of the hundreds of craftspeople who worked on it, drawing over 12 million visitors annually. 

It’s difficult to pick just one aspect of what makes Notre Dame so majestic for me. Ever since I began studying the French language in junior high, which included many lessons on Francophone culture, I loved learning more about Notre Dame. When I turned 18, I was fortunate enough to visit my relatives in Paris, and first on my must-see list was a visit to the cathedral. As I sought to take it all in: the sculptures, gargoyles, relics, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows, I was overcome with a sense of awe. My neck craned to glimpse every detail of the medieval cathedral as my aunt and I slowly made our way through the interior. It was this first-hand encounter with Notre Dame that helped propel me to study the Middle Ages both in college and in graduate school. 

One of the medieval stained glass rose windows, Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images 

When I tell people that I am a medieval historian, the most common response is, “Oh, you mean the Dark Ages?” My initial retort is to list some of the achievements of the Middle Ages that make the term “Dark Ages” a misnomer. But, if I’ve managed to pique their interest, I like to explain that the people of the Middle Ages were utterly fascinated with light and color. I often point examples of Gothic architecture, such as the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, as one of the crowning architectural achievements of the Middle Ages. The distinct pattern of this rose window, which was composed of thousands of pieces of delicately placed colored glass, became a defining aspect of later Gothic architecture. Although approximately eighty cathedrals and five hundred large churches were built in France concurrently with Notre Dame, she is singular among them in her sublime beauty. 

“The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” tempera and gold leaf on parchment, ca. 1452–1460, by Jean Fouquet  

Under the direction of Bishop Maurice de Sully, the construction of Notre Dame first began in 1163. It took over a thousand manual laborers nearly two centuries to complete the cathedral. It was during the thirteenth century that the famous flying buttresses were installed. These external braces, which not only supported the walls, but allowed them to higher and thinner, which enabled the installation of the stained-glass windows. Under the direction of King Louis IX, (who was later canonized as St. Louis) in 1260 the three rose windows were installed. This brought more light into the church, and drew worshiper’s eyes upward. It was also during this time that the original spire was erected (which, after enduring centuries of wind damage, was removed in the late eighteenth century). It was like a finger pointing toward heaven. 

An example of Notre Dame’s flying buttresses.

Not only is Notre Dame a testament of the many artistic and architectural developments of the period, the cathedral also bore witness to many other intellectual feats of the Middle Ages. The emergence of polyphonic (multipart) music stems from a group of composers who worked at the Notre Dame cathedral from approximately 1160 to 1250. The university at Paris, developed throughout the twelfth century, emerged from the famous cathedral school at Notre Dame. This, along with the universities at Oxford and Bologna, came to form the basis for what is now our modern university system.  

Central to Notre Dame’s historical significance, since its earliest days, it has served as a place for prayer among the masses. Because of its many statues and stained glass windows depicting biblical figures, Notre Dame, like many medieval cathedrals, was known as a liber pauperam (“poor people’s book”). These images were meant to serve as religious instruction for those could not read. The Cathedral is also a celebration of the importance of the Virgin Mary to Catholic Christians. Not only is the Cathedral named after her, but there are 37 representations of her throughout the cathedral. Most notable is “The Portal of the Virgin,” where Mary is flanked by angels and saints. This particular Marian portal is often was referred to as super rosam rosida (“the rose of roses”), a name that emerged from twelfth-century poet Adam de Saint-Victor.  

Portal of the Virgin. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Since the Middle Ages, throngs of Catholic Christians have made pilgrimages to Notre Dame, praying to its patron saint, Mary, for divine intercession and protection. Most movingly on Monday, crowds in Paris began to sing “Ave Maria,” seemingly to honor the church and, for some, perhaps to seek Mary’s intercession to save her church. 

The fire thankfully was extinguished. The damage is still being  assessed, and proposals for its future are being considered. So, this is a good moment to recall moments in Notre Dame’s history when the building became the focal point of contentious debate about the use of a sacred space. During the French Wars of Religion (a period of unrest between Roman Catholics and Huguenots, who were Reformed/Calvinist Protestants, between 1562 and 1598), the Hugenots destroyed some of the Cathedral’s statues, declaring them idolatrous. Another violent set of assaults on Notre Dame took place during the French Revolution, when the cathedral represented, to many, the antithesis of the Enlightenment. It was looted and renamed the “Temple to the Goddess Reason.” Many of the statues of Mary were removed at this time and replaced by statues to the Goddess of Liberty. Thought to be statues of French kings, 28 statues of biblical kings were beheaded: their heads were only discovered in a 1977 excavation. On April 18, 1802, as part of an agreement between the Catholic Church and Napoleon Bonaparte, it was rededicated as a Catholic church. Napoleon later used it for his coronation as emperor in 1804.  

