Friday, 28 December 2012

25. Wonder: The Notre-Dame de Paris

(For the Notre-Dame preview, please click here.)

During the Middle Ages, European civilisation went a bit mental. To call it civilisation might be stretching the meaning of the word as we know it now, but at the very least civilising influences were emerging. This was an era of deep superstition, centuries before explanation of the physical universe had become organised into what we call science, and over a millennium after the Greeks and Romans had last tried to enlighten the Western world. In these confused muddy waters that followed the deep swamp of the preceding Dark Ages, the only thing to bring sense to the world was God. Rational understanding was perceived as obscuring what should only be known by God: everything unknowable was His will. Disease was a manifestation of sin; bad luck even was a result of sinful behaviour. Conversely, God favoured His representatives and those who brought Him glory. You'd better be on God's side was the message of the day.

Naturally, this brought plenty of corruption, and the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Western Europe, might have had plenty of priests but had far fewer angels. But it also brought immense displays of fervent and heartfelt piety. Some of these might be not be regarded as good Christian behaviour by the standards of today. The systematic slaughter of the Muslim population of Jerusalem during the First Crusade was regarded then as "great stuff", but would likely receive a less-than-favourable press from today's media (Fox News excepted). But a different crusade has left a considerably more favourable physical legacy, the incredible cathedral-building crusade of France, which begun in around the 12th Century. Inspired by the glory of God, a breakthrough in technical know-how brought about some of the most magnificent structures ever built. While religion in the Middle Ages arguably stifled scientific progress, it also inspired mankind to reach a new level of technical and aesthetic genius, and new heights in construction, quite literally. With the appearance of the Gothic cathedral, a new face was given to civilisation, and that face still inspires awe hundreds of years later. One of the earliest examples of the Gothic cathedral, and almost certainly the most famous, is the one at the heart of one of the world's most celebrated cities: the Notre-Dame de Paris.

Look - there it is.

I first visited the Notre-Dame a few years ago, in a flying visit to Paris. On a fresh spring morning, I emerged from the Metro with a colleague - and there it was. That's nice, we said, and then rushed on to see the Eiffel Tower. We didn't even go inside. The Eiffel Tower received a similarly cursory visit before we found a cafe for and some food and a very overpriced beer.

On that occasion, the trip had been simply an opportunity afforded by an eight-hour layover from a job in Nigeria back home to Scotland. We could have sat and savoured the Notre-Dame over a coffee at a nearby cafe, but it was my first time in Paris and the immense fame of the Eiffel Tower made me impatient to gaze up at it. I also really fancied a beer. This time, my trip to Paris was deliberate rather than incidental. Spending Christmas with Danielle, I had four days at leisure to explore whatever parts of Paris I chose. Danielle is long used to my predilection for big monuments and potential World Wonders, but fortunately is always happy to visit attractive and famous buildings. Thus, during our stay, we passed by the Notre-Dame numerous times. It never failed to impress.

The Notre-Dame has presence, of that there is no doubt. Sitting at the heart of the most historic centre of Paris, it celebrates its 850th birthday this year. That makes it around the same age as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or Bagan in Burma, or much older than Machu Picchu in Peru. Except unlike these ancient, magnificent ruins that conceal the mysteries of a vanished civilisation, the Notre-Dame remains alive and well. It's still used for worship; although a tourist magnet, it retains the purpose it was originally built for. Sure, it's been given plenty of refits, most notably by French restoration maestro Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th Century, but is the same medieval cathedral celebrating the same religion within, more-or-less, the same civilisation that it was when the first stone was laid in 1163. 850 years on, it is still eternal. It was just as the medieval builders intended.

It's difficult to pin the construction of the Notre-Dame to one man - given that it took about 150 years to build, it's pretty obvious no single man oversaw it from start to finish. But one of the main men was the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully. Born in the nearby area of Sully-sur-Loire (hence his name), he was from a humble background but was a gifted speaker and theologist, and had risen through the church's ranks after having arrived in Paris in 1137. By 1160 he was the bishop. He lasted another 36 years in the post, until his death, by which time the Notre-Dame was ready for worship. The Gothic revolution was fully underway.

