“Vandalism has its newspapers, its cliques, its schools, its chairs, its public, its reasons. Vandalism has the bourgeoisie on its side. … There is nothing less popular among us than these sublime edifices made by the people and for the people. We hold against them all the crimes throughout the past to which they have been witness. We would prefer to erase our entire history. We devastate, pulverize, destroy, demolish out of national spirit. By being good Frenchmen, we have become excellent Welshmen.” -Victor Hugo, War on the Demolishers!
The world froze as Notre-Dame burned.
The scene was unforgettable. Notre-Dame de Paris’s towering spire—built by Gothic revivalist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc after the French Revolution—was swallowed in flame, belching out smoke as it wilted in the heat. The cathedral’s attic, nicknamed la forêt (“the forest”) for its medieval wooden frame, crumbled into the nave of the church, leaving a smattering of ashen beams and stone beside the Pieta statue. Firemen rushed into the burning structure to retrieve treasured relics from the reliquary, including the Crown of Thorns and a sliver from the True Cross.
The people of France were devastated. Many wept in the streets. In nearby Place Saint-Michel, rows of young people knelt and prayed the rosary. “Paris is beheaded,” an onlooker told the New York Times.
By the time the fire was contained, the spire and two thirds of the roof were destroyed. Parisian schoolchildren showed up to class the next day with bags of blackened timber, plastic urns with the charred remains of fallen Notre-Dame blown about by the night’s wind.
French president Emanuel Macron promised to restore the cathedral, calling it France’s “destiny.” A global outpouring of donations—nearly one billion dollars—gave him the resources to do so. Within days of the fire, however, the French government made it clear that they did not want to “restore” the cathedral. They wanted a new Notre-Dame. Two days after the spire collapsed, prime minister Edouard Philippe announced a global architectural contest to “redesign” the fallen spire in a style “adapted to…our times.”
Designs for a new roof and spire came in from architects around the globe. The proposals ranged from unsightly to profane. Alexandre Chassang proposed a misshapen glass spire resembling The Shard in London. Vincent Callebaut outlined a “green” option, inspired by the pagan concept of “Palingenesis.” French landscape architect Clément Willemin told the New York Times that he wanted to create a rooftop garden “dedicated to all the species of animals and plants that we have been erasing off the planet” because the love of nature “is our one and only universal religion.”
Willemin looked at the ruins of Notre-Dame—a structure built with the pennies of paupers and sustained by the religious conviction of an entire civilization—and proposed a rooftop garden dedicated to the Tristan moorhen. He gave the French government what it asked for—a Notre-Dame for “our times,” a monument that observes the fake religions of the ruling class. The proposals were a symptom of the disease that inspired the contest.
The vandals were thwarted for a time. Catholics and traditionalist architects around the globe expressed horror at the proposals. Philippe Villeneuve, the architect who oversees France’s historic structures, threatened to resign if the spire was not faithfully restored. “I will restore it identically and it will be me, or they will build a modern spire and it won’t be me,” Villeneuve told reporters. In a statement, officials from Macron’s office said the president had “become convinced of the need to restore Notre-Dame de Paris in the most consistent manner possible to its last complete, coherent, and known state.” The exterior of Paris’s crowned jewel was saved.
The inside of the cathedral was not so lucky. Father Gilles Drouin, an advisor to the archbishop of Paris, was charged with leading the restoration of Notre-Dame’s interior. His plans, leaked to the Telegraph late last month, would give the interior what Willimen had proposed for the exterior: a redesign that sullies the sanctity of Notre-Dame. According to Fr. Drouin’s plan, confessionals, altars, and statues would be supplemented or replaced by modern-art installations. New light displays and sound effects would create “emotional spaces” and “discovery trails” for visitors. Drouin said the changes would make the cathedral more accessible to visitors, “who are not always from a Christian culture.”
He gets the matter exactly backwards.
What people who are not “from a Christian culture” need is Christianity. They do not need gimmicks. They do not need mood lighting, or modern-art installations, or “catechumenical paths,” or aggiornamento. They do not need half-baked, pre-chewed, watered-down versions of the Gospel that ape the therapeutic jargon of modern culture. They do not need abstract murals that obscure the clear and unbearable call to “pick up your cross.” They do not need an “emotional space” in lieu of a confessional, a “discovery trail” in lieu of an altar, or soft, soapy music to drown out the piercing silence of God.
This is why the masses cried at the sight of Notre-Dame ablaze. The culture that produced it is gone. The men who labored to construct a building worthy of the Divine were cursed with successors who do not understand the civilization they inherited. We are left, as French author Victor Hugo said, with the “laudable regret” that “we no longer possess the genius of centuries past.”