You were probably as shocked and saddened watching Notre- Dame burning as I was. People from all walks of life, those with faith and those without, expressed grief and loss as the tragedy unfolded. It seemed that perhaps in a short span of hours a place of faith that had existed for centuries would almost instantly disappear.
Listening to media commentary as the flames burned, the post-Christian nature of Western society was on full display; Notre-Dame, a literary monument, a political monument, a revolutionary monument, an international tourist destination, and perhaps a ‘spiritual’ place of peace. But many were hard-pressed to articulate what the building meant as a Christian monument, much less what Christian faith might mean for a contemporary society in the midst of its own unfolding tragedy. Yet, it is precisely this void of Christian meaning that now perhaps places Notre-Dame in more danger than the flames. Notre-Dame is a cultural wonder to have a go at.
Following the fire at Notre-Dame, Jorge Otero-Pailos Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, wrote that “heritage”, like Notre-Dame, “is a social process of making and remaking culture by interacting in and with sites and objects inherited with previous generations.” While this in part is true, it also wrongly gives the impression that both heritage and culture are things we create based upon what we value or dis-value at any given moment. It implies that heritage has no inherent force or stability by which we ‘should’ value it.
As a result, contemporary society is left unfettered to destroy or remake past monuments as we see fit. We are simply playing at making new transient meanings and values based upon our shifting priorities and allegiances at the moment.
Case in point is the view of architect Daniel Libeskind who in a bout of absurd post-modern hyperbole suggested that to value an historical building it must actually be metaphorically destroyed and ripped from its historic moorings, writing, “It sometimes feels as if cities like Paris and Venice have been coated with formaldehyde and turned into museums. The old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work. We must create a new context and puncture past beauty with raw, powerful contemporary architecture—buildings that shock and amaze and bring out the romance of relics of Victorian and ancient times.” At least in the case of the Church’s heritage, the Vatican’s Pontificia Commissione per i Beni Culturali della Chiesa has for years written a relatively unknown, but very urgently needed body of directives, explaining what religious heritage is, and how it is to be used and preserved, that proposes a different view.
First considered necessary because of the Vatican Council’s liturgical reform, the Commission sought both to inform contemporary church building, but also to rein in the radical gutting of churches and dispossession of art considered ‘out of date’. The body of directives, in short, understands ecclesiastical heritage not firstly as high artistic achievement, but as material witness to Christian belief. The object itself (be it a sculpture or building) expresses Christian belief, but more importantly, it records and projects the faith of the community which created it – it is the witness of the witnesses. Christian heritage is theologically rooted therefore in those who have seen and confessed Christ as Lord, and is theologically oriented to continuing that witness in the present. In this way, the pertinent question for church heritage is not how may we act upon it to our own ends, but how may we become present to its inner world of meaning, what in Italian is known as valorizzazione. In this paradigm there is a very real sense of communio with and between the present church, the object, and the Christian community of the past. To tamper with the material object, is to change the record of witness. A communion suggests respect, listening, and investigation. Not hubris, hegemony, and alteration. Oddly, no one would contend that in order to understand the past and make it relevant one should enter an archive and rewrite, erase or destroy documents. But this is exactly what we continuously do in the built environment (our church buildings bearing the brunt), and in so doing we falsify and destroy the underlying witness. In this process of alteration we ultimately erase ourselves since we are constantly born out of our pasts.
The challenges for the rebuilding for Notre-Dame are severe therefore, both physically and conceptually. President Macron and the French Prime Minister suggested the reconstructed building will be “more beautiful” than ever, and opened the way for a “contemporary” spire to replace that of Viollet-le-Duc’s, which burnt and collapsed. One is hard pressed to imagine any new intervention of a contemporary architectural approach having something of enduring value to say. Contemporary architects do not build for beauty. They build for money. They are profiteers, formed under the tutelage of corporatism and fast capital. Beauty is not a paradigm out of which they operate.
Beyond this, contemporary architectural interventions continuously show themselves to be obtusely contrary to any preceding architectural or community voice. The goal is to supersede and deconstruct. There is no sensitivity to the ‘language’ of the original building, let alone the goals and visions of those who in the past built farm, village, city, cathedral. More importantly, there is no evidence that any of the goals outlined by French politicians are rooted whatsoever in the Christian identity of the building, nor a rebuilding perspective meant to safeguard this fact. It is a problem exacerbated by the fact that Notre-Dame is controlled and owned by the French state, and not the Archdiocese of Paris. This may in part explain why some days after the announcement of a competition to make a “modern addition” to the cathedral the Holy See requested a conversation with the French ambassador. Perhaps the Vatican is concerned about ill-conceived interventions too. It should be.
In a poorly informed opinion piece following the fire, the Parisian priest Marc Vacher proposed a skylight over the crossing of the cathedral and altar to make the Gothic interior “brighter”. He asked if the contemporary Christian community is still capable of “innovating for God” and implied an evangelical spirit of relevance would foresee a modified Notre-Dame in keeping with the spirit and technology of the age. In an unrelated article on the Notre-Dame fire the architect Duncan Stroik of the University of Notre Dame gave un unreserved ‘no’ in response, at least regarding the contemporary state of architecture. “Please name ten Gothic spires, from anywhere and anytime, that are considered more beautiful than Notre- Dame’s spire”, he wrote. A more harmonious architectural solution by a contemporary architect-engineer will not be found in this age. Let them “experiment” elsewhere he insisted.
Is the Christian community still capable of “innovating for God”? I think it is the wrong question. In a post-Christian West the necessary reflection called for by the Notre-Dame tragedy is not a question of “innovation” but of reclamation and witness. Reclaiming and fortifying our witness by understanding our past. When the fire broke out at the cathedral, the nearby monastic Fraternité de Jérusalem began singing the Litany of Saints in their church invoking the aid of French Christians of old whose faith had built Notre-Dame. They continued the litany until the flames were extinguished. I have written before on PrayTell regarding the relationship between the religious imagination and buildings and the danger of tampering with both. What I see at stake now is the preservation of the very possibility of religious imagination. It seems to me that what Christianity should be proposing at this time is not “innovation” but deep engagement with our past, by calling upon the people, faith, and wisdom, that created that which we postmodernists are now playing at. After all, the term innovate in its earlier Latin form meant more to “renew” than to “change”. One is hard pressed to innovate with empty hands. We need our architectural and artistic past and we need to relearn it urgently.
I was once critiqued for writing an article in which my language seemed to make buildings conscious subjects and actors in the world around us. Following the editors’ directions, I changed that language. Knowing the continuing danger surrounding Notre-Dame for the foreseeable future, I now realize that what I expressed out of intuition, was indeed correct. It now must be said again explicitly; Our ancestors, histories, material cultures, and built environments, have the right to be what they are. To not be re-interpreted, or reinvented. To exist today in their integrity without our pushy or hubristic updates, additions, and re-contextualization meant to sooth, temporarily mesmerize, or aggrandize ourselves (See Simona Maggiorelli, Attaco all’arte: La bellezza negata, 2017). What this demands of us is humility, recognition that we are not inherently progressive in any positive way, that modernity is not innately better, that the junk we flood the earth with today, is not more enduring and meaningful than the artistry and faith of our past. We like the Russian Orthodox reformer of the 19th century, Ivan Kireevsky, cannot insist that the way forward is to change a past because we have forgotten it (Kireevsky, Fragments, 248-43). We must instead go to that place our ancestors built and learn to see it as they did, and thus bear testimony to it as eyewitnesses. And such is the case of Notre-Dame in Paris. Its restoration lies not in our changes to it, but in our submission to its form, wisdom, and witness.