Notre-Dame 2.0

Image result for notre dame burning

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.

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Royal Ontario Museum | Studio Daniel Libeskind. 2007. 

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.

French designer Mathieu Lehanneur proposes replacing the spire not with a replica of what was built 150 years ago, but what was there during the fire.

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.

Bratislava based Vizumatelier’s proposal for the spire is a lightweight tower topped with a beam of light that will shine directly upward.

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.

São Paulo-based architecture practice AJ6 Studio imagines Notre-Dame being rebuilt with a roof and spire made almost entirely from stained glass.
“In gothic there is the connection of the earth to the sky, and inside the cathedral, the natural illumination multiplies in colours through the filter of the cover in stained glass,” explained Alexandre Fantozzi, creative partner at the studio.

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.         

Community of Jerusalem. Saint-Gervais Church. Paris.

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.

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Viollet-le-Duc. La flèche [Notre Dame] 1859.

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.


  1. Yep.

    Elsewhere, I’ve seen commentators on this matter express incredulity at people’s skepticism over the initial wave of off-the-charrette musings from prominent designers and what might be called the peanut gallery, and in particular questioning the continued relevance of “medieval technology”. Which commentators appear to have missed the point that this medieval technology (the pointed stone vaulting system) worked precisely as it was designed to do eight or so centuries ago: to allow a roof fire in a way that would improve the chances of the stone fabric remaining viable afterwards. It was a seriously innovative technology, and one that we’d find hard to replicate in our current design and construction mindset. Steel-and-glass and concrete-and-rebar construction methods are far from assured of lasting a millennium or more, in case anyone has failed to consider the intended sustainability of that mindset. (I am just old enough to remember the deliberate destruction of the once-fabled Singer Building in lower Manhattan.)

    The fiduciaries of the fabric of Notre Dame de Paris would do well to restrict the commission for the replacement of the fleche* to requiring that Viollet-le-Duc’s fleche be its substantial pattern, while assuring the use of materials and systems for fire prevention and control. Otherwise, rebuild the roof without any fleche.

    * The designers et al. appear to have ignored the fact that the French gummint has thus far contemplated a design competition solely for the fleche, not the entire roof.

  2. What a wonderful article!

    If only… if only the very same logic were applied to the liturgy and the reform of it. One could take this article and substitute “ancient-medieval Roman liturgical tradition” for “Notre Dame” and it would all follow perfectly.

    1. I can see that in the sense that, if one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it all would follow perfectly. Of course, if that mindset had obtained in the 12th century, Gothic architecture would have been much less likely to have developed (and its development was in no small part experimental and involved myriad experiences of trial and error over many generations – it was not something that sprang Athene-like from the head of Abbot Suger and perfected and amberized in the initial generation). Ditto Scholasticism.

    2. Thanks for your comment. Writing I was aware of some similarities as you suggest, but I also think there are significant dissimilarities, both at the level of materiality and function/purpose. Off hand, I would suggest ritual as symbolic enactment of bodies shifts much more radically in meaning than say a painting or stone tympanum.

  3. Musing – mixing apples and oranges or is it a good question? Interesting article that lays out some principles but the devil is in the details. Reality – much of the destruction happened to renovations and changes dating back less than two hundred years ago with the exception of the *forest*. So, the fire destroyed *recent* changes compared to when the cathedral was completed.
    Sorry, there is heritage but there is also continuous architectural modifications over time influenced by culture, etc.
    But, yes, any changes need to acknowledge and grasp the core/key meanings e.g. are communion rails the core meaning of eucharist? or are they accoutrements representing later expressions/understandings that may actually hinder what eucharist means?
    Would a *new* spire with a white light to the heavens miss the heritage of Notre Dame?
    So much appears to be in the eyes of the beholder!

    1. Such a white light as depicted above would certainly be a lethal distraction to birds, among other things.

    2. Bill DeHaas said:”are communion rails the core meaning of eucharist? or are they accoutrements representing later expressions/understandings that may actually hinder what eucharist means?”

