The Past Is Another Country
But it also reminded me of the question of beauty in modernity. By which I mean: Can our civilization ever create anything of comparable beauty to Notre-Dame, or indeed the archipelago of cathedrals across Europe, stemming from the middle ages? I can’t see it. The core criteria for creating modern architecture — even if it is not brutally ugly or mediocre — are usefulness and cost. Beauty — even if it is formally considered in architecture — is usually subordinate. Even if you survey modern cathedrals, there is a lack of detail, and an absence of the kind of skill that enabled the twelfth century to construct marvels beyond our capacity. We have technique in abundance; we have technology that would have appeared as magic to the designers of Notre-Dame; we have wealth beyond measure in comparison. But even the architectural baubles of our new religion — think of Apple’s new headquarters, for example — contain nothing as complex or as overwhelming or as awe-inspiring as the rose stained glass window of an eleventh century masterpiece.
I’m not saying I want to go back to the Middle Ages. We have gained a staggering amount of peace, security, freedom, health and knowledge. Theocracy is no longer an option. But they had something we don’t, didn’t they? A unifying vision of the whole of life and death, a common, metaphysically-rooted faith, and an enchantment modernity has banished. I think of these cathedrals as they must have appeared at the time to peasants on a pilgrimage, looming on the horizon like a space-ship compared to the misery and brutality of life in that era, overwhelming the senses, commanding awe and devotion, reifying faith in an almost unanswerable way. When we see Notre-Dame burn, we see the reality of our time: that this exquisite kind of architectural beauty is never going to be summoned up again, nor the souls who imagined it, nor the human beings who crafted every inch of it with love.
Along these lines, here is Alan Jacobs, waxing elegiac about the fact that since 1905, the French state has owned the churches of France, having expropriated them in the name of anti-clericalism. From Jacobs’s piece:
I have no idea what the Ministry of Culture will decide to do, but I seriously doubt that Catholic Christians will have any real say in the matter. Oh, to be sure, bishops and priests and a few devout laypeople will be assigned to committees. But they’ll have no ability to dictate or even to veto. Bureaucrats may decide that the principles of PR recommend a respectful stance towards believers, and no doubt they’ll make friendly noises. But I don’t see how the final product can fail to embody the interests of the European technocratic elite, as opposed to those of faithful Christians.
And that’s one of the more significant elements of this story: What it reminds us about the long and complex intertwining of the western church with the modern nation-state. You can’t understand the current rebuilding project without understanding the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of the year 800; and Pope Gregory VII’s role the Investiture Controversy, with its culmination in the humiliation of Henry IV in the snow at Canossa; and the emergence of the Cuius regio, eius religioprinciple in the Reformation era; and the violent dechristianizing of France during the Revolution; and the vain struggle of Pio Nono against the unification of Italy, ending in the elimination of the Papal States and the loss of all secular power for the Papacy; and the emergence of the Deutsche Christen in the Nazi era, when German pastors competed with one another to defend the celebrate the subservience of (especially but not only) the Lutherans to Hitler.
That long slow transfer of power is over now. The tiger the Church hoped to tame has eaten it. The building on the Île de la Cité dedicated 800 years ago to the Blessed Virgin Mary belongs wholly to the bureaucrats now. The rest of us will just have to stand by to see what they do with it.
Because Notre Dame did not burn to the ground, there is a limit to how far the modernist architectural desecrators can go. That is not a small blessing. A reader e-mails to say the medieval Coventry Cathedral, which was substantially reduced to rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and which was rebuilt in the early 1960s, shows us what horrors the elites are capable of. Think of Sully’s words about the medievals … and about us: “But they had something we don’t, didn’t they? A unifying vision of the whole of life and death, a common, metaphysically-rooted faith, and an enchantment modernity has banished.”
The Nazi barbarians destroyed a medieval cathedral. Christians replaced it with Our Lady of The Department Of Motor Vehicles: