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Online Edition - Vol. V, No. 7: October 1999

Notre Dame: Renovation Redux

by Michael S. Rose

"Upon the face of this old queen of the French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle we find a scar." Victor Hugo

The Cathedral of Notre Dame has stood in the heart of Paris for more than 800 years. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, this "Bible in stone" has served as a silent witness to the tumultuous history of France. The cathedral stands on the eastern end of the Ile de la Cité on the banks of the River Seine.

On this spot in 1160, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, drew on the ground with his crozier the outlines of what was to become one of the most famous Gothic cathedrals. Bishop de Sully was to devote the rest of his life and all his personal fortune to building the monumental church. Money to pay for covering the roof with lead was conveyed in his will.

In 1163, accompanied by Bishop de Sully, King Louis VII, and all the clergy and nobles of Paris, Pope Alexander III consecrated the new Cathedral under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For the next 200 years the church saw workers from many generations laboring to complete this sublime edifice.

In honor of the Great Jubilee, the cathedral is now in the final stages of being fully restored to its former glory. Since 1991, this landmark, which attracts 20,000 pilgrims and tourists each day, has been shrouded in canvas and scaffolding.

The original scheme of Notre Dame was a pure Gothic structure featuring flying buttresses and soaring barrel vaults, beautiful and simple in their forms, parts of an ingenious structural system that allowed for large stained glass windows.

But as the decades passed, the purity of the Gothic forms, according to the men of art, passed out of style. By the 15th century, the cathedral's architecture was considered out of fashion. The Renaissance had begun; men of the new age looked on the Gothic structures of the past as symbols of grotesque barbarism. Later, Baroque additions adulterated the original Gothic design and lessened its beauty.

Victor Hugo's lament

Cleaning, sandblasting, and reconstructing broken masonry have been but a few of the projects undertaken during the past decade. But this is not the first restoration for the great Gothic cathedral. There are numerous lessons to be learned from a look at its architectural restoration history.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, Victor Hugo provides an emotional reflection on the architecture of the famous cathedral of the Ile-de-France, beautifully expressing his sorrow and indignation at the "numberless degradations and mutilations" which the hands of Time and of man had inflicted upon the venerable monument.

"Upon the face of this old queen of the French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle we constantly find a scar", wrote Hugo. "Tempus edax, homo edacior. Which we would willingly render thus: Time is blind, but man is stupid".

Examining the traces of destruction imprinted on this ancient church, Hugo concluded that Time had been more forgiving than man: "Time has given to the church, perhaps, yet more than he has taken from it; for it is he who has spread over its face that dark-gray tint of centuries which makes of the old age of architectural monuments their season of beauty".

But who has thrown down the two ranges of statues, he asked? Who has left the niches empty?

Depredations of fashion

Historians often blame the French Revolution for the damage that necessitated later restoration projects. Yet Hugo also criticized what Parisians of the 18th century had done to the great cathedral in the name of fashion rather than revolution.

He drew up a list of criticisms: the colored stained-glass windows had been removed; the interior had been white-washed; the tower over the central part of the cathedral had been ripped off; the shape of the central entrance to the Cathedral had been deformed; and the chapels had been filled with ugly decorations. These depredations of fashion were perpetrated not by the atheistic iconoclasts of the French Revolution, as many historians have it, but by "school-trained architects, licensed, privileged, and patented, degrading with all the discernment and selection of bad taste". Hugo accused these men of wilful destruction, perversion, and re-creation, all in the name of fashion. The results? Mutilations, amputations, dislocation of members "restorations".

Violet-le-Duc's renovations

Inspired by Hugo's novel, architect Eugene Emmanuel Violet-le-Duc drew up a plan to restore the cathedral to its former splendor. He copied stained glass windows from other Gothic cathedrals in French cities that had escaped the fashion-driven, school-trained architects and the indiscriminate destruction wrought by the Revolution. He researched their pictorial records, and so was able to recreate the works of medieval sculptors. He designed a new flêche to again top the crossing of the cathedral. He restored its great doors and the gargoyles on the rooftop. Lastly, he had the interior scoured of whitewash, and treated the exterior with a chemical to preserve the stone from the industrial pollution which was already becoming a problem in the 19th century.

Today, to appease liturgical fashion, a caste of school-trained architects -- licensed, privileged and patented by a local bishop -- tromp from one house of worship to the next, too often requiring the disfigurement of priceless works of sacred art, in the end mangling the entire edifice of the church in its form as well as in its meaning, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. Fashion has audaciously fitted into the wounds of Romanesque or Gothic architecture its wretched gewgaws of a "new" day its stage platform, its rearranged pews, its dry-wall sanctuary, its emasculated baldacchino.

Even so, looking to Notre Dame de Paris, we understand that there is hope. Despite the traces of destruction imprinted on this ancient church, Our Lady at Paris is still a majestic and sublime edifice.

Violet-le-Duc took on one of the greatest projects in the history of restoration, and largely succeeded in returning the cathedral to its original beauty and charm. Perhaps then, in a decade to come, once the "renewal of the renewal" effectively takes hold, our churches (those still left standing and still owned by the Church) can be restored to their original beauty: stained glass windows, statues, Communion rails, tabernacles, murals, stencilwork, pews, and the various traditional furnishings fonts, confessionals, altars, shrines, tabernacle lampsthat comprise the "stuff" that makes a building a Catholic church.

Michael S. Rose holds degrees in architecture and fine arts from the University of Cincinnati and Brown University, and is editor of the St. Catherine Review.

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