Interior of Notre Dame Cathedral as drawn by Thomas Allom from France Illustrated, 1845.  Time Life Pictures / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images 

Despite being given to the Catholic Church by Napoleon, Notre Dame remained half-ruined. Attempts at restoration remained stagnant until, in 1833, Victor Hugo used the cathedral as the backdrop for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He did this to inspire in people an affection for the decrepit, neglected edifice and, through a romantic idea of it, motivate the populace to refurbish what Hugo called “a vast symphony in stone.” Moved by Hugo’s thousand-page love letter to Notre Dame, a clamor arose to restore the cathedral to its former glory. The Commission on Historical Monuments was formed and in 1844, King Louis Philippe ordered the church to be restored, which included the re-glazing of the stained glass windows, the addition of a new organ, as well as the addition of the now-famous gargoyles. It was also during this restoration that the spire that fell on Monday was built.  

In World War II, the stained glass windows of Notre Dame only sustained minor damage, mainly from stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in August 1944. As part of the celebration of Paris’s liberation, a special mass was held in Notre Dame, which was attended by Charles de Gaulle. In 1963, marking the 800th anniversary of the Cathedral, Notre Dame underwent a series of restorations which helped remove some of the accumulated dirt and grime, and ultimately emerging all the more beautiful.  

Now, the cathedral lies gutted by natural disaster. It is, of course, not unique in this; natural disasters have ravaged some of the greatest sacred architectural feats. In 558, an earthquake caused the collapse of the dome of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the cathedral in the Byzantine Empire’s capital city of Constantinople, (subsequently a mosque, and now a museum in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). Subsequently, Hagia Sophia survived a fire in 859 and as well as a second earthquake in 869. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed 87 parish churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and an earthquake in 1997 destroyed one of the most famous frescoes of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. In 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed several Buddhist temples in Nepal, including two sites that dated from the 5th century. And on the same day as the fire at Notre Dame, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, also caught fire, though thankfully it only suffered minor damage. But it has been rebuilt multiple times, particularly following the damage wrought by massive earthquakes in 746 and 1033.  

And this is not to mention the destruction of sacred sites regularly perpetrated by violence and war, from the shockingly regular attacks on African-American churches, mosques and synagogues in the US, to the wholesale destruction of ancient holy sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS during the civil war.

People watch as smoke billows from Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out, in Paris, France April 15, 2019. -Charles Platiau/Reuters 

But just because the destruction of sacred places is common does not make them less shocking. And just because they will be rebuilt does not make them less worthy of grief.

The tearful reactions around the world on that day in April  point to how beloved Notre Dame is, as both a sacred site and a historical landmark. It’s difficult to put into words how much Notre Dame means to so many groups of people: Catholic Christians who flock to it as part of a sacred pilgrimage, scholars who appreciate its unparalleled place in history, tourists who are awestruck by its magnificence. Fourteenth-century French philosopher and theologian, Jean de Jandun, in his 1323 Tractus de laudibus Parisius (Treatise on the Praises of Paris), offers one of the best arguments for Notre Dame’s distinctive beauty and why so many of us grieved the destruction wrought by the fire, 

“In fact, I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul… that most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars.” 

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A Day of Fire

What Notre Dame Adds to Life

On Monday, April 15, 2019, fires broke out in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Thankfully, the mosque was left largely undamaged. The Cathedral was not so lucky. The Public Medievalist is publishing reactions to and discussions of that day’s events and their aftermath under the title A Day of Fire.

This second contribution is by Carolina Gual.

I am a Brazilian medievalist. Medieval France has always had a special place in my heart. During my PhD research, I had the opportunity to live in Paris for a year. Part of the appeal of doing so was the possibility of fulfilling the dream of living in France—I knew I would have the best libraries and archives at my disposal there. But ultimately, the thought of being so close to something that was a kind of medieval reality was maybe the most exciting element of it all.  Paris today is not medieval; its boulevards and landmarks represent a mix of the modern centuries. But fragments of the medieval remain, and for me, coming from a country with no medieval past, they represented my first opportunity to touch the period.

I arrived in Paris in October, 2012. Not knowing anything about the city on my first day, I decided to take the subway to Notre Dame. It seemed like the logical place for a medievalist to start exploring. I had spent many classes at the university discussing Notre Dame: analyzing the gothic construction, the techniques, the innovation, the artistry. I just had to see it with my own eyes.

