It was like a kick in the stomach when I received a BBC alert on my phone last year in April, telling of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The Great Rose
I felt physically sick watching the news reports as the spire collapsed and the fire consumed those ancient timbers and who knows how much irreplaceable artwork. The drone shot of the entire cathedral roofless and blazing from end to end filled me with despair. I thought it was a total loss.
For those with a religious tie to the building, I guess their God was on holidays when he allowed one of the greatest monuments to him, on Earth to be almost completely destroyed.
My personal association with Notre Dame goes back a few years. I studied the cathedral’s north rose window, also called the Great Rose Window, in art class on my way to securing my “Leaving Certificate” — a credential that has passed into history in Ireland, but used to crown the successful completion of six years of secondary school.
My art teacher, who assigned me the Great Rose as my project, was an American-born hippie who stretched the curriculum to its absolute limit to give her students the most eclectic artistic experience possible. Architecture was not strictly on the syllabus, but the Department of Education had to accept it as an art form worthy of study.
Without actually travelling to Paris, I gathered as much information on my subject as was possible in those days long before the Internet.
The foundation stone for Notre Dame was laid in the year 1163 but the nave was not completed until 1250, and it took a few years more before the north rose window was finished in 1255, which happened to be approximately the crest of the High Middle Ages.
At one time I knew the exact diameter of that window, its radius, circumference, depth, load-bearing capacity, the number of fans radiating from the roundel, and exactly which images were contained in which spot. I remember drawing those images in as much detail as I could, all of them scenes from the life of Jesus and the angels and saints. Thanks to a BBC documentary, I even knew the songs that the masons and carpenters sang. I loved learning about it all, and I got an A+ in the exam.
Rose windows are a notable feature of Gothic cathedrals especially in northern France. At Notre Dame the north rose was the biggest and most intricate of three roses over three different portals. It became the standard by which all other Gothic rose windows were measured.
I recall some of the nomenclature, for example how there was the central roundel with spoke-like mullions radiating out, and at the outer edge were the spangles glittering around and underneath the work.
To have large glass windows piercing the walls of these great late medieval cathedrals was an incredible feat of engineering. The glazer and the engineer/stonemason would collaborate in calculating the expected load atop the rose and how far they could push its diameter without risking collapse. The window’s wheel shape helped to disperse the load pressing down. The mullions, despite their tracery-like quality, were excellent load-dispersal features.
The glassmakers of the time, using methods perhaps passed down to them, or perhaps newly discovered, achieved in their stained glass a breathtaking level of detail still crystal-clear to us after more than eight hundred years.
The individual pieces of glass were either formed in a molten state or cut to shape. Then the craftsmen mixed crushed coloured glass with wine or even urine to paint images and traceries on the glass, before heating it to an exact temperature to fix the images. They had a meticulous practical understanding of chemical reactions, though the kind of systematized knowledge such as in the Periodic Table might be far in the future.
Hold on a second! What was that about urine?
However the practice began, it is well recorded that a quick whizz had become part of the stained glass process. We should note that taking a pee on the construction site of a cathedral would not in itself be considered blasphemous. For believers, cathedrals only became holy sites once the buildings were completed and blessed into existence by the Archbishop, so no matter what you did on the site, no blasphemy would be possible until that time. It seems to me that, given some of the habits of medieval folk, worse things must have happened during the erection of these masterpieces. In any case, vinegar is used today instead of urine to mix the vitreous solution that is applied to the glass.
For all my fascination with Notre Dame, I visited the place only once, which was on a trip to France in 1979 for some totally different purpose. I couldn’t stay long, but I took advantage of my proximity to Paris to go visit the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course Notre Dame. I parked in St-Denis, just outside Paris, and took a cab.
I think that in recent times people had to buy tickets online and visit Notre Dame at specific hours, but back then I just got out of the taxi, looked up at the Gothic arched doors, the two bell towers and the rose window, breathed in their magnificence, and walked straight in.
It took my breath away to see it in person. Despite the thousands of tonnes of concrete and masonry the structure looked light — to my eyes, not quite floating but not quite rooted to the spot either.
Inside is where the floatiness and the heavenly vault shot through with light is most apparent. I sat quietly, drinking in the history and the smell of the old timber and marvelling at the structure. The light seemed to come from everywhere, not just from the rose windows but also from other Gothic arched windows punctuated all along the central nave. One does have a sensation of floating in the vault of heaven — even for an atheist like myself. (Actually I was agnostic at that time.)
I stood for several minutes staring up at the North Rose, my rose, recalling all my sketches and descriptions, keeping in mind that I was someone who had never seen it live until now, and I said to myself, yes, I pretty much nailed it.
Rose windows in the Gothic age were a statement. You have to remember that churches prior to that time, for the most part categorized as Romanesque architecture, were solid, thick-walled structures with small windows, producing dark heavy interiors not especially conducive to the transcendent euphoria associated with Christianity, with Heaven, with God!
In contrast, the French Style, later termed Gothic, sought to give worshippers a glimpse of Heaven, a hint at the reason they suffered in this life, a peep at the afterlife, an intimation of the beauty of being in the presence of God.
The builders of this period, no doubt encouraged by local ecclesiastical heads such as the famous Abbé Suger of St-Denis, demanded more and more flamboyance and the pushing out of boundaries. Extreme veneration was the order of the day. The engineering initiatives of the French Style — the flying buttresses, the unbelievably high vaulted ceilings, the thin walls pierced with vast expanses of coloured glass depicting Biblical scenes, the interior flooded with light — all allowed the worshippers, almost entirely illiterate, to experience Heaven on Earth.
I grieve for this building from an architectural, artistic, and cultural point of view. Notre Dame belongs to Europe.
As a cultural icon it has no peer and its loss would have been inestimable. Try to imagine Rome without St Peter’s or London without Westminster.
It’s incredible that the fire brigade managed to save so much. All three rose windows were saved, as I understand. It looks like the builders in the thirteenth century built their cathedrals to last. Okay, we have heard estimates of a billion euros and fifteen years to clean up and renovate, but at least there is something substantial upon which to build.
The ashes will be raked through forensically, and only when they are sure that all that is saveable has been saved will the reconstruction begin. Perhaps decades of painstaking labour lie ahead, but it has to be done. Notre-Dame must be given back to Europe.