Sunday, 18 November 2012

Preview: Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame. Our Lady. What a lovely name for a building. Referring to the Virgin Mary, it's one used widely across France in the names of churches and cathedrals. Some of my Wonders have the name: Our Lady of Amiens and Our Lady of Chartres are two celebrated cathedrals I intend to visit. But the most celebrated example of Our Lady is unquestionably the one most people think of when they hear the name: the Notre-Dame de Paris.


The Notre-Dame de Paris is the Notre-Dame. It's not the biggest, the tallest, the oldest, or the purest surviving example of Gothic architecture, but its image is the image that comes to mind when the Notre-Dame name is mentioned. It is one of the most recognised churches in the world. Why? Perhaps it's the history, being started in 1163 but with origins centuries earlier, and turning up in numerous key chapters in France's existence. Perhaps it's the architecture, a perfect balance of the horizontal and vertical, huge without being overbearing, detailed without being cluttered. Perhaps it's simply the higher profile it gets from being in the middle of one of the world's most famous cities - plonk a different Notre-Dame in its place and it would gain the same recognition. Or strip back all the analysis, stand in the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame and gaze at the main facade - perhaps it's just because it's beautiful.


Despite the many subsequent tweaks, desecrations, damage, and reconstructions, the Notre-Dame as we know it has stood since the early-to-mid 14th Century. This was when the entire thing was completed, from facade to towers to windows to sculptures, after commencing over 150 years earlier in 1163. Built on the Ile de la Citie, an island in the river Seine, the Notre Dame was built upon a site that was historic even then. With the natural protection of the river, the Ile de la Citie is thought to have had thousands of years of (non-continuous) habitation, with recorded history beginning with Roman conquest under Julius Caesar. This saw the construction of defensive walls and a Roman temple, among other buildings, and subsequent conversion to Christianity saw two sizeable churches on the island by the 6th Century, one called the Notre Dame. This no longer exists and wasn't a direct ancestor of the current cathedral, but by the 10th Century a more notable church was in place.

Then, in the 12th Century, something funny happened to France. A combination of religious fervour, technical advance, and financial prosperity brought about a crusade: a cathedral crusade. At the very end of the 11th Century, a large troop of European knights and peasants had successfully entered the Holy Land, and through bravery and blind fortune had taken control of Jersualem from a disorganised and divided Islam. This was widely believed to be divine will; it is now known as the First Crusade. Back in Paris, inspired by this, churches and cathedrals started to appear over the following century, in a new style. Earlier churches had been built in what is called the Romanesque style, a solid, blocky, and dimly lit style of architecture. This new style desired space and light, and size on an even more massive scale. It has gone down in history as the Gothic style.

A huge amount of wealth poured into the construction program; it is said that more stone was quarried during France’s cathedral building centuries than the whole history of ancient Egypt. Across France, in towns and villages, churches in this new style began to appear. Paris being the seat of royal power, in a fertile and wealthy region, was expanding at this time, spilling out of its city walls. In 1160, a new Bishop of Paris was appointed, called Maurice de Sully. Maurice recognised Paris was thriving but also recognised it needed buildings of prestige to keep up with, and exceed, the smaller and less important towns. Three years after his appointment, the cornerstone of the Notre-Dame was laid.

One thing that strikes me when reading about the cathedrals of the Middle Ages is the sheer length of time it took to build them. Hundreds of years of construction were not unusual, and often anticipated. These days efficiency is a key component of almost every construction, but for the medieval cathedral builder it was barely a passing thought. Time and money came second to the glory of God, and however daunting it may have seemed, nobody who began construction of a cathedral could ever hope to live to see it complete. Maurice de Sully died in 1196, and in over 30 years of construction the facade and towers still hadn't even begun; although enough of the core was complete to hold a service, it would have looked like a building site. Welcome to the Middle Ages - a great era of cathedral construction, characterised by centuries of building sites. Nonetheless, determined and patient, generations of builders oversaw the gradual appearance of a new centre of worship for Paris.

Although the Notre-Dame certainly featured in the lives of French royalty, it was not exclusively theirs. Far from it. Like most churches, it was the centre of the community, and very much a people's church, widely visited by the public. Including its many adjoining chapels, up to a hundred masses could be said in a day. It was a busy, noisy hub of community and worship. But for all that, it was still a religious building with royal connections smack bang in the middle of Paris, so come the French Revolution it was a prime target. It got away lightly. Some churches were destroyed entirely, and the Notre-Dame was at risk, but in the end was simply stripped of all riches and traces of royalty. Statues were pulled down and masons went through the cathedral and systematically chiselled off anything that might seem kingly. Religious service was banned, and the Notre-Dame was converted into a "Temple of Reason". An opera was even performed there, "Homage to Reason", which I'm sure was just as inspiring as it sounds.

Napoleon was the unlikely hero, reconsecrating it for his 1804 coronation by Pope Pius VII. Although his relationship with the Catholic Church was, at best, uneasy, he at least allowed worship to take place again. But after the vandalism of the Revolution and subsequent neglect, Notre-Dame was in poor shape. Championed by Victor Hugo, author of "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame", a certain Eugene Viollet-le-Duc stepped up to the fore. His name has been mentioned before several times in this blog, involved in preservation and restoration of Carcassonne and Avignon's Papal Palace, among many other French monuments, but the Notre-Dame was Viollet-le-Duc's main project. It took him 25 years, and typical of his style was controversial, sometimes sacrificing strict authenticity for a more attractive interpretation, but he fixed up Our Lady of Paris and brought her back to glory.

Two other changes have also been made that greatly affect how we view the Notre-Dame. In the mid 19th Century, a load of buildings clustered by the main facade were torn down to form a plaza, the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, giving much required space to appreciate the massive front. This square also now happens to be the kilometre zero of France. And in the 1960s and 70s, a major cleaning program of Paris monuments was launched. The Notre-Dame, for centuries, was black with soot and age. High pressure jets of water turned it back to how it originally was, light and bright grey, dazzling in the sun.

Over Christmas this year, I'll be sightseeing in Paris, and following in the footsteps of a world-famous figure in history: Hitler. I'm happy to say, though, that my route will be different. In 1940, he went on a tour of the newly occupied Paris, visiting locations such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacre Coeur - but not the Notre Dame. In fact, a direct order from Hitler led to three tons of explosives placed in the crypt in 1944, prior to its liberation, as part of a plan to utterly destroy Paris. The order, ultimately, was disobeyed.

My visit will be less destructively inclined, and I'll simply give a full account of the Notre Dame, as well as my own impressions.



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