I got off at Châtelet station. Since I didn’t know there were many different exits, I just chose one randomly. I got lost in the middle of Paris. When I started to see signs indicating the Louvre, I knew I was going in the wrong direction. I asked for directions. I retraced my steps. And, little by little, I got my bearings and found my way. I arrived at the cathedral from a direction that is not the most usual, coming from the flower market and the Hôtel Dieu.

Notre Dame Cathedral from the flower market and the Hôtel Dieu. Photo by the author.

I turned a corner, unknowingly, and there she was—excuse me, for me it was never just a building, but a living being, thus the use of “she.” She was right before my eyes: grandiose, domineering. My eyes filled with tears because of the beauty, the symbolism, the meaning. Paris had been a dream of mine for a long time, because I yearned to know the museums, the monuments, and all the culture ever since I had started studying French and the Middle Ages as an undergraduate student. Notre Dame was its greatest icon. The Middle Ages were staring me right in the face—I was a happy medievalist. The first photo I took, the one you see above, is, to this day, my Windows desktop, I look at it every day, all day, because it takes me back to the amazing experience that living in Paris represented in my life.

As I approached it, the creamy colored stones seemed almost to shine against the backdrop of an incredibly blue sky. I felt small, but uplifted. I walked slowly across the parvis—the square in front of the Cathedral—trying to absorb it all: the two imposing towers, the countless details on the façade. The icons of Gothic architecture: arches, towers, and gargoyles—were staring me right in the face. But so were other architectural styles and other historical moments.

I walked in, overwhelmed and was surprised by the number of tourists. There were many Brazilians (we can spot each other hundreds of yards away…), and people from all sorts of countries. And more, there were people of all faiths, including many Muslims. That is when it started to dawn upon me that I was not just entering a church, simply put. I was entering history.

A Tour through History

The light inside was dim, but the sunny day refracted through the stained glass windows, playing colors on the walls and the floor. The massive vaulted ceiling, the endless columns drew my eyes upwards to find, in the ceiling, a small figure of the Virgin Mary like a medallion. As I walked the aisles, separated by the colonnades, I got the feeling of being in a procession, in a mass of people slowly moving—almost in unison—trying to get a glimpse of the nave, or of the altar. And as I reached the transept, the two giant rose windows flooded the space with color and poetry. I couldn’t really make out the motifs depicted in them, but what really mattered was the pink glow, the light, and the magnitude of it all. I can’t help but imagine the impact that this would have had on medieval people.

When I visited, there were enormous paintings on the walls. I stopped and stared at one depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas by a 17th century artist named Antoine Nicolas. There is an early 20th century statue of Joan of Arc, with her hands in a prayer position. There are statutes of former archbishops, some hundreds of years old, but some as recent as the beginning of the 20th century.

In short, Notre Dame is medieval, but not just that. It is a living building, invested over time, as Victor Hugo said,

“…architecture does what she pleases. Statues, stained glass, rose windows, arabesques, denticulations, capitals, bas-reliefs,—she combines all these imaginings according to the arrangement which best suits her.”

Simon Matifas de Bussy, Bishop of Paris, 1290-1304. Photo by the Author

My pilgrimage continued as I circled the ambulatory; small chapels appeared. Behind the altar are the effigies of members of the clergy, placed in silent homage for all to see. I finally came upon the plaque that announces the founding stone in 1163, in the presence of Pope Alexander III and Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris.

For me, this was a particularly special moment, because at the time I was studying the works of Alexander III. It seems as if he suddenly materialized in front of me in the words on the stone:

The plaque celebrating the construction of Notre Dame. Image by the author.

“In the year 1163, under the pontificate of Pope Alexander III and the reign of Louis VII, Maurice, born in Sully sur Loire, bishop of Paris (1160-1196) began the construction of this cathedral in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary under the name Notre Dame de Paris.”

It would take centuries for the cathedral to be completed—and in some ways it never will be completed—but its birth was marked there for any who should doubt.

The columns of Notre Dame. Photo by the Author.

I touched the stones of the columns, as if hoping to touch the past. Which past? In my mind, a medieval one, but also all the generations that have come since.  The stones are cool, smoothed through time, darkened. They add to the mystery of it all.

Leaving the cathedral, my eyes took a little time to get used to the abundance of light once again. I took the time to observe the amazing tympanums—the intricately carved facades above the doorways, sculpted with such rich detail. The image of Saint Denis, holding his own head, amazed me. Going around the building, the flying buttresses that support the massive structure appear to be giant arms, reaching into the ground to bring heaven and earth together, binding them in an eternal embrace.

