Notre-Dame cathedral, then and now
Nora McGreevy | Wednesday, April 24, 2019
In the Middle Ages, a group of composers in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame invented a new kind of sound: polyphony. Compared to the monophonic Gregorian chants of years prior, this new music consisted of multiple overlapping voices moving in distinct yet interwoven melodies. The innovation resonated throughout Western music for centuries.
Like those medieval artists, Daniel Hobbins, an associate professor of history at Notre Dame, has also sung in the cathedral, although under slightly different circumstances — it was 1999, with a liturgical choir, and “we were mostly just backdrop for the tourists,” he recalls.
Still, Hobbins cherishes the time that he spent inside the cathedral, as he — like most people — isn’t quite sure when he will be able to visit again.
On the evening of April 15, a fire burned down most of the roof and the spire of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. The next day, President Fr. John Jenkins announced that the University will donate $100,000 to the renovation efforts.
In the wake of the fire, scholars of medieval history, art and preservation on Notre Dame’s campus — as well as the casual observer — turn to consider the long view of the cathedral and its history.
Since the medieval period, the cathedral has been widely recognized as the epitome of Gothic architecture. Bishop Maurice de Sully began construction on Notre-Dame cathedral in 1163 to replace the former Romanesque structure. Marius Hauknes, an associate professor of art history at Notre Dame who specializes in medieval Italian art history, notes how its gravity-defying vaulted ceilings were meant to imply a kind of transcendence.
“This is a place that you can go into — in a metaphorical way, to enter into a different realm,” Hauknes says.
Krupali Krusche, an associate dean in Notre Dame’s architecture school who specializes in the digital preservation of World Heritage sites, notes that the Gothic cathedral was the height of innovation in the Middle Ages, akin to the skyscraper in modern times or the domed churches of the Renaissance.
“The builders wanted to create a sense of being light, and a sense of reaching toward the heavens,” she says. Medieval architects designed thinner walls and installed flying buttresses around the cathedral’s exterior, which “allow the walls just to float, and create a sense of lightness and spaciousness.”
Over its long life, parts of the building crumbled and were restored. The most notable restoration took place in the 19th century, when the wooden spire that fell during Monday’s fire was constructed.
“In that sense, it’s a really great example of how complex the lives of such buildings were,” Hauknes says. “They are constantly being restored and repaired and added to and things like that.”
Even beyond its architecture, Notre-Dame’s significance and its status as a World Heritage site lay in its 800-year history. The building witnessed the Hundred Years’ War, the coronation of Napoleon in 1804 and the French Revolution, to name just a few bullet points in its lengthy historical highlight reel.
Over the centuries, the cathedral accrued a collection of prized objects: its relics, including the crown of thorns — believed to be the one that Jesus Christ wore during his crucifixion — and the relics of St. Denis and St. Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris. An 18th-century organ with more than 8,000 pipes and three enormous “rose” stained glass windows also number among the crown jewels of the cathedral itself.
“Even though they’re not part of the fabric, so to speak of the building, they are,” Hobbins says. “Because they’re tied up in the history of that place.”
Notre-Dame’s fire comes in the wake of centuries of global cultural loss, Krusche says, including a few in recent memory: the destruction of World Heritage sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and the fire in Brazil’s National Museum. When it comes to iconic landmarks like these, “it’s more than a building,” Krusche says. “It’s how people connect to it.”
“In some ways, it seems very medieval,” Hauknes says, referencing the many fires that occurred throughout the period. “But you read about so many churches that burned, and then were rebuilt. So there’s something symbolic there as well.”
This week, students in Notre Dame’s architecture study abroad program in Rome will visit Paris on a group field trip. Normally, their trip would include a tour of the cathedral; now, they’ll be constrained to the outside and parts undamaged by the fire. Krusche hopes that this generation of students and architects think carefully about how to reconstruct the cathedral, and “channel their energy into the conservation of other places as well,” she says. “I want this building to be available for the next generations.”