I love cathedrals. Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque -- when I was studying art history in college, the slides of these beautiful spaces always took my breath away. I remember San Chappelle, The Vatican, and perhaps the most well-known, Notre-Dame Paris.
Begun in the early 12th century and completed in the early 13th, Notre-Dame Paris is a near-perfect example of Gothic architecture (1). The structure abounds in flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and an expert and generous use of light. It’s the latter feature that sets it apart from the earlier Romanesque style. I’m sure many of you have heard about the April fire that destroyed the cathedral’s oak roof, spire, and left three gaping holes in its frame. I’m not Parisian, French, or from the EU. I have no comparison for what it’s like to lose a cultural icon of my country. I’ve not lost a house or favorite forest to flames. My best friend, who is Parisian, texted me, heartbroken, about the cathedral in which she has attended mass since she was six. My heart hurt for her.
My heart also hurt the next morning when I saw that nearly one billion dollars had been pledged to restore the cathedral. This in less than 24 hours. I’ve written before that I don’t think it’s the space and place that matter; it’s the people and the moments. Where’s that billion dollar sense of urgency for the homeless, the sick, the hungry? People and moments, not spaces and places.
At the end of May, the French senate passed a bill stipulating that Notre-Dame Cathedral be restored exactly as it was before the fire. This despite architects submitting designs that include everything from an urban farm to an oasis for native species, and even a rooftop pool. The roof could be built out of harvested ocean plastic, could be a place to provide literal tons of free fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need, could be a mecca for ecological and urban agrarian education -- alas, let it remain the same. The church should know something about dying in order to live, but it seems it hasn’t learned its lesson.
In the meantime, I’ll return to Rilke’s meditation on the holy:
“We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.”(2)
1 Marilyn Stokstad & Michael W. Cothren, Art History (New Jersey: Pearson Inc., 2011), 222.
2 Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 49.