My Constant Notre Dame

Throughout the year I spent in Paris, the great lady was a constant companion—from walking around it by myself, to visiting it with relatives and friends, to having crepes at night admiring it. I wrote one journal entry per day I was in Paris and called them “Things from Paris.” Out of the 365 things from Paris, the lady appears at least 15 times, always described in awe. On my last day in Paris, I made it my goal to finish as I had started: she was the last monument I visited.

In 2016, I returned to Paris. Once more, I began and finished my visit to the city by visiting Notre Dame. The bells had just been renovated and started tolling as I arrived in the city. On my last day, the parvis was blocked and had been evacuated by the police due to the threat of a suspicious package. But she was still there. Eternal.

In 2017, I spent a few hours in Paris due to a flight connection. In those few hours, I visited the lady twice: in sunlight and at night, so as to see the changing lights.

In 2018, during a week spent in Paris, I began my visit, again, with Notre Dame. This time, I made the same route as I had six years earlier and arrived through the same angle.

She always left me in awe. Always overwhelmed me. I have visited many cathedrals, Brazilian and European. None of them has ever touched me the same way. I am not a Catholic—I’m an atheist. But such a grand piece of work, with such beauty and such potential for transporting us to the past can sweep me off my feet regardless of my spiritual beliefs. Knowing that I was standing on the same stones and under the same arches as hundreds of generations before me; knowing that people’s faith and ingenuity can lead them to build something so grand that has withstood the test of time; knowing that this place today welcomes all sorts of people from all over the world—all this knowledge left me spellbound. The respect that this inspires in me goes beyond any faith and makes me stand in awe and admiration.

The day that it burned, I cried. It was like a small piece of me had also disappeared in the flames. As the fire died down and dawn broke, even though the “forest”—the wood framing of the ceiling made of 13th century oak—had gone, we could see that the medieval stone structure was still there. The vault held. The towers stood. The buttresses resisted. The rose windows, my passion, still bloomed. There seems to be hope as light enters, once again, the now-wounded cathedral that I love. Art and History endure.

Art matters. It makes us live. It gives meaning to our lives as individuals. It gives meaning to life in general. Being close to the works of beauty made by centuries and centuries of effort, talent, and craft helps us have a better appreciation for all that humankind is able to accomplish. 

Art and History make us more human. They move us, they affect us, they connect us to other people and other times. They add that extra something that colors life, beyond our daily obligations and our fight for survival. When you walk into a place like the Notre Dame, you are forever transformed; you can feel your own insignificance, but you can also believe in your own potential.

From the hands and minds of anonymous builders over the centuries arose a masterpiece: a symbol of resistance to time. A small piece of humanity was lost on the 15th of April. But a larger part has survived. For me, Notre Dame is more than a cathedral, it represents humanity itself, in all its glory and all its splendor, and currently, in all its suffering as well. That is the contribution of Art and History to our lives.

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A Day of Fire

Our Lady of Paris

On Monday, April 15, 2019, fires broke out in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Thankfully, the mosque was left largely undamaged. The Cathedral was not so lucky. The Public Medievalist is publishing reactions to and discussions of that day’s events and their aftermath under the title A Day of Fire.

The first contribution is by Lisa Fagin Davis.

I fell in love with Notre Dame the moment I first saw her, well before I became a medievalist. It was 1984. I was celebrating my high school graduation by skipping around France and England with two friends; we hit the highlights, feeling independent and nearly grown. We had been at the Louvre that day, reveling in our feelings of newfound sophistication and good taste. We ducked through the archway, turned left at the river, crossed the bridge to the Île de la Cité, and… wham. She stopped me in my tracks.

The Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris from the river. Photo credit: Madhurantakam (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bright and beautiful in the late afternoon sun, she left me humbled, and grateful. This wasn’t for religious reasons—I’m Jewish, after all. But I was left in awe of this wondrous human achievement, the sheer magnificence and beauty. I imagined the masons, the sculptors, the stained-glass makers, the architects and the engineers who had devoted their lives to creating her. I imagined the millions upon millions of worshippers and tourists who had passed through those portals over the centuries. I was only one among them. I was tiny and insignificant in comparison to this massive, extraordinary structure that would surely stand forever. Humbling, indeed.

Thirty-five years later—years which included art history coursework, a PhD in Medieval Studies, and multiple visits to Paris—I sat in front of the television on Monday in shock and horror, sickened and grieving, as Notre Dame—the first medieval Thing I ever loved—burned. Like so many of my medievalist friends and colleagues, I frantically took to the internet looking for up-to-the-minute images and reporting.

Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in central Paris on Monday, April 15th. (Francois Guillot / AFP – Getty Images)

The Cathedral was evacuated as soon as the smoke was spotted. Had anyone been hurt? And what would become of the structure? The roof of the Cathedral is not like that of a modern house. It’s layered: medieval masonry vaults form the ceiling; there is an attic space above the ceiling that is defined by massive twelfth-century wooden beams of the roofline. And on top of that, the whole thing is covered over with lead and slate. If the vaulted ceiling collapsed beneath the crushing weight of the burning roof and beams, the interior of the Cathedral would be exposed and gutted. Would the vaults hold?

And what of the art within, the relics, the sculpture? The rose windows at the north, south, and west entrances are famous—even iconic. I was worried about them, of course. But the piece that has always spoken to me most is the exquisite fourteenth-century statue of the Virgin and Child, known as “Our Lady of Paris.” The sculpture stands on a tall pedestal in the southeast corner of the crossing—the intersection of nave and transept: would she survive the night?

The statue Notre-Dame de Paris in Notre Dame cathedral. Photo credit:
Sailko (CC BY 2.5).

Rumors were swirling. Information was coming fast. I was Tweeting madly. It was impossible to keep up. The roof had collapsed. No, the roof was intact. The windows were shattered. No, the windows were unharmed. The relics were ashes. The relics were safe. The only certainty was what everyone could see: the roof in flames. Slowly but inexorably, the iconic nineteenth-century central spire toppled, collapsing in a rush of flame and dark smoke. I sat on my couch and wept.

But I am a medievalist. Why should I weep for a nineteenth-century spire? Because, like all medievalists, I understand and value the life cycle of Medieval Things. 

Nothing makes it from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without being transformed along the way. Manuscripts are rebound, pulled apart, stuck together. A piece of sculpture loses a limb, or its polychrome—the original multi-colored pigment that once adorned it—fades.  A cathedral is, at its heart, a compilation, unfinished, always in the process of becoming. This is true not just in its structure, but in its functional and decorative elements—the art and artifacts that inspire awe and facilitate worship.

Since the foundation stones were laid in 1163, Notre Dame has been anything but static. It was built over the course of two centuries, but was never really finished. Portions were torn down and rebuilt in the early modern period. It fell into disrepair in the nineteenth century, saved, in part, by publicity generated by the publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which spurred restoration efforts. The iconic central spire was added in the late nineteenth century. The relics, art, and artifacts displayed and stored in the Cathedral represent every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. On Monday we lost twelfth-century timber, thirteenth-century glass, late-medieval and early-modern constructs, nineteenth-century additions, and modern as well as medieval treasures. We weep for them all.

And then there is the intangible loss: the 856 years to which those stones bear witness. The music composed for and performed in that glorious soaring space, the historic events, the everyday personal moments of prayer and awe and quiet contemplation. The Cathedral is full of memory. Can the wreckage retain the echo of human experience?

In the light of day on Tuesday morning, photos from the interior of the Cathedral showed that the worst had been avoided. The vaults had done what they were meant to do: with the exception of a section at the crossing, which had been caved in by the falling spire, the vaulting held firm. The vaults protected the interior of the Cathedral as the wooden beams above it collapsed. Heroic firefighters, priests, and passers-by had formed a bucket-brigade to evacuate precious relics and artifacts. Only one firefighter had been injured. One photo showed the north rose window, unbroken and glowing in the morning sun. Another showed, “Our Lady of Paris:” intact, with a pile of rubble at her feet. She had, indeed, survived the night. And again, I wept.

The statue Notre-Dame de Paris amidst the rubble after the April 15, 2019 fire. Photo credit: Nick Edwards.

Notre Dame is the accumulation of 856 years of human engineering, art, design, faith, inspiration, and ingenuity. She will continue Becoming as the rebuilding begins. But much has been lost—we will likely not know for several days which artifacts, treasures, and relics survived and which were lost. They were an integral part of the Notre Dame we knew, and once lost cannot be replaced. But the Cathedral will be repaired, a new roof set in place. The surviving relics will be restored to their places of honor, and the worshippers and tourists will return. The organ will be cleaned, the choir will again chant hymns and psalms. Something new will rise, rightly so, in keeping with her long and complex history. She will still stop me in my tracks, but the Notre Dame we knew and loved is gone. And so we weep.

If you enjoyed that article, please share it with your history-loving friends on Facebook, or on Twitter! And be sure to subscribe here to receive every new article from The Public Medievalist the moment it launches.

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