      One could answer “no” to both questions – and I say this as a strong supporter of communion rails who feels they do help emphasize the core meaning of Eucharist without themselves *being* the core meaning of Eucharist.

      I’ve often seen it noted that the spire was a (controversial) 19th century addition, but it was Gothic in design and has, over time, been seen by most people as “original” to the building due to it actually trying to harmonize with the structure. Architects in the 19th Century often mined the riches of the past and wedded it with new technology to create innovative and beloved new styles.

      Perhaps they should look at how the Gothic design of the building could be used to inform a new take on the style that does not desperately try to overshadow the rest of the building the same way the exuberant 19th century spire did not. Most of the proposals I’ve seen seem to treat the rest of Notre Dame as a stage or ornate picture frame for a “look at me! Look at Me!” sort of art piece.

      1. “Most of the proposals I’ve seen seem to treat the rest of Notre Dame as a stage or ornate picture frame for a “look at me! Look at Me!” sort of art piece.”

        Indeed, Art as ego-serving and as a form of self-expression. It’s not like there aren’t incidents of that in the longer history of Christian architecture (Justinian’s supposed “Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών // Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” at the dedication of Hagia Sophia comes readily to mind), but usually those are deployed as warning signs.

      2. I agree with you, Jack. (Not on communion rails but you know that and let’s not go there.) I agree that we don’t want ‘look at me’ artistic creativity, but something that serves the Christian community and its witness in the world.

  4. Jack – thank you – like Fr. we won’t go back to altar rails.

    Find the article to be very unsatisfactory. Statements such as – “In this process of alteration we ultimately erase ourselves since we are constantly born out of our pasts” or “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.”

    These are arrogant and sweeping generalizations that do not reflect the historical record. To equate historical written records with a building, structure, etc. is comparing apples to oranges. In fact, historical archives (think the Dead Sea Scrolls) go through scientific processes all the time to preserve and save and, at times, to elucidate what may now be missing. No one would describe this as *erasing* our heritage. As Jack’s example brings home, the heritage of Notre Dame spans many centuries right up to the 19th and even 20th with ongoing changes. Did every one of those *erase* the heritage?
    Almost all great historical structures have gone through some type of renovation – if for no other reason than to save what was there.
    His arguments appear at times to go to an extreme to make a point. One could make the same argument about statues of Confederate generals – historical record shows that they were erected as part of the Lost Cause movement – so, we keep them nonetheless?
    Wonder if this article actually goes in a circle?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Sorry you find the piece unsatisfactory. A blog only allows for so much. I’m not sure what apples and oranges you are referring too. But buildings do very much function like manuscripts that transmit meaning. You suggest, “historical archives (think the Dead Sea Scrolls) go through scientific processes all the time to preserve and save and, at times, to elucidate what may now be missing.” This is precisely the point I am making in part. Notre-Dame is now a giant palimpsest and through scientific research (which has already been done) and skilled artistry we can substantially restore the work and its substantial ‘meaning’ to the point of time before its destruction. There is no need to try to make the building ‘mean’ something else with useless and likely substandard additions, and in the process modify other meanings it projects.

      1. Thank you – would agree that any restoration/renovation needs to achieve preserving Notre Dame rather than transforming it with useless and *likely* substandard additions. As I said, the devil is always in the details and whose ox is being gored in the process of making those decisions.
        Appreciate that you took the time to respond and understand your points with more clarity now. Sorry if my opinion seemed harsh.

  5. I agree with the author’s main points, but to say, “Contemporary architects do not build for beauty. They build for money… beauty is not a paradigm out of which they operate” is a gross generalization and offensive to many fine contemporary architects. This line comes across as a childish, ‘I don’t like it!’ I would expect better commentary on this blog.

    1. FWIW, I took the author’s statements of that kind as assuming the frame of recent public statements he illustrated earlier in his essay, rather than a Platonic universal.

