When the great Catholic cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, caught fire on April 15, 2019, it was a sight that elicited astounding silence. People stood watching helplessly as the roof and the spire burned. The cathedral is not just a religious and sacred symbol but also one of Paris, attracting tourists from around the world.
The renovation of Notre-Dame has commenced and there are serious problems with how the reconstruction will proceed. France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission has approved the latest proposals for restoration, but it appears these are not exactly historically appropriate approaches. These include changing the direction of the “tabernacle and other items to create more room for visitors,” “installation of contemporary artworks,” and possibly “light projections on the walls of some chapels that would display short text excerpts from the Bible” all in an effort to “allow for an easier and more pleasant visit to the religious monument and a create a dialogue between Notre-Dame’s medieval architecture and new, more modern features.”
If you think that these proposals are coming from a bunch of woke atheists, think again. These ideas originate in the Catholic archdiocese of Paris, and come directly from the rector of Notre-Dame, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet. It is representative of the sad state of affairs within the Catholic Church as her shepherds exhibit a kind of theological and aesthetic confusion. The criticism of the approved changes is not without merit, but is this just a question of incredibly tacky and kitschy choices devoid of architectural and artistic knowledge, or is there something far more morally corrupt at play here?
Notre-Dame de Paris has had a long history of desecration. Construction began in 1163 and was mostly complete by 1260, yet the cathedral has gone through many changes. Some have been quite serious, others appear to be exercises in aesthetic and cultural ignorance.
In 1793, the cathedral went through a major desecration when it was changed to the “Cult of Reason,” and later to the “Cult of the Supreme Being.” Most of the sculptures and artwork were either relocated or destroyed, and for some time, the “Goddess of Liberty” was put in place of the Virgin Mary.
Under Napoleon’s rule, the cathedral became a church again, but even then some of the restorations reflected the architectural style that was fashionable at the time. Later, under the cultural ministry of André Malraux, the cathedral’s exterior was restored to its original color.
I present this brief historical tour not to minimize the current aesthetic assault on the cathedral but to point to human fallibility. For better or worse, we are firmly planted in the times in which we live, and given that immediate and sensory knowledge, we are made up of the temporal elements that surround us.
Of course, to deny the past or to approach it with an attitude of destruction, always eager to “start from zero,” is to deny our very humanity. Those who came before us and who have engaged in the highest of human endeavors, such as building a cathedral, deserve recognition, respect, admiration, and awe. Such buildings were built soli Deo gloria—for the glory of God alone—and what kind of human beings are we, if we do not recognize the past feats of architectural, artistic, and creative life-affirming spirit? Have we forgotten to look with wonderment at beauty? Such things elevate human life and dignity, and in many ways, the essence of Notre-Dame de Paris is that it represents that worldview, which didn’t simply include chronological temporality, but also theological order of things.
Life was ordered according to theological principles of creation, and there was a sense that spiritual harmony could exist, and does exist. It is not my purpose to idealize the Middle Ages; however, philosophically speaking, the nihilism of today was nowhere to be found then. The idea of an individualistic person was unheard of, and the structure of the society was oriented toward community. More than anything, the Middle Ages were filled with clear philosophical and theological definitions and categories, something we are sorely lacking in our current anxiety-filled world. We don’t seem to understand the difference between the sacred and the profane, and intellectual clarity is not a priority in our banal world of discourse.
Given all of this, why has the leadership of Notre-Dame chosen to pour such a milquetoast and unglorified vision into the sacred spires of the cathedral? Why focus so much on the visitors and not the faithful of the cathedral? Is the rector of Notre-Dame facing a problem of faithlessness? Is the number of parishoners decreasing and the cathedral losing its place in the modern world? But if this is so, shouldn’t the diocese reject the zeitgeist and focus on the tradition and preservation of the past?
(Thankfully, it appears that there will be no structural changes to the cathedral, only bad aesthetic choices which can always be reversed later).
We are imperfect and fallible even in our faith, but this doesn’t mean that we ought to let go of the theological principles that animate the soul of the sacred space. This is not merely about a building that needs to be repaired. The space need not be only a literal, built environment but also the spiritual rooms of the human soul. We ought to be inspired by the spaces we inhabit. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin, inspirare, meaning “to breathe into.” Are we breathing life into the exterior and interior spaces of our world, or are we mindlessly passing through the burdensome mediocrity of our alienating times?