When I first heard that the famous cathedral in Paris was on fire at first I wasn’t really sure of the extent, and then the reports that it might be completely destroyed started flooding in. Of course, one of the reactions was to send in the water bombers, which might work for when you happen to be dealing with out of control bush fires, but not when the roof of an eight hundred year old building is in flames. Of course, there were the concerns about the treasures that happen to be located in side, and of course the organ and the stained glass windows. However, it turned out that most of the damage was done to the roof, and when the fire was eventually put out pretty much everything inside had been saved, including the windows.
Of course, my reaction was that when I was in Paris, the first time we just had a look from the outside, namely because the queues to actually get inside were horrendous, while the second time we were there, we spent probably about fifteen minutes to half an hour wandering around the interior before heading off to go and see one of the many other wonders that Paris had to offer. The thing was that the Notre Damme was just one of many Cathedrals in Europe, and after visiting Cathedrals in Cologne, Antwerp, Brussells, and Ghent, by the time I got to Paris, the Notre Damme was just another of many, though I should mention that the Sacre Cour didn’t quite fall into that category.
I guess a part of me initially regretted that I didn’t spend more time in the Cathedral, savouring the place, yet I also ask myself how long should have I stayed there, and what else could have I sacrificed while I was in Paris. That, honestly, is a rather difficult question, but the thing is that sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone, or until the danger of it vanishing for good suddenly appears on the horizon. In fact, it makes me wonder whether it could be considered a Mona Lisa moment, that is that the Mona Lisa was, well, just another painting, that is until it was stolen early in the 20th Century, and the publicity of the theft was what catapulted it to the status that it now has. Honestly though, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, and it really isn’t all that impressive.
Yet it is interesting to see the response to fact that this church has suffered the damage that it has. It is interesting that people have compared the response to the damage cause to the Notre Damme with the fire that was burning out of control in a poorly designed housing block in London, or comparing it with the slow destruction of other irreplaceable natural wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (that has slowly been dying, due to coral bleaching, since the 80s, and is in danger of losing its world heritage status, as well as being removed from the list of natural wonders of the world). It certainly is sad that the short term gain of some coal barons outweighs the longer term gain that the tourist industry no doubt brings in.
The other interesting thing that we see are the billionaires all out bidding themselves to donate money to the buildings restoration – is it something along the lines of $900 million so far? No doubt the repairs are going to be covered by insurance, and even if it turns out that the church is under insured (as is usually the case with places such as these – when our church suffered a devastating fire it came out, as no surprise, that it was also under insured). You know, a part of me suspects that these billionaires aren’t really going to be out of pocket, and if they really are feeling generous with their money, there are certainly quite a lot of other good causes that could certainly do with it.
However, I didn’t necessarily want this to be a political post, namely because the events have sort of spurred me on to actually write something about the Notre Dame, particularly since I have visited it in the past, and even wondered around inside, which is probably the intention if you happen to end up there. Mind you, the main reason that the church is famous is because of a hunchback that happened to live there – though as it turns out Victor Hugo actually wrote the book with the intention to raising the awareness of the architectual marvels, which were slowly being replaced as wear and tear took their hold. Due to the book, which is very descriptive in places, this church has become one of the many popular tourist destinations in Paris.
One of the things that stand out are the gargoyles, which over the years have been hijacked by numerous fantasy authors and turned onto flying stone beasties. Yet the purpose of these creatures is a lot more ordinary that one might imagine – they are designed to prevent water from wearing out the edges of the building, and instead thrusts the water further away from the walls. Yet, like a lot of other buildings, and structures, that tend to serve a more practical purpose, the original designers decided to use a bit of artistic flare to give the building a lot more character. Of course, one of the famous aspects of the Notre Dame are the gargoyles.
Then there are the doors, all three sets of them at the entrance, though this isn’t all that usual when it comes to Cathedrals in Europe – this is obviously designed to allow quick entry and exit, particular during service times, though when we are simply dealing with tourists there is always the line. However, looking at one of the doors, we notice that to the left and right there are twelve figures, each of them wearing a halo. In the middle there is a thirteenth figure. I’m going to hazard a guess an suggest that the twelve figures are the twelve apostles (with Mathhias replacing Judas), and the figure in the centre is no doubt the apostle Paul. At the top we see a figure on a throne – no doubt Jesus Christ, and he is flanked by other figures, as well as a stream of images leaping from above the disciples – the saints all ascending to heaven. However, take a close look underneath the throne – there is a rather demonic looking figure, the only demonic figure amongst all the other angelic figures.
