A Day of Fire

What Notre Dame Adds to Life

The North rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo by Julie Anne Workman (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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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