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Paris Wanderlust: Gothic Meets 19th Century — Notre Dame

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, fall 2017

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.

Enter Viollet-le-Duc

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.

Carcassonne, in the South of France

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.

Scaffolding over scaffolding, fall 2019

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.

Next — The Gothic “Cruet” Church: St-Germain l’Auxerrois

Camille Martin

Paris Wanderlust: Sainte-Chapelle — Gothic Graphic Novel

Sainte-Chapelle — Gothic Graphic Novel

Rayonnant Gothic: more height, more light

From early French Gothic emerged a resolve to attain even greater heights and to increase the surface area of stained glass, giving the illusion of airy weightlessness and bathing the interior in colour and light. The novel style was called “Rayonnant” (“radiant”) — Gothic on soma. If Gothic architecture arose from a mystical fascination with light as a reflection of the divine, Rayonnant Gothic was the culmination of the desire to invite as much light as possible into the church.

Sainte-Chapelle, constructed in the mid-13th century as the king’s chapel within the palace complex on Île de la Cité, exemplifies the new ethereal.

Below, the gates of the Palais de la Justice (a functioning courthouse), and behind, the apse of Sainte-Chapelle.

This exterior view shows two major differences from earlier Gothic churches. First, there is no transept — Rayonnant Gothic de-emphasized or eliminated this structure. Also, the heights of Sainte-Chapelle are shored up not by flying buttresses but by thick vertical ribs capped by heavy pinnacles.

Upstairs, downstairs

The view of the western end shows another striking feature: two separate entrances, one above the other, set within the shelter of a porch:

Each entrance leads to separate chapels: the spectacular light-filled upper chapel was intended for use by the royal family and friends. The palace staff worshiped in the “basement” chapel, whose ceiling was considerably lower and stained glass windows smaller and fewer.

In the upper chapel, the stained glass is the luminary of the Rayonnant drama. The tracery (vertical ribs) play a reduced supporting role, appearing as delicate frames for the windows. The soaring panels of coloured glass wrap around the nave and apse. For the visitor, the experience is akin to surround sound, and the sweet spot is wherever you stand in the sea of light.

Individual frames of eye candy:

The late 15th-century rose window above the chapel’s entrance is characteristic of Flamboyant Gothic, with its elaborate flame-like tracery:

A graphic novel in stained glass

The vertical stained glass panels are chapters in a gigantic graphic novel telling the story from Genesis to Revelation. With a grand sweep of the eyes around the chapel (from the north side, to the apse, to the south side, and ending with the western rose window), Sainte-Chapelle narrates Christian mythology from the creation of the world to the end of the world.

The frame below depicts a scene from the Old Testament Book of Judith. The femme fatale heroine has infiltrated the enemy encampment of Assyrians, who are planning to attack the Israelites. On the pretext of seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, Judith enters his tent, gets him drunk, and, in a pre-emptive strike, beheads him.

At the center of this narrative is the vertical panel of stained glass directly behind the altar, recounting in images the Passion of Christ.

A frame of the Last Supper, in the center of the narrative:

To the far right, the last vertical panel of stained glass relates the narrative of Louis IX’s acquisition of relics from the Passion of Christ. His men traveled to Venice to purchase the alleged crown of thorns and a splinter from the cross. Below, the relics are transported back to Paris by horseback and presented to Louis IX.

Louis IX wanted to add these relics to his collection, which included parts of the Holy Lance, the Holy Sponge, and the Mandylion (image of Jesus’ face imprinted onto a cloth). He commissioned the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to house his burgeoning trove of relics.

These objects were believed to be imbued with a divine power. As such, they proved a useful tool for social cohesion — and control. Kings would parade relics around town, eliciting awe and veneration from their subjects (one of the stained glass frames shows such a scene). They could also be used as barter to replenish the royal treasury in order to fund military adventures. The insatiable hunger for these relics created an ideal climate for hucksters to sell counterfeits to aristocrats.

The culmination of the grand narrative of stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle is the western rose window:

Below: the rose window’s complex arrangement of “petals,” each showing a scene from the Book of Revelation.

This aesthetically stunning stained-glass flower contains some of the most violent scenes of the Apocalypse.

Below are additional scenes from the rose window showing different versions of the multi-headed beast of the Apocalypse. Because I have a soft spot for bestiaries.

The starry-night vaulted ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle

Gargoyles guarding Sainte-Chapelle

Lastly, fine medieval gargoyles protrude from the buttresses, as if ready to pounce on unsuspecting sinners below.

Next: The Prettiest Church in Paris