Thursday, April 18, 2019

Paris: Reflection on the destruction in France

Seeing a cathedral burn

I spent much of Monday evening staring at the television screen, in silence like most of the watchers in Paris, as the cathedral of Notre-Dame burned. I kept thinking of an essay by the American writer Guy Davenport* in which he describes the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who was descended from the carvers who worked at Chartres. During World War I, Gaudier watched in northern France as a cathedral caught fire, and he saw ‘great globs of lead’ falling from the cathedral roof on to the floor below. For Davenport, watching a cathedral burn was a symbol for the disintegration of civilisation that occurred during World War I: nothing afterwards was ever quite the same. This notion got somewhere near suggesting how important medieval cathedrals are in European culture, and the Gothic cathedrals of France especially. It was in France – at St Denis, north of Paris – that Gothic began, and the style spread, thanks to the advocacy of churchmen and stone masons, across the continent, as the ideas of western Christendom spread. Gothic was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for many architects was the essence of architecture, and of church architecture especially. Of all French architects, perhaps the greatest 19th-century advocate of Gothic was the magnificently named Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who restored Notre Dame and built the slender central spire that was destroyed this week.

Viollet’s work was a reminder that the medieval cathedrals have been subject to repair and restoration almost as long as they have existed. Monday’s fire was terrible, but it was one in a catalogue of mishaps and disasters from which these buildings have often recovered. In Britain we think of the fire at York, the damage caused to Coventry in the blitz, the destruction of old St Paul’s in London’s ‘Great Fire’, itself one of a succession of city fires. York represented a recovery; Coventry the survival of a ruin and a spire; St Paul’s destruction, but a destruction that brought into being Wren’s magnificent 17th-century cathedral, a resurrection of a different kind, as Wren himself proclaimed.

The medieval cathedrals often survive, because their structures are built mainly of stone, which can certainly be damaged by fire and be badly affected by smoke and fire-fighters’ water, but which is more resilient than flammable wood and lead, the materials used in their roofs. So as I watched the television I kept hoping that, once the wooden parts had been consumed, once the ‘globs’ of lead had fallen, the stonework would not be too badly affected and that perhaps even the stained glass might escape at least in part. Then we would not need quite yet to contemplate the vision in a poem by Gérard de Nerval, in which he foresees a moment, in some future millennium, when time has laid waste to Notre-Dame and all we have to contemplate is a magnificent ruin, through which we can imagine the old cathedral, ‘like the shade of one dead’.† My hopes may have been justified. It’s far too soon to know how much damage there has been to the stonework. But a lot of the stone vault is still there – surveyors will be watching it like hawks in the coming days and weeks. The twin west towers still stand, and the stone skeleton of walls, columns, and buttresses seems largely complete. There’s even glass in some of the windows. It’s enough to give one hope.

Another thought I had was that restoring the building would have to be a vast project of collaboration. The French would of course be the prime movers in this, and they don’t lack expertise, experience, or skill. But if people from other countries could take a hand too then something might be gained among the losses. So I was heartened to hear what President Macron had to say about restoring the cathedral (though I questioned his five-year target for the project§), and pleased to see that offers are already coming in from a range of places – with estates in England setting aside oak trees, with offers of expert help coming from the Czech Republic, to mention only two examples from countries with which I’m connected. Such a coming together, reflecting the coming together of international talent that produced the medieval cathedrals in the first place, would be heartening and valuable. If all this comes good, we won’t be looking at Nerval’s ‘shade of one dead’ for too long. We’ll be acknowledging that a building 850 years old has to be conserved, and has to be occasionally renewed. Instead of a shade, we’ll be marvelling at one of the very greatest medieval buildings, arguably the best of the Gothic cathedrals and one of the first, the one Ruskin dubbed the noblest of them all.¶ And, disaster that the fire has been, we’ll not be experiencing the worst consequence of seeing a cathedral burn.

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Photograph: AP.

* The essay is in The Geography of the Imagination (Picador, London, 1984). The cathedral would have been Reims, as suggested by an anonymous commenter to this blog and as I have now confirmed by checking in H. S. Ede’s book Savage Messiah, his account of Gaudier’s work and short life.

