Last week, the world was shocked to watch the famous cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris burning before our eyes. Plastered on every news channel were the fiery images of hundreds of years of history falling apart. It was a very sad day for Parisians, historians, scholars of art history, Christians, and everyone who recognized the name of Notre Dame, even if only from the Disney movie. One thing that was continually repeated throughout the week was how significant this cathedral is to everyone, not just for its history, but for its cultural and religious significance as well.
I do want to focus on the history of the cathedral, however, since cathedrals are one of my favorite things to study. Whenever I’m in Europe, I always drag my family and friends to as many churches and cathedrals as possible every day. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve been to, but I love them all. Unfortunately, I never got to visit Notre Dame de Paris, but I have studied it, among many other iconic cathedrals of the Gothic age.
The Gothic age of cathedrals began in France, close to Paris, with the renovation of the abbey church of St. Denis. In 1135, Abbe Suger initiated the renovation of the abbey church with a different perspective than that of the architects of the Romanesque era- Suger began an initiative that laid the foundation for the characteristics of Gothic that reigned for centuries, and continues to influence design today.
The main things that Suger focused on during his renovation were light and height. Ever since, the most notable features of Gothic architecture are the tall buildings with big windows that allow for a lot of light to enter the interior spaces. The previous Romanesque style that dominated Europe up to this time is recognized by shorter buildings with thicker walls and less window space; they could be very dark inside, which suited a monastic lifestyle.
A significant step towards this change was in the innovative addition of buttresses during construction. These exterior supports, and later the flying buttresses in particular, provided extra strength to the walls so that they could be taller and thinner, which meant more window space and more light could enter. The goal with using this architectural design was to become closer to God and closer to Heaven through high ceilings and exposure to light. Gothic churches also were designed with the aim of accommodating more people- especially pilgrims, which were growing in numbers at this time.
Other significant aspects of Gothic architecture include pointed arches. When we were all in grade school or high school we all learned the difference between rounded Roman arches and pointed Gothic arches. In fact, pointed arches are much better at distributing the weight of taller walls than rounded arches are. Another feature that could also be effective in distributing weight is rib vaulting, which is the sometimes very intricate network of arches that create ribs along the nave, choir and side aisle vaults.
Notre Dame de Paris was begun several decades after St. Denis by Bishop Maurice de Sully in 1160. It took 100 years for the majority of the main structure to be completed. Over the centuries since, it has been renovated and changed according to the times, particularly during the French Revolution. In the last decade of the 18th century, Notre Dame became the Cult of Reason (among other such things as a warehouse) before being restored in 1801.
Following last week’s fire, we are about to witness the next cycle of regeneration of this magnificent building; this building that saw kings and queens and sacraments of parishioners across centuries is about to enter a new phase. While it is sad that such a meaningful building has been broken, it is even more meaningful that we are going to put it back together. It can now continue its own journey and be a witness of all it has seen to the people of the next centuries who will still be able to visit it because of our care.
Photos from Google image searches.