Tuesday 17 September 2019

Shannon Stirone: 'A constant in a chaotic, churning world, Notre-Dame has once again stood firm'

Painful image: The fire on Monday is the worst destructive force Notre-Dame Cathedral has suffered in its history. AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
Painful image: The fire on Monday is the worst destructive force Notre-Dame Cathedral has suffered in its history. AP Photo/Thierry Mallet

Shannon Stirone

Notre-Dame, like the Eiffel Tower, is such a Parisian icon that its existence barely registers in conscious thought. Architectural monuments like this are so ingrained in a city's identity that it's as though they are as unmoving as the sky itself.

Which is why watching Notre-Dame burn was especially painful. The Lady of Paris is no stranger to ruin. Through its 800 years, destruction has been an important and regular part of its story.

In the 1790s, at the height of the French Revolution, the group of rebels who had been influenced by the Enlightenment declared Notre-Dame a church no more, and the Christian iconography inside was destroyed. Notre-Dame was ransacked and taken to a point of almost total ruination. The religious statues were decapitated, the guts of the cathedral emptied.

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For years afterwards, Notre-Dame was just a building - used as a warehouse and even, at one point, to store wine.

Then, in 1804, the cathedral was handed back to the Catholic Church. On an order given by Napoleon, Notre-Dame would not only be repaired, he would hold his coronation there.

Two hundred years after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, I walked by Notre-Dame and sat on a bench at the back of the church to study for an art history test I had the next day. It was just weeks before Easter, and my architecture exam featured the Gothic cathedral in front of me. Tall, back-bending buttresses stood like stacked giraffes. Or like Atlas holding up the world. When Notre-Dame was constructed, only a few buildings in the world had this innovative feature. The flying buttresses meant they could raise the walls higher and add large rose windows, making it the church we know today.

They work like the release of a pent-up valve. The cathedral is so massive, the stone walls and immense roof would begin to buckle without additional support for the weight. So the buttresses come in and absorb and remove some of the energy from the building. Then, like blood moving from the heart down through the arms, they take a continuous bearing load and push it down into the ground. Notre-Dame is rooted where it stands.

I flipped the pages of my textbook, memorising images while the gargoyles and chimera looked down on me, scowling. Even after only a couple of months, it was easy to take for granted how these buildings have stood for centuries, bearing witness to the most unspeakable things, and the most beautiful.

Our Lady of Paris survived the bombings of the Prussian War and both World Wars. Over centuries, random places in Paris have seen violence, natural and manmade. Nearby bomb blasts rattled the church, damaging its windows. Strolling tourists and locals were replaced by troops, sandbags and tanks. It has seen swastikas on the arms of German soldiers standing guard before its doors. Its roof has been injured by lightning strikes and fires and experienced the simple fatigue that comes with age. But it stood still amid a churning, chaotic world. Notre-Dame survived. And it did so again Monday.

We still don't know what caused Notre-Dame to catch fire. I felt helpless, watching as the blaze started near the spire of the cathedral and spread across the rooftop, slowly devouring everything in sight. The City of Light was illuminated in a ghastly way.

There is no doubt this fire is the worst destructive force Notre-Dame has suffered in its history. Comments online displayed a variety of pain, from those who have been there, watching it nearly destroyed, and for those who have dreamed of going, who were mourning never knowing Paris as it was. But the city is never constant. No city is.

Paris is an unspeakably beautiful city. It is like home to me. It is not just the artistry, or that it looks like a postcard or a painting - there are cracks in the cobblestone, to say the least. Like any true love, I didn't fall for its aesthetics - I fell in love with its character. So many times, the City of Light has been darkened but it never stays dark for long. There is something unspoken and unidentifiable about the place that houses such an icon. Some things are too beautiful to be named.

Now a huge portion of one of the world's most beloved works of architecture has been damaged. If the heat had lasted much longer, it would have begun to crack the limestone structure dug from quarries around Paris. The church is not just of Paris, it is made from Paris.

The French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: "A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral." Like anything that survives merely by existing in this world, there are marks left. Proof of existence. Whole parts that have been replaced. Like our cells that regrow over and over during our lifetime. The cells you die with are not the ones you had when you were born.

As I watched images of the flames, dissolving the cathedral in real time, I couldn't help but look at those buttresses. They weren't originally supposed to be there, but in the 13th century, builders realised there was too much weight on the walls, and the buttresses were added.

I watched those arches, the spine of the queen, trace along the sides and the back, the flowers blowing from the force of the flames. (© Washington Post)

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