A little over a year ago, people from around the world were frozen to their TVs, smartphones, and computer screens as they watched the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral succumb to flames. The iconic monument and place of worship, has been a fixture of the Parisian landscape for more than 800 years. Last April, I joined a global audience in wondering and worrying about how France would respond to the disaster. Since, there has been heated debate over whether government and/or private funds should be spent on restoration, erecting something new, or directed toward needed social programs.
Before the Corona crisis, I’d been planning to visit Paris next month. One of the sites I was eager to return to was Notre Dame. I hoped that after the passage of a year, the French would have an exhibit in place regarding the building’s storied history, the details of its devastation, and its still uncertain future. Unfortunately, I had to cancel my trip. Happily, however, Paris Musées, a consortium of 14 Paris museums and historical sites, has just launched an online exposition of 127 works featuring the celebrated cathedral.
I spent the better part of a day combing through paintings, engravings, maps, photographs, and videos in the exhibit. It was a joyful experience. My family will attest to my enthusiasm as I intermittently pulled each of them in front of my screen to tell them about a particular work. There is a lot to see and read about. Unfortunately, an English version of the exhibit does not currently exist. You can still visit the site and admire its many œuvres, but I’m dedicating 3 blog posts to the subject for those that would like a short summary and/or information in English.
Construction of Notre Dame began in the 12th century. Throughout the ages, kings, bishops, architects, artisans, and craftsmen have left their imprints on the towering edifice. As one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, Notre Dame was the tallest monument in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889. Across that 800 year span, countless technical advancements were invented and mastered, in the effort to erect, extend, renovate, and embellish the structure that we see today.
One of Notre Dame’s most stunning features is its three rose windows. The methods used to construct their web-like frameworks and vividly colored glass required the most advanced artisans of the day. The Western rose window features the Virgin Mary at the center, cradling Jesus in her arms. Among the exhibit’s works is a 13th-century etching that portrays the intricate vitrail.
The choir of Notre Dame has undergone numerous modifications to the original structure. Perhaps one of the most dramatic was conceived in 1637 by Louis XIII who implored the Virgin Mary to grant him a son. To prove his devotion, he promised to remodel Notre Dame’s choir and provide a new high altar. However, work for the decades-long project did not commence until 1698 under the reign of Louis XIX. The best artists were recruited to adorn the new sanctuary, which features a marble sculpture of Mary in tears at the foot of the cross.
Monument of Reference
One of the sections of the exhibit presents centuries-old documents where Notre Dame serves as a sort of mathematical standard. Engineers would use its impressive dimensions to compare it with other large structures, such as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1702, the French cartographer, Alain Manesson Mallet, used the cathedral to demonstrate principals of trigonometry in his Géométrie Pratique.
Notre Dame has long been one of the most visited religious sites in the world. She has witnessed fires and floods, revolts and warfare, concerts and coronations. Countless numbers of paintings, drawings, and etchings of Paris and its colorful history have included a depiction of Notre Dame somewhere in the scene. Knowing little about the source of an artist’s inspiration, an onlooker can often identify the famous cathedral and from there, develop an idea of the author’s perspective and context.
So Much to Learn and See
This has been a tiny sampling of what you will find in the online exposition. I can’t imagine the difficulty the curators must have had in choosing the exhibit’s 127 works of art. I’ve had difficulty choosing the small fraction that I’m using in this blog. Why 127? This number wasn’t selected at random, as Notre Dame is 127 meters long. In the coming days, I’ll write about other aspects of the exposition and highlight additional works. Until then, I leave you with wisdom from a French author whose name goes hand-in-hand with the renowned church.
In his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Hugo wrote, “If we had the time to examine one by one the diverse traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, the part of time would be the least, the worst, that of men, especially men of art … since some have assumed the title of architect in the last two centuries.”