April 15, 2019, the evening of Monday in Holy Week
Notre-Dame de Paris is burning. The cathedral’s spire has fallen. The roof has collapsed. Firefighters have been on the scene for hours. The fire won the fight. “There will be nothing left,” a spokesman for Notre Dame told the BBC. It’s almost that bad: The towers and façade will be spared, but much of the interior, including the famous carved woodwork that was the labor of generations, has gone up in the flames, like Elijah in his chariot.
“The eldest daughter of the Church,” France’s title of endearment among Europe’s Catholics, has worn Notre Dame, the Cathedral of Our Lady, as its crown since the High Middle Ages. Over the centuries, its vaults, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and rose windows came to assume the status of ancient icons, symbols of Western Christian civilization. We sometimes forget what a breath of wild fresh air Gothic architecture must have been when it began to spring up here and there in northern Europe in the 12th century. The angular verticality pulled the eyes upward and the mind toward things of heaven, like a grove of towering oaks.
Ground for Notre Dame was broken in 1163. Twenty-six years later, the high altar was dedicated. The choir, the nave, and the main, western façade were completed by the middle of the following century. Chapels and various additions were added, one by one, over the years. A great cathedral is never completed. After its first hundred, two hundred years, give or take a few, its frame has been established and its general demeanor has been settled, and succeeding generations of artists are afforded the luxury of homing in on delicate, carefully thought-out embellishments, icing on the wedding cake.
Notre Dame has been the site of royal weddings and coronations, of papal Masses and of funeral Masses for heads of state. For the tourist, its beauty overshadows its function, which is to provide for the celebration of the Eucharist a house as worthy as mere mortals are capable of building. Immersed in its purpose, the pilgrim feels its magnificence all the more keenly. Theology and sacred history explained themselves through statues of saints and biblical figures: scripture for all who had eyes to see, including the unlettered. Much of that treasure was destroyed in the violence of Christian iconoclasm during the Protestant Reformation and then in the violence of the French Revolution, not to mention the intervening misguided renovations that included the removal of some medieval stained-glass windows. After a few subsequent restoration projects, one of which left the façade cleansed of longstanding grime so that the white stone underneath shone as it did in the cathedral’s youth, Notre Dame began to be itself again by the second half of the 20th century.
No one knows what any one craftsman thought and felt as he chiseled, sculpted, laid stones, or otherwise contributed to this monument to God, by way of Mary, the mother of His Son, but from the result of their collective work we glimpse the size of the love that the people of Paris as a whole have had for their faith. They’ve poured a lot of human soul into that structure. Notre Dame echoes emotions etched deep into the marble of Saint Mary Major, that ancient jewel of a Roman basilica likewise dedicated to Our Lady — the same poem, sung in a different architectural language.
Authorities say they haven’t determined the cause of the fire that broke out on the Île de la Cité at 6:30 this evening of Monday in Holy Week. Plots to destroy the cathedral have been foiled by law enforcement the past couple of years. Catholic churches across France have been hit by a spate of vandalism in recent months. In March, fire damaged the Church of Saint-Sulpice in the sixth arrondissement. Firefighters said it was arson; police are still investigating. We don’t know enough to say whether the fire at Notre Dame is the latest, most spectacular incident in some ongoing sinister plot against the Church in France, so we look for guidance to Our Lady of Prudence, charting a course between conspiracy-mindedness and naïveté.
VIEW GALLERY: Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre — or of the Resurrection, as it’s known to the Eastern Orthodox — is by some accounts the holiest site for Christians of all persuasions and denominations. Erected on the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is reputed to have been crucified and buried and to have risen from the dead, Holy Sepulchre, almost twice as old as Notre Dame, has been destroyed by fire, rebuilt, destroyed by a caliph, and rebuilt again. Let French Catholics take courage from the precedent. The rest of us can figure out how to contribute to reconstruction efforts if we want to.
A few relics that you would think belonged to Holy Sepulchre — a piece of the cross to which Jesus was nailed, one of the nails, the crown of thorns with which Roman soldiers tortured and mocked him — have been housed at Notre Dame in fact, and they escaped damage, according to reports. If you find hope or symbolic meaning therein, thank God, and apologize to no one for it.
Good Friday came a few days early for Notre-Dame de Paris this year. Easter follows: You may be in no mood to accept that statement as a gesture toward consolation. It does, however, remain the truth.