The fire at Notre Dame de Paris: a symbolic event

15 April 2019

On the 15th of April 2019, as by now the whole planet knows through the media and the internet, a fire burnt down all but the stone walls of the Paris cathedral. This is not the place to debate the factual causes, which are not known for certain yet, and may never be told, but it should all the same be noted that the fire broke out at the beginning of the Easter holy week.

To some extent, the cause is unimportant. It is the symbol that matters, and as we know the word comes from συμβάλλεσθαι, or “to put together”, to associate. Notre Dame de Paris is indeed one of the most obvious symbols of Christianity, and by extension of the European civilization. It is not the most ancient, nor perhaps the most beautiful of the great cathedrals of Europe; it is neither the tallest nor the longest; it is the seat of an ordinary archdiocese like many others.

Notre Dame commands a hefty 4.9 stars on Google, the same as a good Uber driver, but 4.5 on Tripadvisor, just like Hotel Esmeralda nearby, or the La Madeleine church, also in Paris. Comments range from “not sure what the fuss is all about” to a more comforting “worth a quick look”, and culminating with a magnificently spiritual “Lovely cathedral near the Louvre (note the useful geographic tip). Free entry but a fee to go into the crypt or tower (that is the “money for value” thing. You need to watch your back these days)“, written by a person under the name makethemostoflife, if you can believe that. As a lady from Baltimore will tell you, “it looked really cool at night (I went during the day)”. It must be admitted that many find the place a bit too dark inside, so that you should excuse the lady from Baltimore; and that is without the stain glass that originally ornated the lower windows, but were mercifully replaced by white glass, probably by Pierre Le Vieil who must have had the intuition of future travellers’ distress, although he died in 1772. One may indeed dispute the impact of a dark background on the quality of selfies, a sinfully neglected issue; on balance, it brightens the face of the selfied too much. After all, 4.5 is pretty fair.

Let me tell you that the Luxor temple does not fare better or worse, despite the fact that it is not so dark: also 4.5, but too many bits and pieces are missing. And the Colosseum too, 4.5, although you would think that these gladiators would generate more thrill, even retrospectively, than boring statues of saints; but alas, many bits and pieces are missing and gladiators are not everybody’s taste. So 4.5 is a pretty hard ceiling to break. But feasible: the mausoleum of Atatürk in Ankara has a 5, yes, which tells you that good old neo-mussolinian architecture with soldiers all around has an appeal, and rightly so.

We are told that approximately thirteen million people visit the cathedral each year. If you ask yourself why all this enthusiasm, Tripadvisor will again give you the answer you were looking for, repeated through hundreds of comments: “it is a must see”. You just need to tick that box, folks.

The reason I indulge in the exploration of these elaborate comments is not to replace beauty by an arithmetic mean of individual judgements, which is probably what artificial intelligence would be programmed to do. Nor is it to make fun of tourists, whose level of education is on average significantly higher than that of the inhabitants of Paris in the 13th century. It is to stress the fact that Notre Dame is a giant book which very few people now wish to read, and therefore equip themselves to read; a voice with few listeners. It is a grandiose background against which people like to see themselves. It could be the Pyramids, or the Colosseum, or the Great Wall of China; just different sources of wow.  A “wowmaker”, or if you prefer Latin etymology to old German, a wowfactor. The monument speaks a language which is mostly forgotten, and which is the language of a disappearing civilization; it is that disappearance which the flames signal. No act of God, of course, but a symbol. I mean in this particular case the projection on an event of what many thousands of people feel, or vaguely know, without necessarily expressing it. A historian writes in the newspaper Le Monde, better known for its ideological inclinations than for its clear-sightedness, an article with an interesting title: “The flames of Notre Dame, it is our world that burns”. In the article, carried away by the topic, she writes in a firework of confusion: “It is the Collapse…that of biodiversity, the end of western liberal democracies.” There is always a risk of being carried away from your specialization in medieval history into unfamiliar territories, but the word “collapse” is not irrelevant. As a matter of fact, what is collapsing is the bearing structure of a civilization of which liberal democracies are but one, limited, aspect.

The losses are of course material: the frame which burnt down entirely was made in 1220 – 1240 from oaks themselves planted in the year 1000, replacing a first frame made less than a century before; it was certainly one of the most extraordinary works of intact carpentry surviving in the world, and it will most probably not be rebuilt; this is not because the know-how to do so has disappeared, it is because the time-horizon of our culture is now too short, the patience too scarce, the point of the effort lost. Another irreparable loss is the wooden wall sculpted by Pierre de Chelle, Jean Ravy et Jean Le Bouteiller between 1300 and 1350, and illustrating the life of Jesus, which separated the choir from the ambulatory.

Let us take the sad circumstance of this disaster to remind ourselves of what is the world view that has burnt, other than wood and relics and sculptures.

