Notre Dame Cathedral

Why cathedrals like Notre Dame are not a vainglorious extravagance

Notre Dame de Paris

During the Middle Ages, when all those mediaeval SUVs made the weather worldwide rather warmer than it is today, Notre Dame and the other great cathedrals of Europe were built.

It had recently become fashionable in some circles to condemn these magnificent symphonies in stone as mere “ecclesiastical plant” – a vainglorious extravagance whose original building cost and subsequent maintenance costs would have been better deployed in feeding the poor.

However, the extraordinary public response to the devastating fire that destroyed the ancient lead-and-timber roof over the nave at Notre Dame and caused the 19th-century spire to tumble through the stone vaulting to the floor below shows that the dedication that inspired the original builders to spend centuries patiently joining Earth ever more closely to Heaven was not in vain.

Singing the Ave

By the time you read this, more than a billion euros will have been donated, spontaneously and generously, to the fund for the rebuilding of Notre Dame. As the fire raged and the pall of dark smoke rose forbiddingly above Paris, the people took to the streets and sang Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary). The firefighters, at great risk to their lives, managed to save the two great bell-towers. Cathedral staff got most of the priceless art-works and treasures out of the building before the roof fell in.

In short, Notre Dame – some eight centuries after the pious stonemasons and carpenters toiled patiently over many generations to build this astonishing act of faith – continues to do the job they intended it to do: to inspire the faith of all who came after the men of devotion and vision who brought this triumph of architecture into being.

A tendentious journalist once asked Mother Theresa of Calcutta how she could possibly justify spending $200 on a silver-gilt chalice to be used at Mass. Mother Theresa – as I know from having met her when she visited Cambridge while I was an undergraduate there – did not take prisoners. She snapped: “Why do you think I do what I do when you do not do what I do? I do what I do because that chalice will contain the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God. It is He Who is the direct inspiration for all the members of my Order. Are we to put the Son of God in a battered tin mug?” The journalist departed a wiser and more thoughtful man.

As with Mother Theresa’s chalice, so with the great cathedrals. If you want to get some idea of just how thunderously splendid we Christians conceive Almighty God to be, just look at the great townhouses we build for Him. On the tomb of the architect Christopher Wren in St Paul’s Cathedral there is a simple slab that says, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you want a monument to the architect and to his faith, look about you.

In the most direct sense, a nobly-built cathedral is a testimony not merely to individual faith but to the faith of an entire community. Indeed, cathedrals can provide a record of what the one true Church believes even when they are taken over and repurposed by other religions.

For instance, the Church of England decided that among the many ancient and previously settled doctrines of Christianity with which it had become expedient to dispense was the doctrine that our Lady, at the end of her life, was assumed body and soul into Heaven.

York Minster Cathedral

However, those who sought to abolish the doctrine of the Assumption, to which there was a particularly strong devotion throughout pre-deformation England, had reckoned without the testimony in stone that was and is the largest mediaeval cathedral north of the Alps – York Minster. For the Minster, half a millennium before, had been dedicated Our Lady of the Assumption. Indeed, one of the 551 gilt-stone bosses in the roof of the nave shows what look like two gold insoles on a sky-blue background. This was a mediaeval stonemason’s minimalist but effective rendering of the Assumption as seen from below.

During the decade that will be spent in restoring Notre Dame, if you visit Paris make sure that you find your way to the grimy, industrial suburb of Saint-Denis. Go into the astonishing basilica there. You will see just how brilliant the architects were, for the lancet windows are so enormous, admitting so much light through so little stone, that you will wonder how the building supports its own weight. There, even more than in Notre Dame, the numinous is luminous.

The most immediate task of the rebuilders of Notre Dame is to put some stout crossbeams over the Nave: for the inward, compressive force of the flying buttresses is no long opposed by the stone vaulting or by the roof above, and the great weight of the lead roof is no longer being transmitted down through the buttresses. I have studied the mathematics of Gothic cathedrals, for I am a Classical architect by training. This task is urgent. Stress tests have shown that mediaeval architects calculated their stresses and forces very precisely. The buttresses that have kept Notre Dame standing for almost a millennium may now become its undoing unless the force they exert is countervailed, within days, by temporary crossbeams.

Unlike wood, which sighs and groans and creaks and cracks when the stress is too much, stonework gives no audible warning of impending failure, and often no visible sign either. Those crossbeams must be but in place at once, or the entire structure may be lost.

It was the great romantic poet William Wordsworth whose words were far more able than mine to convey the inspiration that a great church building brings to every worshipper. As we rejoice in the commitment of the government and people of France to bring about the complete and triumphant resurrection of the fallen cathedral of Notre Dame to which President Macron has dedicated his nation, let us recall Wordsworth’s Lines written within the Chapel of King’s College at Cambridge, the very apotheosis of the Gothic:

            Tax not the Royal Saint with vain expense,
           With ill-matched aims the architects who planned –
           Albeit labouring for a scanty band
           Of white-robed scholars only – this immense
           And glorious work of fine intelligence.
           Give all thou canst! High Heaven rejects the lore
           Of nicely-calculated less or more:
           So deemed the men who fashioned for the sense
           These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof,
           Self-poised and scooped into ten thousand cells,
           Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
           Lingering and wandering on, as loth to die,
           Like thoughts, whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.