Debris are seen inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. File
It seems the cruellest of ironies: an edifice constructed over the span of centuries, consumed by flames and streamed in real time to an audience of hundreds of millions.
The fire at Notre Dame de Paris is out, with much of its treasures saved. The roof is gone but efforts are already underway to fundraise for its replacement, and steps being taken to prevent such a calamity from happening again. Now, perhaps, we can pause for a moment and consider just how essential cathedrals – and historic parish churches, for that matter – are in providing a space apart and a place of perspective in a distinctly unsettled world.
First, there is the comfort and inspiration they give believers. It seems an odd comparison to make but cathedrals are built like a coral reef, layers of devotion and decoration laid down by successive generations. They are a reminder of the constancy and power of faith. Yet you don’t need to be religious to appreciate and take in the healing power of a cathedral. Stepping in through the great doors can be a lesson in history, one that echoes with the trials and tribulations around us.
Arriving with the Normans, cathedrals such as that in Norwich were built not only to honour God but as a show of force and supremacy over the conquered. Indeed, much of Norwich cathedral’s stone was brought from Caen – local materials, perhaps, not worthy.
As time went on, and a new sort of English identity arose, the cathedral became a place of pilgrimage. The relics of saints, sometimes obtained in dubious circumstances, were a huge drawcard, creating an entire ecosystem of hoteliers, guides, trinket vendors and healers surrounding them. At St Albans Abbey there was introduced a strict system of guiding pilgrims by the shrine, ensuring a constant flow and thus more coin for the coffers.
It was perhaps the opulence and wealth evident in these spaces that nearly caused their destruction as first the Reformation and then, a century later, the civil wars swept through Britain. Across the British Isles, windows were smashed (some by a distant ancestor, I’m appalled to say), statues destroyed and magnificent wall paintings whitewashed over. It has only been in the past few centuries that many of these paintings – such as those at Winchester Cathedral – have been uncovered for our enjoyment.
In subsequent centuries, a new sense of confidence and might emerged – enabled, it must be said, by imperialistic ambitions and exploitation abroad. There is no greater example of this than the baroque splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral, quite literally emerging from the ashes of a devastated London. In its gleaming interior, we see tomb after tomb honouring men travelling across the world to subjugate and conquer.
After many being “refreshed” by well-meaning restorers in the 19th century, cathedrals faced their greatest challenge during the years of the Second World War when Nazi bombs fell during successive bombing campaigns. Luckily, most of our cathedrals were saved. The stark exception, and the great reminder of the horrors of war, are the ruined remnants of Coventry Cathedral – left so that we may remember.
Through almost a millennia, our cathedrals and great parish churches have remained among us. Some are so familiar we barely notice them as we go about our daily business – others, such as Canterbury or Lincoln, can’t help but impress us with their size and beauty.
The important thing is they are still there. They’ve weathered the storms of a turbulent past and still provide a focus for the community. They remained filled with reminders of lives, both joyful and tragic, that mirror our own.
Now, more than ever, we need a reminder of the constant things in our lives, the spaces in our community that have remained open as places of worship, celebration and shelter for centuries. Something we can’t help but look up from our phones to pause, and enjoy.
Paris and Parisians will rebuild Notre Dame. They will restore their beloved church, and ensure that successive generations will be able to take comfort in it. For me, at least, that is an incredibly comforting thought.
Two holes gape where Notre Dame’s vaulted stone ceiling has collapsed. The cathedral’s 19th century timber spire is gone, as is most of its roof. Portions of the interior walls were blackened by the intense heat of Paris’ most consequential fire in centuries.
Why should anyone care about a fire in Paris when we all have more immediate problems closer to home? I’d just finished grading papers, sitting in a rare moment of silence in my office at work, when one of my students came in and said “Notre Dame is burning.”
The French, who know a thing or two about the bold reinvention of architectural landmarks (consider I.M. Pei’s once-despised, now-iconic Louvre Pyramid), have announced an international design competition to restore or redesign the destroyed spire of Notre Dame cathedral.
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