In 1419, an Italian acquired a Greek manuscript of the Hieroglyphica written by a man known as Horapollus, who described himself as Egyptian; the book is probably a Hellenistic compilation of texts about the meaning of hieroglyphs. When Horapollus writes, or is deemed to have written, all knowledge of the ancient Egyptian writings had been lost long ago. After the Greek conquest of Egypt, the ancient traditions waned, and only a group of priests kept alive the understanding and practice of the holy writings within the precinct of some temples. These priests developed an ever more complex system, mixing ideographic and phonetic components through elaborate permutations. It was inevitable perhaps that this would later translate into a feeling of secret meanings and revelations hidden behind the appearance of the writings. Horapollus, who probably did not master himself the language but wrote by hearsay, discussed the interpretation of certain hieroglyphs giving thus a hint of the depth of meanings that might be concealed. The Hieroglyphica became immensely successful among Renaissance intellectuals, as if a source of ancient Egyptian wisdom.

The story of the Hieroglyphica is interesting in the sense that, by the Vth century, the whole mental world of Ancient Egypt had become impossible to understand, but open to elaborate speculation in the light of other world views, ranging from alchemy to neo-platonic philosophy. The same occurs today: the entire conceptual edifice of Christianity, which has structured European civilization for centuries through the prism of Greek philosophical concepts – including through the construction of the individual, or unexpected secular offshoots such as the socialist ideologies of the 19th century – is becoming illegible. The strata of meanings intertwined on the walls and in the statuary of the cathedrals already reached the state of hieroglyphs. Most of today’s teachers have no clue about the history, theology and philosophy of Christianity, and either keep silent in this regard, or impose on unsuspecting pupils the most trivial and nonsensical prejudices.

Gothic architecture has been, and to some extent continue to be, the object of a major dispute among its interpreters, which is fundamentally an ideological dispute. It is understandable, as this architectural style is so obviously rooted in a spiritual mindset, and so obviously aims at the elevation of the human soul, if one accepts the term, that all the rationalist “hardliners” of the 19th and 20th century have found it difficult to swallow the idea, and strived to bring it down to its engineering prowess. The most illustrious of these rationalists is Viollet-le-Duc, who dreamt of a society which is “secular, egalitarian, rationalist and progressive”, just as we do today. He admired gothic architects for having invented architectural principles and methods which “set us on the path of modernity, that of unending progress”; and, for this line of thought, these light structures and “screen walls” allowing for wide openings, based on a thorough mastering of the forces at work in the building, of which the prototype is the Chartres cathedral or, later, the Sainte Chapelle, will find their development with new materials in the Bauhaus building by Gropius (1926), and later in the work of Mies van de Rohe.

The other view does not negate the rational underpinnings of gothic architecture (or any architecture for that matter, as it has to stand…), but acknowledges that, given a set of existing techniques and materials, the creation of a form takes into account and manifests social, intellectual and, in the case of religious buildings, spiritual or theological drivers.  

As underlined by Erwin Panofsky, Early Gothic Architecture and Early Scholasticism were born together, in Paris and its surrounding region, wherefrom they later expanded, with an influence of the latter on the former. Early Scholasticism attempted, and ultimately started to create, with logicians and theologians such as Gilbert de la Porrée († 1154) and the great Abélard († 1142), the intellectual instruments required to resolve the conflict between faith and reason. The Ecole de Chartres, where Gilbert de la Porrée taught, was one of the most remarkable educational institution of Europe in the late 11th and 12th centuries; it examined and built upon the correspondences between Greek philosophy and Christianity, with a particular interest for the Pythagorean elements of Plato’s writings, known only indirectly through Boethius and Macrobius. Importantly, the Ecole de Chartres will rediscover Aristoteles, which will have a major impact on the evolution of what is known as Scholasticism.

Later, around the second half of the 12th century, the tide began to turn, with the progressive translation of Aristoteles by Arab and Jewish philosophers or the translations made by Gherardo da Cremona in Toledo, and then the translation of the works of Aristoteles into Latin by Albert the Great, the master of Thomas Aquinas. Building on the philosophy of Aristoteles, scholastics viewed the soul as an organizing principle of the body rather than an independent substance, and the thought that the existence of God can be demonstrated through the observation of its creation, rather than postulated ex ante, made its way.  The effort culminated during the reign of Saint Louis (1226 – 1270) with two giants, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. By then, the cathedral schools, universities and studia of Mendicant Orders, which all appeared in the early 13th century, were the only sources of education, and they all professed scholasticism.