The interesting thing is the design of all of these characters – we don’t actually know what the apostles looked like, we aren’t privy to any statues in the way that we are privy to statues of the Roman rulers. This is not all surprising, considering our propensity to turn objects into idols. Hey, it isn’t as if people have attempted to dig up a bunch of objects and claim that they have a connection to the biblical stories anyway – like the supposed crown of thorns that happens to be inside this particular church. Also, considering that Jesus wasn’t exactly rich, nor were the apostles, having statues made of them wasn’t going to be on the cards. Then again, they did happen to have more important things to do.
So, who exactly are these people? Well, I suspect that they are being modeled on kings and priests of the time in which they were carved, which would have been around the late medieval period. Then again, archeology wasn’t really a big thing back in those days, nor was accuracy. In fact, if you have a look at paintings from the medieval period, you will note that many of the subjects are dressed in the clothing of the day. Sure, they did happen to have statues from the ancient world, but there wasn’t really all that much attention paid to them until the renaissance.
Now it is time to go inside the cathedral, though I have noticed that unlike some of the other churches that I have visited, I didn’t take anywhere near as many photos here. However, two that have grabbed my attention are these wood carvings, this one being of the last supper:
And this one being of the murder of innocents and the flight to Egypt:
These integrations of stories into pictorial art are one of the things that I really like about going into churches such as this. It does have a habit of really bringing the stories to life. Of course, there is a huge debate about religious art, going from the one extreme end where all religious art is blasphemous and should be destroyed, to the belief that religious art is the only true form of art, and anything else is, well, denying God. Me, I always try to find a balance between the two.
These carvings though actually tell the story of Jesus’ life, and of course I have placed them out of order, including this one which depicts the adoration of the Magi, and the coming of the shepherds, which obviously comes before the massacre of innocents and the flight to Egypt. In fact the cathedral even has a description of these carvings, to at least help with those who may not be all that familiar with the stories.
Of course, the flight to Egypt is one of those stories that is quite intriguing, which places Jesus into the role of the refugee child fleeing persecution, yet with many refugees all clambering for a better life, whether fleeing poverty or war, especially wars that have been instigated by our governments, the Christian Right seems to forget this one important aspect of the life of Christ. Of course, this is not surprising, particularly since once a group, or an individual, rises to a position of authority, human nature is to do to what ever lengths to maintain that position of authority.
Like many of the other churches that I have visited, Notre Damme is set out with a main inner chamber, but along the walls are numerous shrines to various saints, and orders. For instance, we have here the Chapel of the Holy Childhood, which is a small chapel set aside for the order. However, what is of interest is that these chapels are also decorated with impressive works of art, including paintings by the masters themselves. In fact, wandering around the cathedral looking at these chapels reveals some very impressive works of art.
Finally, there is the stained glassed windows, of which there are many (and were also in danger of being destroyed during Victor Hugo’s time, in favour of glass that would let in more light). However, these windows are so intricate and detailed that it would no doubt take a post in and of itself to go over them. In fact, unlike the church that I grew up in, there are many, many more windows, all of which are covered with detailed images, mostly of the life of Jesus and the apostles.
Oh, and the final thought is the question as to why, when a church, particularly a famous church, catches fire, do people suddenly start asking questions to as why God is trying to say to the people. This was actually quite surprising coming from a Sydney Anglican priest, who surely should know that one of their churches burnt down a number of years ago. It is interesting when we are dealing with churches with whom we agree with, then fires are, well, just electrical faults, or arson, whereas when it comes to, well, the Notre Dame, God is trying to send out a message. If that is the case, then what did the inhabitants of Grenfell tower do to earn God’s wrath?
I guess, in the end though, in reality it is still a building – an old building that houses priceless works of art, and it is also free for people to come in and admire the works (though of course the lines can be pretty bad at times). Yet, it isn’t the only church in Europe, and it certainly isn’t the best either (at least in my opinion), it is just the most famous. Still, while the works of art on the inside and out are irreplaceable, in many ways so is the natural wilderness, the great barrier reef, and of course the white rhino.
2 thoughts on “Notre Dame – Thoughts of Our Lady”
I was interested at how much of your thought pattern seemed to reflect my own: interested, wishing that perhaps I had spent more time on it when there; just another European Cathedral, etc. etc. And when people do begin to put “reasons” on such an event, it seems to me more a reflection of themselves than of the event.
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Yes, so true. Fortunately it has been saved, so I can make sure to visit it again and savour it, and other places, if I ever managed to get back over there.