Friends of old churches mourn today

People focus on different things when they travel; Stew and I tend to binge on religious buildings.

The reason behind this habit is, to a large extent, practical. One can’t see everything everywhere one visits, and places of worship are often the sightseeing equivalent of one-stop shopping: They are the biggest and most central structures in town, with minarets, bell towers and other soaring decorations that rise above other rooftops, and indeed, are meant to impress believers and skeptics alike.

Inside, churches celebrate the history of their hometowns, by showcasing the work of the most accomplished artisans, architects and engineers, throughout the building itself or in special “treasuries” requiring special permission and fees to visit. Tapestries and paintings adorn the walls, dozens of sculptures the altars.

Much was lost at Notre-Dame, particularly the history.

Statues of notable citizens—kings, scientists, explorers and conquerors, and even some genuinely saintly locals forever remembered by the faithful, are scattered about. Also many relics, some gruesome, like a finger or other incorruptible part of someone’s body; others, like slivers of the “true cross,” that stretch the credulity of all but most devout believers.

Stew and I have been to Paris a number of times, and we’ve visited Notre-Dame every time. It was a cornucopia of all those things that attract us to churches—in spades. Quite coincidentally the last time we visited was during its 850th anniversary. I wish we had taken more time to feel and smell the musty history of the place. Maybe even pray for a minute or two.

For us, its physical beauty and incredible engineering have been the main attractions of Notre-Dame and dozens of places of worship that we have visited. Typically we sit on a pew, preferably away from the hordes of tourists meandering by, and quietly let our eyes roam in wonder over all the material details.

Who built this amazing edifice, hundreds of years ago—and how—without the benefit of any fancy tools except, principally, pure human genius? How long did it take to design and assemble the tens of thousands of pieces of this mosaic or that stained glass window?

Most impressively, how do these gothic edifices, that appear so light on their feet that they sometimes seem to defy gravity, actually remain standing for centuries?

To begin trying to answer the last question, you need to walk around outside of Notre-Dame and check out the dozens of flying buttresses, looking like spider legs, that keep the walls from splaying out and the roof from collapsing.

Alas, other than the finished monument, the builders of Notre Dame didn’t leave any blueprints, computer disks or other clues to guide the reconstruction work, though it seems funding won’t be a problem. Barely 24 hours after the fire was doused, the reconstruction fund already had attracted several hundred million euros in donations and commitments.

Neither will be the challenges of reproducing gargoyles, columns and other pieces. This and other gothic masterpieces have been photographed and studied in molecular detail with the use of lasers and other tools that will guide the recreation effort. Early reports say the main structure of Notre-Dame—incredibly—is still sound though most of the wooden roof is gone.

For all our fascination with the physical details of Notre-Dame, and other other churches we’ve visited, I now wish we had spent more time fantasizing about the people who built them; the kings and paupers that walked through them; the joyful and despairing who prayed at them; and most of all, the religious fervor—a form of madness?—that led to its construction in the first place, sometimes over hundreds of years.

I’m sure Notre Dame will be pieced together in a relatively short period of time, maybe six or seven years, and thanks to the use of the latest materials and building techniques, the rebuilt version will be good for another 850 years. What surely will be missing though, will be human imprint, the feel of its history, which no lasers or other modern construction methods can recapture. 

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