 † Notre-Dame is one of those buildings with a literature of its own. There is, most famously, the book by Victor Hugo that we Anglophones call The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (simply Notre Dame de Paris in French), which Nerval refers to as ‘le livre de Victor’ – we know which book he means. There are bits of Henry James (a wonderful response from Strether in The Ambassadors); there’s Nerval’s poem, another by Théophile Gautier, another by D G Rossetti, to name but some. There’s a selection in the magazine Apollo, illustrated with paintings and prints, here. I use Geoffrey Wagner’s 1958 translations of Nerval, in an edition that also includes the original French text.

§ Big restoration projects take years; conservationists can debate for months about a handful of decisions; everyone will brawl about new designs for the spire, maybe for years. But a spirit of collaboration could still work. We’ll see.

¶ In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1855, he said that the building’s Gothic architecture was the noblest of all.


bazza said...

I found Macron's statement really surprising as Notre Dame took around 200 years to build. What really interests me is the burgeoning debate on whether modern or traditional techniques and materials would be used. What's you view Philip? Your article is one of the best I read on this topic (and I have read plenty!)
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s crazily comely Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

George said...

I tracked down the story in The Geography of the Imagination after failing to find it in The Pound Era, by Davenport's friend Hugh Kenner. Do you have any idea which cathedral Gaudier saw burn? I haven't a copy of Gaudier-Brzeska, from which I assume the story comes, and don't know where the battle line would have been in November 1914, which I think Davenport gives as the date.

I trust that the restorers will use steel rather than timber above the vaults. I hope that the restoration work will be informed more than adventurous. But really I am not qualified to give an opinion on architecture.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Only with reluctance, it seems, have commentators remarked that Notre Dame is a living, breathing, daily-renewing Catholic church. I bought my wife a rosary there. Some cathedrals, alas, and nearly every ruined abbey, are architecture without function, which is rather sad. Notre Dame must be about the biggest, tallest church I've ever been in - and I've been in quite a few. Visitors getting in for free, and walking through in a solid crocodile, visitors from every "tribe and language" experiencing the very heart of the heritage of Europe. It could easily have been a ruin, like Glastonbury Abbey, where you have to pay a big fee just to get in, and really poor people, or those with large families, are excluded. I suggest the best way to preserve such things, and make them available to all, is to have somebody worshipping in there. What a wonderful space for singing in.

Anonymous said...

Gaudier-Brzeska: I believe it was Reims Cathedral, which burned down in September 1914. But did Gaudier-Brzeska actually see it in person?

The impact of Reims cathedral burning down paralleled the destruction of the library at Louvain. Remember Belgium!

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: I'm so pleased that there are people who read this blog who know who Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner are! Both Davenport's collection of essays and Kenner's The Pound Era are books that mean a lot to me and have been with me for years. Talking about the cathedral with a French friend, we thought the building concerned might have been Amiens, which certainly sustained damage to the roof in this war.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: The effect inside Notre Dame is – or was – awesome, and yes, it's cavernous. Amiens is slightly bigger and higher, Beavais higher still but incomplete so smaller overall.

Our media don't know what to make of religion in France, and even in England most news people have no idea how Anglican cathedrals are organized. To be fair, though, the reports about Notre Dame that I read and heard paid due regard to the fact that it's a Catholic church and that many had expected to celebrate Easter there. I quite agree that the building's free access, in contrast to the entrance charges levied in many cathedrals here, is admirable. As a teenager, exploring English cathedrals for the first time on a very small budget indeed, I'd have been excluded from most if they'd charged. Of the ones I could get to, only Salisbury wanted me to pay to get in. I forked out, and forwent refreshments!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Anyone would need to think hard about the traditional v modern materials debate in this case. In principle, I support the SPAB in its embracing of traditional materials and techniques in old, historically important buildings. But in some cases, perhaps in places like hidden roof spaces, the use of more modern fireproof materials could be justified.

As for the replacement spire, I hope whoever gets the job treats it with tact. This is a Gothic building and Viollet had the right idea with his 19th century spire. But one doesn't need to follow his design slavishly.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Correction, 23 April 2019: The cathedral that Gaudier-Brzeska saw burning would have been Reims, as the anonymous writer suggests above. I've looked it up in Jim Ede's book Savage Messiah, in which he quotes a letter of Gaudier's, to the srtist's father, dated 9 November 1914. In the letter, Gaudier describes being in front of 'the town sacred to the kings' and that the cathedral there burned 'in front of my eyes'. Most of Rance's kings were crowned in Reims cathedral.