      Could the design of the fleche replacement be a contemporary work that is subtle and subordinated to the whole? Yes. But. Recall, among other things that the fleche would need to be able to serve as the structure on which the famous copper statues of Viollet-le-Duc’s time – which had just been removed before the fire – will once again rest if they are ever to be restored to their original function. The initial reaction to this “opportunity” by prominent designers does not fill one with tons of hope about the prospects unless the fiduciaries for the fabric provide wise constraints. Constraints can be the midwife of great art.

    2. Firstly, the competition for the new flèche and a complete restoration completed in a 5 year window is bound up with the fact that Notre-Dame is the most visited monument in Paris, and Paris is hosting the Olympics. There are major economic implications involved for Paris with ‘Notre-Dame’ out of commission. As heritage experts have indicated, this provokes a rush to judgement and slipshod restoration. Secondly, the proposed alterations to Notre-Dame pictures can not said to be aesthetically pleasing, let alone beautiful, by even casual observation. My primary point however was a conceptual one. Since Le Corbusier architecture has become primarily engineering, and since modernity, about concept. Few architects consider canons of beauty in their works. What tends to occur is a ‘personal voice’ in the work of the architect that the public may find aesthetically pleasing, but which is not conceptually concerned with the provocation of beauty at all. One only need to see the speed with which major architectural firms and designers have pumped out proposals when the campaign was announced. Genius, and beauty, are not pumped out on social media. In the world of international architecture we should not believe that there is not an immense desire to become a *starchitect with the money and branding that comes along with it – one needs a notable project, and Notre Dame is the prey. Lastly, the average architect by training, material technology, and market forces spend their lives remodeling bathrooms, building homes, and big box stores. Hence the experience, training, motivation, and support to approach projects concerned about aesthetics, or beauty, are lacking. For these reasons I wrote that contemporary architects “build for money and not beauty.” As I have said many times on PrayTell my concern is not one of style per se. In the case of Notre-Dame there is both a problem of preservation at the material and conceptual level which I have laid out. It has nothing to do with me liking or not liking, as you indicate.

      1. Scott’s commentary aligns with what I would say. It’s a good essay, but only to a point. The generalization about contemporary architects is extremely unfortunate, not to mention un-Christian. It sinks credibility for this essay. Clearly, the author seems to lack significant contacts in the architectural world.

        How the conversation continues–hopefully without insult–will reveal the purpose of Notre Dame: tourist attraction, museum, national treasure, or living house of the Church. No doubt, it’s a combination of these. My hope would be more on the latter, with an eye to evangelization. If fire-minus-ten minutes, perhaps it will be an opportunity lost.

  6. I find this article less than helpful in the conversation that inevitably must happen around the renewal of Notre-Dame. That conversation must include a variety of voices, including those of contemporary architects, and much of the author’s comments are little more than a screed against the contemporary project of architecture and architects.
    I find it interesting that out of all the many and quite varied voices of contemporary architecture, he picks Daniel Libeskind to represent all of it, since I was just discussing the Notre-Dame project last night with two architects who studied under Libeskind. Contrary to what the author implies, Libeskind is not a postermodernist. He is a deconstructivist. This movement was a specific reaction to and rejection of postmodernism’s call for a return to respecting history and historical forms, as well as a building’s context. Of course he would be an absurd choice for the spire, because his very philosophy calls for a disruption of history. But that philosophy is hardly embraced by all of architecture. Remember that Libeskind is a contemporary of Robert A M Stern, an actual postmodernist who specifically draws on vernacular context and local traditions in his design. Yet Hadley uses Libeskind to represent, and hence reject, contemporary architecture on the whole and in particular when it comes to churches.
    In reality there have been no truly serious proposals in the competition yet, partly because all of the necessary information that architects need to design has only recently become available. The only noteworthy voice is that of Norman Foster, who suggested (it’s not a formal proposal) a glass roof following the lines of the previous roof, and a glass spire.
    And what should always be remembered is that when the prime minister announced the competition, he said that the results would be a part of the dialogue about what will be built. A dialogue that still includes reproducing Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothic revival spire. In that dialogue, shouting “I don’t like modern stuff it has nothing to say” is hardly helpful.