Entire books have been written about what constitutes Gothic architecture, and anything I write is the flimsiest of summaries. The common perception is of grand, imposing facades, packed full of elaborate detail - but this is only a part of the story. The real heart of the Gothic style is light and space, and for that you need to step inside. Cathedrals are intended to evoke a sense of spirituality a sense of calm, and to glorify God. The Gothic style allows this. Inside the Notre-Dame, as with all the grand Gothic cathedrals, the light pours in through the tall, high windows, and the visitors eyes are inevitably drawn heavenwards. Even for a heartless atheist as myself, it conveys a feeling of mystical power. The Gothic style, in my view, isn't so much about the decoration as it is about the calm grandeur.

Maurice de Sully, as with all his contemporaries, didn't spell any of this out during the plans or construction, leaving modern-day scholars free to interpret and pontificate to their hearts' desires. Whatever Maurice's precise intentions for the Notre-Dame, it's clear he wanted it big and grand and to impress, and the best way to go about this was by going with this the fancy new ecclestiastical style that was sweeping the nation (the term "Gothic" wasn't termed until centuries later). In this sense, Maurice probably wasn't trying to push any new technical boundaries, the Gothic style  was simply the best available. And one of the tools at his disposal was the flying buttress.

You may have heard of the term flying buttress but aren't entirely sure what it is. No, it's not some kind of peculiar superhero, or a chip roll being kicked across a street, it's a form of exterior architectural support. Here's what they look like:

Because the Gothic style requires lots of space and light and a sense of grandeur, it needs high walls and big windows. The problem is that the massive stone roof is heavy and requires thick stone walls to support it, a problem furthered when the giant windows just make it all the more fragile. Enter the flying buttress. The medieval inventor's identity is lost in the fog of time, but their invention made the Gothic style possible. By sticking the buttress to the outside, arching away from the main walls, they provide exterior support and allow for thinner walls and bigger windows. Sprinkle some decoration on the buttresses and you've got an entirely new and attractive decorative element on the outside, that just happens to be providing a vital function. Spacious, massive, light interiors were suddenly possible.

The flying buttresses are just one key element that allows the Notre-Dame to look as it does. Gothic enthusiasts might wax lyrical about the pointed arch and the groin vault (which is a cross-arched ceiling support style and not, alas, a crotch-packed secure room) and all kinds of other obscure features but the point is that they all serve a function. They weren't adopted for fun, they were used because they damn well did the job.

Maurice de Sully's master mason - the human whirlwind who combined the duties of architect, designer, contractor, site foreman, and director of operations - is unknown, although there is one record of a “Richard the mason”. Perhaps Richard, or whoever it was, had previous experience with Gothic constructions, he certainly appeared to know what he was doing. Maurice may have the vision, but Richard was the man to make it a reality. The operation was professionally run, using guild workers, in coordinated teams. Tens of thousands of tons of limestone was quarried from nearby locations, hauled to the site by oxen at about one ton at a time, the stone then carefully cut to shape by masons before being lifted into place by primitive wooden cranes, and the finer details carefully carved by sculptors. A row of buildings was demolished to create a new street for the traffic required, and for many decades the beauty of the emerging Notre-Dame was concealed beneath a mess of scaffolding, debris, and noise. Until one day in 1250...

That was when the towers were done, the mess was cleared and although it would be many more decades before the cathedral was complete, the visitor could finally gaze upon the famous main facade unimpeded. Maurice de Sully was long dead, but if permitted a quick glimpse from the grave, or more ideally heaven, he would surely have approved. Because the Notre-Dame then, as it is now, centuries later, is a truly beautiful building.

(from Wikipedia, click to enlarge a lot)
All the above would irrelevant if it looked otherwise. Sure, it might be important, it might be big, it might be well built, but the true appreciation of the Notre-Dame comes from the beauty of the main, the Western, facade. Two near-symmetrical square-topped towers above intricate combinations of sculptures, windows and portals, ornate but never confusing to the eye, with an underlying clarity to it all. It's gorgeous to behold.

