Gothic Meets 19th Century
The Early Gothic churches of this post and the next — Notre Dame and Église St-Germain-l’Auxerrois — collided with 19th-century renovations, with arguable results.
Notre Dame: Gothic Matriarch & Time Capsule
Notre Dame is celebrated as a spectacular example of early French Gothic cathedral, constructed 1160-1260. And like all surviving medieval churches in Paris, Notre Dame has not come down to us in its original incarnation, but was modified over the centuries.
Time Capsule of Notre Dame
Notre Dame and its site on Île de la Cité are a time capsule, from the Gallo-Roman temple ruins excavated below the cathedral, to the cathedral itself during the 12th and 13th centuries, to its de-christianization during the French Revolution, to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century restorations, and most recently to the 2019 fire and ongoing restorations. What does it mean that the vicissitudes of history are traceable (or not) in Notre Dame?
The 2019 fire provoked a major debate about what Notre Dame should look like in the future. But what does its appearance before the fire tell us?
Wounded by wind, wrecked by revolution
By the 18th-century, natural forces had taken their toll on Notre Dame. On the eve of the French Revolution, the aging cathedral had fallen into disrepair, and wind damage necessitated removing the spire.
A few years later, the French Revolution was in full swing. Sans culottes, decrying the power and abuses of the First Estate, desecrated and ransacked religious buildings, including Notre Dame. They smashed statues and other religious icons, but they were equally enraged by symbols of the aristocracy that had traditionally bolstered the power of the Catholic Church. Rioters at Notre Dame pulled down and beheaded the statues of the biblical Kings of Judah along the Gallery of Kings, mistaking them for French kings.
Revolutionaries appropriated religious buildings as public property and repurposed them for secular functions. Notre Dame was transformed into a Temple of Reason and a year later, a Temple of the Supreme Being.
Notre Dame, limping into the 19th century, was returned to its ecclesiastical function during the reign of Napoleon I. Toward the middle of the century, the cathedral narrowly escaped demolition before officials decided that it was worth salvaging and set about finding a suitable candidate for the restoration job.
Viollet-le-Duc was a top contender. He had restored many crumbling churches and chateaux across France, famously (or infamously) taking ahistorical liberties. His restoration of the fort at the ancient Gallo-Roman and medieval town of Carcassonne (in the South of France) was especially criticized. He used slate tiles rather than native terracotta ones, and he topped the towers along the ramparts with conical roofs.
These architectural materials and forms were more characteristic of castles in the North of France, such as those in the Loire Valley. When I was in Carcassonne, I heard visitors derisively comparing Viollet-le-Duc’s turrets to those of a Disney castle.
In Viollet-le-Duc’s defense, however, he rescued many dilapidated structures from almost certain destruction. Another feather in his cap was the restoration of Sainte Chapelle (the royal chapel on Île de la Cité), along with fellow architect Lassus.
For twenty years (1844-1864), Viollet-le-Duc was the primary architect in charge of renovating Notre Dame. One of his most remarkable changes to Notre Dame was the creation of a new spire over the transept to replace the 13th-century spire that had been removed pre-Revolution due to wind damage.
Viollet-le-Duc’s changes, far from being literal and faithful reconstructions, added his own substantive signature. His new, enlarged Gothic-style spire, extended its reach to new heights and he added groups of bronze statues at its base, which aged to an ethereal patina. Viollet-le-Duc himself posed for the center top saint (below).
Another major innovation was Viollet-le-Duc’s addition of decorative chimères (gargoyles with no rain spouts) perched along the exterior upper balustrade. The grotesque and impish gremlins, dreamed up and sketched by Viollet-le-Duc, captured the nightmarish side of the Gothic imaginary. In effect, Viollet-le-Duc had reinvented the Gothic.
The 2019 fire
In April 2019 the world watched in horror as fire destroyed significant parts of the cathedral, namely, Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and the roof — and came perilously close to reaching the two bell towers of the western facade.
During my visit to Paris in autumn 2019, restoration was well underway. Below, the spidery flying buttresses of Notre Dame are themselves buttressed while being strengthened.
At the time that fire broke out in 2019, metal scaffolding was in place to make needed repairs to the roof. Although that scaffolding survived the fire, the intense heat melted the metal, which then fused with the roof. To facilitate the removal of the melted metal during the restoration of Notre Dame, a second metal scaffolding was erected.
Below, Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras watch over a crane restoring their fire-damaged home. Perhaps they are waiting to see what their cousins, the spooky succubi of the 21st-century psyche, will look like.
The birth of the university — Collège des Bernardins
The Gothic-style former Cistercian monastery and institution of learning was constructed 1248-1253, its completion coinciding within a few years with that of Notre Dame de Paris. By that time, Paris was already well established as a major intellectual centre of Europe.
Monastic schools of the previous century, such as the cathedral school of Notre Dame, were internationally famous. No longer were monastic schools set up largely to produce educated monks, clergy, and scribes, but they had become flourishing centres of theological teaching and (carefully circumscribed) debate. It was the age of Abelard, rock star professor and extra-tragic lover of the 12th century.
By the early 13th century, the University of Paris was founded, closely associated with monastic schools. University-style secular learning was taking root, as were centres of learning separate from — but associated with — the cathedral and monastic schools. Some colleges emerged from the student residence halls of the monastic schools. One of those halls was established by Robert de Sorbon, and thus the College de la Sorbonne emerged as a place of higher education.
It was into this burgeoning intellectual movement that the Collège des Bernardins was born. In addition to educating Bernardine monks, the school also taught students from the Collège de la Sorbonne and the Université de Paris.
I arrived at the Collège des Bernardins too late for a proper visit, but the entrance hall with its interconnected ribs of the vaulted ceiling is both austere and elegant.