    1. I think it’s at least as helpful as the bleating of non-serious proposals at this stage insofar as they alert those who are going to be setting the specifications of the competition to be mindful of assumptions that they have cognitive blindspots about. This essay was hardly shouting.

      1. There is a long tradition in architecture of using competitions to have a conversation about all kinds of aspects of the art. This involves everything from whimsy to serious ground-breaking innovation. The vast majority of it is never built and often never intended to be. (Architects continue to re-visit the Chicago Tribune Tower competition almost a century later, and interestingly here, amid the many innovative entries in the original the one that was built is a neo-gothic spire.) With such a cultural icon as Notre-Dame capturing the imagination of the architectural community there will and should be all kinds of proposals.
        But one way to insure that those involved don’t listen to what you have to say (particularly about possible cognitive blindspots) is to start with the declaration that there is no value in what they are doing and to question the motives of why they do it.

    2. “I don’t like modern stuff it has nothing to say” – This is obviously not what I said. What I proposed was for various material and conceptual reasons the proposals for “contemporary” amendments to Notre-Dame as a piece of global heritage and a place of faith are out of place.

      1. “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.”
        Actually I think my paraphrase wasn’t nearly as insulting as what you actually said.

      2. Its certainly not my aim to be insulting. Perhaps my comments above to Scott Pluff address your concern. Nor, I would highlight, did I exclude the possibility even if challenging. I assume in saying this that what would be needed is like a composing a Bernini baldicchino for a Michelangelo St. Peter.

  7. I understand that a YouGov poll indicates that French are 54% in favour of an identical reconstruction, 25% in favour of some change and 21% of don’t know. You may also have seen that there is a local problem of lead from the roof contaminating the surrounding area. It seems to me more important that the roof has the same appearance than that the materials used are identical. Of course wood does last a long time and so may be better than steel: not my field. May I be excused giving a link?,8174709.php?mediego_euid=109885#xtor=EPR-7-%5Bnewsletter-soir%5D-20190430-%5Bclassique%5D

  8. The medieval architects who produced the Gothic were certainly fearless and creative in their own day, doing things that never had been done before, and not knowing in advance if they would fall down (as happened at Beauvais).

    Notre Dame is relatively dark, because the light from windows on the tribune level doesn’t reach the floor. They tried to improve the light by enlarging the clerstory windows in the apse and (if I am remembering correctly) creating larger windows in the transcept, but this question of how to let in the light remained a problem. Consider Laon for comparison, built at about the same time, but on another model, with a Norman lantern in the transcept. Extraordinarily light, without sacrificing the strength of the walls.

    My point is this: AJ6 Studio produced a mock up that looks like something out of Disney and I wanted to gag when I saw it, but they are not wrong to be thinking about how natural light gets into the building. It was a question that preoccupied the people who built Notre Dame, and all the succeeding architectural geniuses who produced masterpieces of the French Gothic wrestled with the same question.

    Some parts of the interior of the building have never actually been visible in our time except by dim or artificial light. One sees it differently without the roof. I think the first stage ought to be “looking at it” in daylight before proposing hasty “solutions.” Competitions are fine, but the haste of the project concerns me.

    1. “Competitions are fine, but the haste of the project concerns me.”

      Yes to this. As I understand it, it’s going be at least year before damage to the upper part of the stone fabric can start to be analyzed properly: given the scale of the fire, the hot stones that were saturated by water not only have to dry, but they need to be subjected to the seasonal extremes of summer and winter climate.

      Thanks for mentioning Laon – I’ve never been able to travel to France, but I am fond of many of the details of Laon (what a facade! what a beautiful east end! what lovely engaged column-piers!) – and Bourges* (what airiness! – courtesy of a daring aisle elevation also used at Palma btw; what glass! – second only to Chartres in the opinion of some) – among the earlier French Gothic cathedrals, which is why I included it in my illustrative comparisons. Paris has indeed been notably dark compared to its peers – it’s the transept rose windows that consequently stand out – but the overall experience of the space in liturgy impresses in its own way according to many first-hand accounts I’ve heard. So I am not sure its light issues need fixing.