In the four days we were in Paris, we visited the Notre-Dame numerous times. Sometimes in the passing, sometimes at length, by day, and by night. Due to the Notre-Dame's central location, it is not a Wonder that needs to be sought out, it simply appears on a daily basis. It is at the heart of the city and quickly becomes an old friend for the visitor. The Western facade is the true joy, facing over an open square of land (cleared only in the 19th Century: prior, the facade had to be admired close-up, acquiring neck strain by looking up from its base). When we were there, a stage had been erected in the square front of the facade, I guess for to accommodate the overspill of worshippers and tourists expected during the festive period. This had the unfortunate effect of blocking the view of the cathedral from much of the square, and made anything but close-up photographs pretty difficult, although did allow a higher vantage point than usual to appreciate the details. During a couple of passing visits, Danielle and I were happy to sit for a while on the stage and simply admire the facade. The details are a pleasure. I particularly like the Gallery of Kings, the row of 28 statues of kings above the three portals. This has been copied by other cathedrals, but was a Notre-Dame innovation, although the statues we see are 19th Century reproductions by Viollet-le-Duc, after the anti-monarchist French Revolution tore down the originals in 1793. One of the statues is said to be of Viollet-le-Duc himself. Above the central rose window, the row of colonnades linking the two towers also appeals. Everything fits in with a pleasing visual geometry.

Of course, the Notre-Dame isn't just about a single facade, and from the outside it is an attractive cathedral all round, especially the view from across the river.

The South Tower can be visited, up a narrow, stone spiral staircase, and inevitably behind an unfit tourist who hadn't reckoned on there being so many stairs. This first takes you to above the row of colonnades, by the base of the towers, and where you can appreciate the gargoyles up close. These are yet another Viollet-le-Duc creation, this time fabricated from his imagination rather than authentic reproductions, but they look good, peering over Paris, so we'll let him off.

The towers reach 69 metres high, not a huge figure by modern skyscraper standards. But it's enough to give a terrific view across Paris, and for the entire tower to be covered in a protective wire net to prevent anyone overcome with thoughts of suicide from having their way.

Our final visit to the Notre-Dame was our fullest - for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This is quite a famous event, and is televised live on French television, so we came early, at around 10.15pm. This was hardly too early - we had to join a large queue of people outside, which moved mercifully quickly. Inside, it was standing room only, so we found a decent space at one of the aisles to the side of the central nave. I've no doubt many of the people there were sincere worshippers, but it was also pretty evident from the phones, cameras, and general distracted air (just stay still and enjoy the moment, for God's sake!) that many were heathen tourists such as myself. At least I was with a genuine Catholic, who kept me right during proceedings ("Just do what everyone else does!").

Being so early, we witnessed a 45-minute carol service beginning at 11pm, and due to people leaving we managed eventually to get ourselves some seats. This was after a minor altercation with an extremely irritating English-speaking woman who was aggressively trying to secure seats for all her family members, after having much earlier secured herself a seat. As people left the row we stood at, Danielle went to move into the vacant seat next to her. The woman immediately, and quite sharply, insisted to Danielle that this new seat belonged to her husband, who was nowhere near. Danielle was quite taken aback, but it was clear that this was a woman to ignore rather than to reason with, so without looking at the woman again I made sure we quickly sat down. I was rather hoping for her to begin an argument with us during Midnight Mass in the Notre-Dame and was all set to smile at her and say "Shh", but enough seats came free for her husband - a very embarrassed-looking man - to sit also. In the end, after the family having been in the Notre-Dame for about an hour before Mass, they all left within five minutes of it starting. Hoping for a laser show instead?

As the above probably indicates, although there was some degree of atmosphere, it wasn't one of the purest holy sanctimony. As Mass progressed, the crowds began to thin as the many tourists slowly filtered away, presumably the novelty wearing thin as they realised that an hour-long Catholic Mass wasn't the entertainment experience they'd been hoping for. Perhaps they had enough footage on their iPhones. For myself, except for an increasing need to visit the bathroom (a couple of pints and a half-bottle of wine beforehand may not have been a good idea) I rather enjoyed the experience. The power of God may not have filled my soul, but sitting and witnessing centuries-old rituals in a grand and ancient cathedral is something I'll remember. I'll never be able to witness religious rites at Angkor Wat, or pay my respects to the statue of Athena at the Parthenon, or watch (possibly for the best) wholesale slaughter of animals and people at the Colosseum, but I can, in some small way, take part in a religious ceremony at the Notre-Dame. The cathedral has appeared in French history, in the lives of French kings and leaders and general public, and been the spiritual heart of the city for centuries - and the heart beats on.

