Friday, May 3, 2019

A Roof Razed

Better days: Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris, also known as the Notre-Dame Cathedral) before the fire.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The ashes weren’t even cool when ideas for a replacement started appearing.

Less than a week after a fire ravaged the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, images of a new spire and roof started popping up on social media. It’s one thing to boldly declare that the thing can be rebuilt, but it’s quite another to totally ignore historical significance and put forth the first [hair-brained] vision that pops into one’s head.

In opposition to the knee-jerk reactions of a few who obviously are members of the Mod Squad, I took a step back and did a little digging into the architectural annuls of this and other landmarks.

To us, the horror of such a conflagration in such a facade seems incomprehensible, but fires – even horrible ones – are nothing new to cathedrals. Crappy weather, wars, and even stuff like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow have destroyed many landmark church buildings. And it’s been happening for a long time.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
(Chartres Cathedral)

Another French landmark, the Chartres Cathedral, is currently the fifth building to be erected on the same spot. The first building was totally destroyed by the Danes in 858. The earliest remnant of the earlier buildings is a partial crypt from the second church. It seems crypts are the one thing often left intact. No sense in beating a dead saint.

An odd thing about the Chartres Cathedral are the uneven towers. Because master masons, the equivalent of architects, went for quality instead of speed, it often took decades or longer to get the job done. In the case of Chartres, nearly 400 years separates the completion of the towers. Because a different master mason with different ideas worked on the newer tower, it is different in style, scale, and construction. But, really, there is nothing odd about the Chartres Cathedral’s towers.

Not to pick on the French – okay, let’s pick on them – a similar issue still plagues another cathedral. St. Denis Cathedral, near Paris, only recently got around to funding a replacement tower – one that was “temporarily” dismantled 173 years ago.
Cathedral of Notre-dame
de Rouen (Rouen Cathedral)

The Rouen Cathedral, a favorite subject of impressionist Claude Monet, also has a couple of mismatched towers. The newest of the two [by 400 years] is called the Butter Tower. At some point, the bishop wanted to make life totally miserable during Lent by forbidding the use of butter. One could, of course, indulge in the sinful stuff by giving a donation to the tower’s building project. Thankfully, fundraising isn’t quite so demonic these days.

The list of fire-damaged, oddly built churches goes on and on. What is perhaps even more strange it that the notion of uneven towers took hold in church structures of the New World. Gothic Revival churches often have uneven towers that were planned that way, and it doesn’t take much pondering to think of an old church that has a single tower – sometimes without a spire – that is asymmetrically set to one side.

Towers and spires aren’t necessary, of course, but church architects have a historical tendency to build vertically, defying weather, fire, and sinister forces that would rather have a flattened church. Which brings us back to the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The facade roof and spire will certainly be rebuilt in some fashion. That will probably happen sooner than later. Although the present structure is the fourth to be built on the spot, it was so by design and not disaster. The cathedral’s architectural significance is huge, and just about every art and architecture student has been exposed to features of the Notre-Dame Cathedral – the exception being the original design of the towers. It seems the two towers were intended to have giant spires of their own, which were never constructed.

Late 1800's drawing by preservationist architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
shows the original design intent of the Notre-Dame towers.

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