      * [Bourges]

      1. Laon is amazing. Bourges as well. Have been to both.

        Notre Dame is part of an innovative architectural tradition (the French Gothic) that produced many masterpieces working with light and height. I would not rule out improvements to Notre Dame, if they are working in harmony with the rest of the building.

    2. Ciao Rita,
      Although slightly a side issue to my main point…even if Notre-Dame is relatively dark, that is OK. It is the first of the Gothic cathedrals, so naturally is darker, reflecting the capacity of engineering and material at the time. In this sense it is an irreplaceable example of architectural evolution of a period, and that should be respected. It does not need interventions to ‘update’ it so it structurally comports with later Gothic structures as Laon and Beauvais. Heritage has the right to be left unaltered. Indeed, that is part of its claim upon us – as the Icomos Charters puts it “authenticity and integrity” are at work. What I hear you proposing is similar to saying that given the design and material limitations of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement we should modify the fresco to be more Baroque. I think it is a violation to try to ‘update’ or ‘correct’ genius.

      Here is another good take – as this author puts it “Notre-Dame decides”.


      1. “What I hear you proposing is similar to saying that given the design and material limitations of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement we should modify the fresco to be more Baroque. I think it is a violation to try to ‘update’ or ‘correct’ genius.”

        Oh, James! Cut my heart out with a knife! And I was so careful in my comment to keep within a discussion of Gothic style, too, and the French Gothic at that. You know I hate all that Barockisiert stuff. After the devastation of Cologne in WWII, when they decided not to restore the Baroque overlay intended to prettify the Romanesque churches it was the best thing ever — you could actually see the Romanesque! So no, I do not think tacking on a whole different aesthetic is going to do anything but create a grotesque outcome.

        But, you know, this is part of the Notre Dame discussion too. How much do you spend to restore Louis XIV choir stalls that are sorely out of keeping with the building itself and were “tacked on” at another point in history? The idea that the cathedral, 10 minutes before the fire let’s say, is exactly how it is to be restored afterwards ignores a whole host of questions. If a late window fell out, are you compelled to create an exact copy? Is Violet le Duc’s 19th century restoration of the fleche fully worthy of replication? Maybe it is, and maybe my fantasy that one might be able to admit more light into that space without destroying the integrity of the structure of the vaulting is, in fact, totally impossible. But I think these questions are legitimate.

        The Cathedral at Reims has an incongruous baroque altar behind the current altar of sacrifice. It’s in the way. It has no relationship to the rest of the building. It dominates the space and exudes an overbearing style compared to the altar they actually use, which is quite beautiful and elegant and appropriate to the space. But historic preservationists have forbidden them to move it. At what point do you say “this is preserved in amber”?

        Thanks, James, for a good discussion. I trust you were opposed to the cleaning of the Final Judgment in the Sistene Chapel too. 😉

  9. Not to be picky, but where did the “altar of sacrifice,” “altar of reservation” terminology start? It grates on my Eucharistic theology.

      1. Was I misusing a term? I was searching for a shorthand way to designate the altar at which the Eucharist is actually celebrated (as opposed to other altars in the building which serve more or less as shrines or historical relics). What is the correct expression? I am uneasy about “main altar” because it sort of suggests the others are “working altars” too. “High altar” used to be the term, now outdated. I never heard of “altar of reservation.” Have on Holy Thursday used the term “altar of repose.”

      2. May I point out that, unless I’m missing something, Rita didn’t use the expression “altar of reservation,” and in any case the Sacrament was never reserved on the nineteenth century neo-baroque altar in Reims, which was built for the sacring of Charles X. The preceding baroque altar had been destroyed during the revolution. But in fact it is a twentieth century altar, because it was almost completely destroyed when the vaulting collapsed onto it after the (deliberate, criminal and devoid of any strategic use) bombing of the cathedral during World War I. However it carries a enormous weight of history, not least because the cathedral’s high altar has stood on that exact spot since the time of St. Rémi and the baptism of Clovis.