One could venture to say that the gothic architecture was born from neo-platonic, Pythagorean roots expressed in a theology of light, and later evolved – under the impulse of a Scholasticism more open to the idea of an organic development of Nature – into a greater complexity of forms, while elaborating an iconography based on the careful observation of nature. The abbé Suger, one of the towering figures of the 12th century, became abbot of Saint Denis in 1122 where he commissioned the reconstruction of the church which is widely considered as a “prototype” of gothic art, although it was certainly not the only one: the cathedral of Sens, which construction started in 1140 under the impulse of Henri Sanglier, is possibly more original. Suger also served in a political role as an adviser to King Louis VI, and subsequently Louis VII; he was regent of France during the second Crusade (1147 – 1149). He elaborated his views about art after reading a translation of Dionysius the Aeropagite, also called “Pseudo Dionysos”, who combined the neo-platonic doctrines of Plotinus and Proclus with those of Christianity. According to Dionysius, the human spirit can ascend to non-material truth under the guidance of material   intermediaries, because all visible things are material lights reflecting “intelligible” lights, and ultimately the vera lux, the light of God himself. Reason “climbs” so to speak from the observation of any object in nature, a rock or a plant, and is illuminated by its structure, its perfection, its internal logic, so as to reach up to a higher plane. When the mind lets itself be elevated by the harmony which is the criteria of terrestrial beauty, it is guided towards the transcendental cause of this harmony, which is God. It is the “anagogic path” (anagogicus mos). The idea of God as source of light is very ancient indeed. From the light of the platonic Good which generates the Ideas to Proclus and Saint Augustine, then mediated by the Pseudo-Dionysius, it will inform Scholasticism. The Middle Ages will make light the key metaphor of any spiritual quest.

The Pseudo-Dionysos has possibly written the most influential synthesis of neo-platonic inspiration with his De divinis nominibus, where the universe appears as an endless irradiation of beauties, a manifestation of the diffusion of the original beauty which is the source of all harmony, as if divine Beauty were light : “ad similitudinem luminis”. in his De divisione naturae, John Scotius Eriugena will interpret the universe as a revelation of God and its ineffable beauty, rendered visible through all ideal and corporal beauties; no medieval author will fail to reflect this general concept, and a theory of aesthetics will progressively be elaborated from its premises, reconnecting it to the Greek view of a conjunction between beauty and virtue: kalos kai agathos.

Also Greek is the idea that harmony, or proportion (the Latin congruentia), is at the root of all beauty, hence the analogy of a musical structure of the universe that will permeate aesthetics and philosophy during centuries. Ultimately, this quantitative conception of beauty found its dogmatic expression in the Canon of Polycletus, of which only a fragment is know to us, and which states that “beauty proceeds, little by little, from a quantity of numbers”. Galienus, who summarized the Canon, added that “beauty does not consist of the elements themselves but in a harmonious proportion of the parts” (Placita Hippocratis et Platonis). Through Boetius, the Pythagorean aesthetics of proportion embodied in a theory of music will reach the Middle Ages, and acquire the value of a dogma. Human souls and bodies are subject to the same laws that govern music, which themselves mirror the harmony of the cosmos. The microcosm and the macrocosm are united by the same mathematical and aesthetic proportions, and humans will feel pleasure from any manifestation of that divine proportion. The School of Chartres will develop this idea, and introduce Nature as an organic mediator, not a mere mathematical deduction, between this cosmic order which is the work of God and actual things created. Alain de Lille will write of Nature: “O child of God, and mother of things, link of the universe, and stable concatenation…” (in De Planctu naturae).

Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, will elaborate on the link between the metaphysics and the aesthetics of light and proportion. He defines light as the main and most perfect proportion, that which is proportioned to itself: “Quapropter maxime unita et ad se per aequalitatem concordissime proportionate…” (Which is why its is united and proportioned to itself in the most harmonious manner thanks to equality, in In Hexaëmeron).

But light is also colour, which represents in a sense the sensitive – perhaps one should write sensual – aspect of reality. The medieval taste goes to simple, immediate, well defined, bright colours, as evidenced by miniatures. Colour are not mixed together, they do not overlap: they stand next to the other, for which stain glass is ideally fit. Saint Bonaventure, under the influence of Aristoteles, will understand colour as born from the meeting of pure, celestial light, on the one hand, and that sort of light which is incorporated into the object itself, which in a way makes celestial light visible as a splendour of creation.

A turning point of the theory of beauty will appear during the period when most great gothic cathedrals were built; it is embodied in a text known as the Summa fratris Alexandri, and written by three Franciscan friars around or before 1245: beauty depends on the form of an object and on its effect on the knowing subject, rather than being exclusively a result of God’s creation, independently of any external interaction. But by then, all the major cathedrals had been built, and the style of late gothic will differ markedly. A testimony of this is Rouen, where the cathedral famously painted by Monet which stands today – as the previous one consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror burnt in 1200, and a new building again in 1284 – gives an impression of profusion rather than musical harmony.