Historical, iconic, attractive, technically excellent, the Notre-Dame ticks all the boxes, but is also very likeable. Climbing the towers costs €8.50, but a visit otherwise is free, as a religious building should be. Tourists might swarm, but inside the atmosphere is suitably hushed, the lightning suitably dim. The Notre-Dame can soak up the tourists without being diminished.

Although stay away from the vending machines at the entrance, that dispense small brochures for €2. Upon touching the machine to put in my money, I was jolted with a wholly uncalled for electrical shock. It was really quite painful. Maybe it was a message from above...

Some criteria then.

Size: The Notre-Dame is 69 metres high at the facade towers and 96 metres at the central spire, 43 metres wide, and 128 metres in length. Huge when it was built, but there are many bigger cathedrals around, and many more bigger buildings these days. It's still of impressive size though, and is just as big as it needs to be.
Engineering: It was one of the early Gothic cathedrals, helping pioneer the form of architecture and pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Taking over a century-and-a-half, and surviving centuries beyond, it is an immense technical achievement.
Artistry: Ornate, exquisite, uncluttered, harmonious to the eye. The Notre-Dame is beautiful.
Age/Gravitas: Begun 850 years ago, and with a role throughout centuries of French history, the Notre-Dame is an essential part of Paris.
Fame/Iconicity: It's probably not quite one of the world's true famous buildings, and the cathedral/church form is so widespread that many might confuse it with another. The new kid on the block, the Eiffel Tower, has muscled in and robbed the Notre-Dame of being the icon of Paris. But Paris is a city of icons, and the Notre-Dame remains one, representing not just the city, but its history and its religion. 
Context: At the heart of one of the world's greatest cities.
Back Story: The last 850 years have seen a lot happening in France, and the Notre-Dame has been a part of it. It doesn't have one single defining tale, but has a role in lots of tales throughout history.
Originality:It is part of the Gothic movement rather than the only example of it, and for the layman it is easy to regard cathedrals as all looking pretty similar. So it's not a one-off, rather a superb moment within the ongoing evolution of architecture.
Wow Moment: It's not so big as to take your breath away upon first view, but the sense of awe increases the closer you get, and the detailed beauty is revealed.

The Notre-Dame de Paris was fairly late addition to my list. When taking the entirety of mankind's existing buildings and structures and trying to whittle them down to a list of around 100 to visit and review, it's easy to overlook some. In the case of the Notre-Dame, I judged that because it's not the biggest, and because my incredibly cursory visit years earlier hadn't wowed me, that it wouldn't figure high up. I was wrong. It took me a visit to Banteay Srei in Angkor, followed by the urges of Burness and a couple we met in Vietnam, Jamie and Heather, to change my mind. The inclusion of Notre-Dame on an information board's timeline at Banteay Srei helped me realise how important the Notre-Dame is. It's an icon of Paris, and of history. And it's beautiful. Don't just visit, take a photo, and move on - stop a while, sit down, admire the detail. If you're not in the mood the first time, leave and come back later. Because it deserves attention. You don't need to go to Midnight Mass, or even climb the tower, you just need to do what Paris has done for it: make it the centre of things for a while and let some time pass.

The Notre-Dame was a pleasure to visit, and a pleasure just to look at. It's an easy building to look at and see the signs of genius: the longer you look, the more you see. When comparing it - as my mission compels me- to other candidate Wonders I've seen, I find myself comparing it, almost, to the best. It's certainly a Wonder, although I don't see it being one of the Seven, ultimately. As it stands, I see it floating around the Sydney Opera House and Borobudur levels, but hammering it into place is tricky. Perhaps both the Sydney Opera House and Borobudur have the elements of total uniqueness to just raise them above the Notre-Dame, but oh it's tight. The Notre-Dame is one of the most beautiful buildings I have yet seen, and despite idiots filming Midnight Mass on their iPhones represents a triumph of civilisation.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Millau Viaduct
4. Angkor Wat
5. Bagan
6. Sydney Opera House
7. Borobudur

Other Wonders
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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