        Anyhow, it seems to me that “current altar of sacrifice” is a good an expression as might be found to say what Rita wanted to express. And the no longer current altar of sacrifice in Notre-Dame seems to have been crushed after the second stage of the collapse of the crossing vaulting. “De gustibus non est disputandum” and all that sort of thing, but I have never had any affection for it, it was poorly proportioned and it had aged badly. So there’s a golden opportunity for a contemporary creation. I just hope they don’t create something that has the same profile as a cupboard under a kitchen counter, which is the case of a number of recent Paris altars.

      3. Thank you, Christopher. The information about the neo-baroque altar at Reims is interesting. I forgot it was a reconstruction after WWI. I do not think the history of this “very spot” need be abandoned though, as the current altar could surely stand there? I asked about the problem of having two altars virtually on top of one another, while on a tour given by a cathedral docent, and she told me (wearily) that they tried “many times” to have the neo-baroque altar removed, and were blocked by the preservation council. Needless to say, said council couldn’t care less about the incongruity of two altars, having no stake in the liturgy that takes place there. In the U.S. we assume the bishop has say-so over placement of liturgical furniture in the cathedral; it’s not so easy when the state owns the buildings.

      4. Rita, I’m sure it would be possible in the absolute to place the new altar there, a little further back. But there are of course several problems. One is that as you point out, the cathedral belongs to the state. The archbishop has his say, and is listened to, but at the end of the day it is up to the Commission supérieur des monuments historiques, which answers to the Minister of Culture and Communication. They have a very strange mindset. On the one hand, they are reluctant to change anything that exists. But when something falls down and needs replacing (I’m thinking in fear of the fleche of Notre-Dame here) they are capable of anything. A few years ago in Reims (I think it had already been done at the time of the Societas Congress) they replaced two plain glass windows on either side of the apsidial chapel with violent red (fire brigade red) and garish yellow non-figurative windows, that clash with and distract from the very fine Chagall window between them.
        Another problem is that the no longer used altar functions as a backdrop for the new altar. Not a very noble function, but a necessary one, particularly as the architectural choir in Reims is behind the altar (further east), while the liturgical choir with its stalls is in the nave, to the west, leaving the crossing free for the rites of the royal sacring. Westminster Abbey is set up the same way, on a much smaller scale, as a deliberate imitation, just as the English coronation rite mimics the French one, minus the Sainte ampoule and the use of chrism. In Westminster the shrine of St. Edward is separated form the sanctuary by a very solid stone screen. But there’s nothing in Reims, except that altar, and the architectural choir, which is used for mid-sized celebrations, is bigger than many cathedrals. I’m sure there would be ways of solving this problem, but they would all be highly controversial!
        Linked with this is the question of orientation. If the or another new altar was placed where the old altar now stands, the presider would be in a very awkward place, almost outside the crossing area. It would make movements rather complicated, and probably look more than a little strange. If the altar is there, you really have to face east. I do think there are times and places where eastward facing celebration can work with the reformed liturgy, but Reims Cathedral isn’t one of them, because of its size, scale and internal organization. It would look like Father saying “his” Mass while everyone else got on with something else.
        This has taken us away from Notre-Dame de Paris, but not I think from the subject of James’s post!

    1. There would be those who insist that an altar, strictly speaking, refers to the place of sacrifice exclusive of places where the sacrificed oblation is merely reposed. Then again, this could show how human nature language abhors a vacuum in the sense that reactions to traditionalist culture of parsings can be reflected in just another culture of parsings. I understood Rita’s common sense usage – these places of reservation had actually served historically as altars.

      1. When I used to help put up Christmas/Easter decorations at my old (OF-only) parish, it was most common for people to call the old altar the “high altar” while the main free-standing altar was just called “the altar.” The old high altar did not even have an altar anymore, it was just a reredos with a tabernacle and statues.

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