If the faithful want to see the classic Medieval architecture that made Notre-Dame de Paris one of the world’s most exquisite churches be respectfully restored, much prayer will be needed to save it from the hands of modern architects whose redesign plans will probably not reflect the reverence with which this grand cathedral was originally built.
In a brilliant article appearing on Catholic World Report, Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, says he was immediately worried about comments made in the wake of the fire about how Notre Dame was not a “static” building.
“Too often, this language about the dangers of treating something as ‘static’ is just modernist code for, ‘We intend to change this’,” Dr. Smith writes.
Equally disturbing were comments made about how the building represented various eras in history, not just the medieval era when it was built, and so the re-building should represent this age as well.
For good reasons, these comments sparked international worry. Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about it because, as Dr. Smith points out, the French authorities own Notre Dame and can do whatever they want with it. This is why their decision to launch an international competition to redesign the steeple sparked outright dread in the hearts of many Catholics.
This dread quickly became prophetic. Norman Foster, a famous British architect, described the competition to redesign the building’s damaged spire as an “extraordinary opportunity” to rebuilt the spire as “a work of art about light” that would be “contemporary and very spiritual and capture the confident spirit of the time.”
Ian Ritchie, the creator of the Spire of Dublin, quickly jumped into the competition and said he would propose “a refracting, super-slender reflecting crystal to heaven.” The structure would be perforated to eliminate wind loads, he said, “and could be a beautiful contemporary tracery of glass crystals and stainless steel. It should get to touch heaven’s clouds in a piece of celestial gothic acupuncture.”
Someone also suggested that the spire be replaced by a Muslim minaret as a memorial to the 100 Algerian protestors who were killed by French police in 1961 and thrown into the Seine River.
Like the rest of us, Dr. Smith can only shake his head and wonder what this beautiful Gothic cathedral is going to look like when it’s all done.
As he explains, in the nineteenth century, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc undertook a “scientific” renovation of Notre Dame after making an exhaustive study of Gothic architecture.
“ . . . [A]ll of his renovation work was undertaken in which he understood to be in accord with the craft and character of that style,” Dr. Smith reports. Viollet-le-Duc even went so far as to have statues that were damaged during the French revolution repaired. He was also the craftsman who designed the famous steeple that stood atop the building which he built after an earlier version was blown down in a windstorm.
“At least Viollet-le-Duc thought he was being true to the medieval spirit. He was at least trying to be faithful to something beyond himself,” Dr. Smith reports.
“Modernist architects tend to be faithful to nothing quite so much as their own ego and their own vision. Often, that ‘vision’ is described as somehow “emerging from” or ‘being an expression of’ the spirit of the age, the community, the city, the contemporary situation, the history of the place — take your pick. But if you’ve ever heard or read any of these absurd disquisitions, you know it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.”
Whether we like it or not, the last thing that architects will allow is for the building to be rebuilt the way it was built in the Middle Ages, Dr. Smith warns.
“The problem isn’t that there isn’t the historical and architectural expertise currently available to do this — there is — or that there aren’t skilled craftsmen who can do the work — there are. And make no mistake, all of them would give their eye teeth to be involved in an amazing restoration project like this. The problem is that the modernist ideology that came to power in the post-World War II period is not going to step aside and allow a major monument such as this one to go ‘unmodernized.’Right now, both architecturally and religiously, it is a stick in the eye of everything they stand for. And now is their chance to change that.”
He suggests that in order to prevent the ruin of this precious Catholic landmark, that we turn to the faithful who lined the streets of Paris with their heads bowed in prayer while the cathedral burned. As we all know, prayer changes things, especially the Rosary, which is so dear to the heart of the Lady in whose name this church was built.
Second, there are plenty of architects who have experience designing, renovating and building Gothic-style churches who can be employed in the rebuilding of Notre Dame.
“You need to find architects and designers of this sort who respect the work of their forebears, who understand what those men and women worked and sacrificed for all those years, and who have shown by the fruits of their labors that they can be trusted to work with those people in those Parisian streets to produce something that truly represents the history, the culture, and the Catholic population of Paris, not just in empty words or as an objet d’art, but as an actual church the architect wants to see filled with both the prayers of the faithful and the Spirit of the Risen Lord.”
Let us join in the prayer of the Rosary, imploring Our Lady to intercede in the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris, that it will rebuilt in a way that gives honor and glory to God – not the architects who redesigned it.
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