It is this metaphysics of light that Suger will implement for the first time in his abbey at Saint Denis, which dated back to the times of king Dagobert (≈ 602 – 639), and which he had entirely reconstructed. Suger gathered artists from every region of the kingdom, to reach a new synthesis that would become gothic architecture; major innovations such as the rose window on the western façade happened there for the first time, and larger openings made possible by the new structure of the building considerably enhanced the role of light. Although he was not an artist, Suger played a major role in commissioning – at great expense – this laboratory of forms that was Saint Denis. God sheds his light on all creatures, light is the irradiation of God’s grace, it is that through which matter and spirit meet. “Let the soul seek light by following light”, writes Bernard de Clairvaux. Hence the importance of wider openings made possible by Gothic architecture, the importance of stain glass which gives glorious, gem-like tones to the history of salvation.

Mathematics was the queen of all the liberal arts, from a Pythagorean perspective, a science which allowed to approach divinity. It had obvious connections with astronomy, a reflection of God’s creation, and with music, a reflection of God’s harmony. Each number was a clear symbol of a deeper truth: the number one meant God, two meant Christ where human and divine natures meet; three the Trinity; four the totality of the manifested world, the four elements, the four directions, but also the four evangelists, the four cardinal virtues, and the four rivers of Paradise, to name but a few; five, a symbol of the accomplished Man as well as of divine love, and so on. The number speaks of the analogy of all that is visible with the invisible, in particular through the proportions which are heard in music or observed in buildings. On the tympanum of Moissac, the 24 elders who symbolise the 24 books of the Old Testament hold music instruments to sing the glory of God. Music and prayer go together, as music brings you closer to the divinity through its harmonious proportions. The cathedral is also a school of rigor; its plan, subdivisions and proportions all represent the order and structure of the divine creation, as much as its harmony.

Scholasticism exacerbated the principle of transparency through it urge to classify, divide and subdivide, explain in the light of reason. Let us read Panofsky: “Like the Summa of classic scholasticism, the classic cathedral aims above all at the totality, and tends as a consequence…to a perfect and ultimate solution…the classic cathedral seeks to embody the full Christian knowledge, theological, natural, and historical by putting everything in its place…achieving a new equilibrium between the basilical plan and the central plan.”

As pointed out by Umberto Eco, “the 13th century ends up rooting its conception of beauty on “hylemorphic” (from hyle, matter) bases, and…elaborates a convergence between physical and metaphysical beauty stemming from the aesthetics of proportion and light”.

One additional element needs to be taken into account, and that is the symbolic-allegoric dimension of the universe. One finds in the commentators of Dionysos the Aeropagite the idea that the universe should be read as a symbolic text, and that texts themselves are symbols of another sub- or meta-text; in particular, the Old Testament is an emblem of the New Testament. The Middle Ages live by the words of Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Corinthians: “Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate, tunc autem facie ad faciem”. We only see today through an obscured mirror and by enigma, but then we shall see all face to face. At the time when cathedrals were built, man saw hidden or additional meanings in every reality, everting manifested God either directly or through signs.

Through each and every aspect of nature, God expresses and explains the purpose of its creation, and the path to be followed. Hugues de Saint Victor will write in De triebus diebus that the world is like a book written by God’s finger. For who can read it, Creation is the rulebook of the creatures. Because not everyone could read this book, and draw the right lessons from their observation of Nature, clerics and theologians set out to make it clearer through the right symbols and images. Images, forms, and all that we today call art, will be the textbook created to make the path of wisdom, higher realities, more accessible, or at least perceptible to the intuition of simple people. Allegory is the process of translation of such higher realities into perceptible signs, but it also establishes a general correspondence among all things by identifying and extracting common attributes or properties between to related entities, while maintaining a considerable degree of polysemy. The snake is prudence, but also Satan; Christ can be symbolised by a peacock, a lamb, a dove.     

One often tends to reduce gothic architecture to the generalisation of the pointed arch, and some other formal elements; this is a gross over-simplification from the formal perspective, but one which also stems from an ideological attitude. Of course, form does not appear suddenly from nowhere. Before reaching its maturity, the pointed arch had been experimented in many places, both in Europe and in the Orient, and was found better suited than the semi-circular arch to reduce the pushing force of the structure on the walls. But gothic architecture is a whole, it is a complex of evolving worldviews embedded into an art form.

This is not the place to analyse in any detail the complexity of meanings and symbols which were built and carved and painted in Notre Dame. It would require a very long article indeed. Suffice it to say that it is a book worth reading. At least as an alternative to the crass vulgarity of Charlie Hebdo’s front page, showing President Macron’s head as the burning cathedral’s façade with the comment: “Reforms: I start from the roof”. They already reached the cellar.

Meanwhile, the culture we are trying to give a glimpse into resembles more and more the Interior of the Ruins of an Abbey, painted by Hippolyte Sebron in 1848…

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