(Photo by: Ruth Connolly)
When I saw the news flash that Notre-Dame was burning my first thought (aside from ‘thank God there are no reported casualties’) was ‘what about the stuff!?’ The Crown of Thorns, the Tunic of Saint Louis, the Great Organ, the Rose windows. Clearly studying in a museum and learning about object handling for the last seven months has resulted in objects being at the forefront of my mind. These objects and treasures of Paris are such a rich resource for historians and the public that the thought of losing them is unimaginable and heartbreaking.
However, last night I looked back at photos from my trip to Paris in February this year. It was the first time I went inside Notre-Dame and the single photograph I took was of the roof and its surrounding stain glass windows. Looking at this image made me realise that the cathedral’s greatest object is its structure. Although that structure is home to material objects that aid worship and are of interest to tourists, it is the building itself that has provided a worship space and landmark for centuries. I felt a sense of holy tranquility, not when looking at ‘the stuff’ but more when I sat quietly and looked up. I suppose that is why I took the photograph. When I think about looking up at that impressive roof, that has so sadly been the worst affected part of the building and imagine how many other people have done the same, I am devastated to think that no one will be able to experience that space in the same way again.
The structure that made me feel so safe I have now watched fall. Before even starting to comprehend how Paris will rebuild Notre-Dame, I am in awe of how a building can provoke so many emotions. Surely that exposes a truly great object.
Sans doute, c’est encore aujourd’hui un majestueux et sublime édifice que l’église de Notre-Dame de Paris. Mais, si belle qu’elle se soit conservée en vieillissant, il est difficile de ne pas soupirer, de ne pas s’indigner devant les dégradations, les mutilations sans nombre que simultanément le temps et les hommes ont fait subir au vénérable monument, sans respect pour Charlemagne qui en avait posé la première pierre, pour Philippe-Auguste qui en avait posé la dernière.
Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1831
(Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP)
My first memory of Notre Dame is from when I was seven years old and traveling in France with my family. We went inside, and I was very grumpy because it was so crowded, but as we walked through the cathedral I was overwhelmed by the building. The stained glass cast fragments of colors across the stones. The smell of the cold surfaces and candles was striking. Looking up it felt like the ceiling was miles away. I knew the Rose windows were important and seeing them in person felt weighty. Years later I visited Paris with some friends and we sat in front of the cathedral and drank wine, like we were in a coming-of-age film. It was like returning to an old haunt.
Reading the news and looking at the pictures brings back memories of the Glasgow School of Art fire(s)- another building I have a close, personal connection to. The sense of loss for a space that you hold dear is a strange one. Even if it’s not an everyday relationship, just knowing it’s there, stoically waiting for your next visit, is comforting.
I’ve always felt honoured to have been a part of a buildings life- especially one that has seen multiple tumultuous periods of history. It’s hard not to wonder what the meaning of this happening at this point of time is. So much is changing in the world at the moment. Is this foreshadowing? Did the building sense something coming and the fire was a desperate attempt to avoid bearing witness to it? How did it survive the French Revolution, WWI, WWII, and not some scaffolding and renovation?
I’m reminded of some apocalyptic movies I avoided watching, partly because they were terrible (2012 with John Cusack, I’m looking at you), but also because I can’t bear to think of a world without these monuments; these symbols that humans can make beautiful things, not just destruct the planet we inhabit.
It’s hard not to feel bleak, but I’m grateful I had the chance to visit it. I’m glad I got to be a part of its story.
My mother’s only visit to Europe was when she was eleven years old. She always felt different from her family. She always had a deep interest and passion for the arts, even when the rest of her family were uninterested. On this trip to Europe she spent a few days in Paris. She was taken by the food, the art, and the atmosphere. My mother had at that point lived in Kansas City her entire life. A city that was founded in 1838, nearly 700 years after the construction of Notre-Dame began. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been exposed to history, art, and holy spaces in her life. It was that she had not had the opportunity to experience history, art, and holiness in one building before. She has recounted to me her experience of walking inside Notre-Dame. She says it was the moment that she knew she was different from her family.
I visited Notre-Dame when I was 13. About 25 years after my mother had visited. It was a school trip. We walked around and learned about the history of the cathedral. We learned about the works of art. I was enamoured. I’ve never been particularly religious, but there was something undeniably holy about that building.
Last night I called my mother, and we cried.
(Photo by: Christophe Morin / Bloomberg)
Just like most people with an appreciation for Paris, for architecture, for history, for design, my heart broke at the news that Notre Dame was engulfed in fire. It was incredibly difficult, painful even, to watch 800 years of history ablaze, knowing that minute by minute irreparable damage was being done. Just like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world may have done, I cried, took a bubble bath, drank a glass of wine, and cried some more. I remembered the times I’ve visited Notre Dame, looked through old photos, cried some more, and asked my husband what it meant that any children we had wouldn’t get to experience this architecture and history in the same way we had.
I also became angry. Angry that the structure was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair that necessitated such extensive restoration. Angry that it seems as if this monument to medieval architecture was not appreciated and cared for until it was too late.
In the aftermath of this fire, there will surely be calls from every French politician and religious leader to figure out what caused the fire. Thousands of dollars and person-hours will be spent combing through the charred wreckage. But we don’t need a special investigation to find the cause of the fire – we already know what it is. It’s Neoliberalism and the Neoliberal agenda. Its the result of austerity, of governments systematically depriving cultural institutions and sites of funding. It is the result of a failed public-private funding partnership between the French Government and the Catholic Church (1). It is the disrepair that this lack of funding causes, the urgent restoration projects, undertaken far too late.
Notre Dame shares a story with the Brazilian Museu Nacional, destroyed by fire in 2018. Just like Notre Dame, the Museu Nacional was strapped for cash, and just like Notre Dame, had fallen into a state of disrepair (2). This sort of dilapidation would be less likely to happen if museums and national design treasures were properly funded by the state, if they were able to maintain funding at the level they need, and the level at which everyone working at and appreciating these sites, knows that they deserve. If we truly value these sites, if we want them to be around for our children, our grandchildren, for all the billions of people around the world who don’t yet have the financial means to visit them, we must ensure they are properly maintained. This means ensuring they have a steady source of public funding, under public control, and being run, being guided, with the public in mind.
Now that the Notre Dame, a piece of global cultural heritage, is a shell of its former self, hundreds of years of history permanently altered, billionaires are climbing out of the woodworks to pledge their support for rebuilding (3). French Politicians are pledging that the cathedral will, must be rebuilt, conveniently omitting how this will be paid for.
Will, like almost every museum in the western world, the new Notre Dame have a branded LVHM wing? A Yves Saint Laurent stained glass window? A L’Oréal spire? A Sackler altar? If we, as humans truly value the design, history, and experience of a building such as Notre Dame, it (and all other sites and items of importance) should be fully supported by the State. Individuals such as LVHM’s billionaire owner Bernard Arnault and Yves’ billionaire CEO François-Henri Pinault should still support such projects, just through set and regulated tax income, not their personal charitable whims.
Places like Notre Dame are far too important, far too rare, for their upkeep to be left to the chance that the mega rich will take an interest in them. Let’s not let what happened to the Museu Nacional, to Notre Dame, happen anywhere else.
As the French would say; Vive la (cultural funding) révolution.