Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2019 (1127 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A few years ago, during a stay in Barcelona’s Eixample district, I discovered the sound of centuries. "Tink-tink-tink," hammer to chisel to stone. My apartment looked directly onto the apse of Sagrada Familia, the back of the spectacular, unfinished basilica, whereupon the spire — one of more than a dozen that will have ascended upon completion in 2026 — is the text of Ave Maria.
George Orwell hated this church; I love it. It is, as Victor Hugo might have said about it, "the offspring of a nation’s labour," "the deposit of a whole people; the heaped-up treasure of centuries." Indeed, when the last chisel has drawn the last mark on the last stone, Sagrada Familia will have taken 144 years to build. Just the model of the original design took 16 years to restore after fire was set to the crypt during the Spanish Civil War.
Hugo, of course, was more familiar with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was about Notre Dame, after all, that he wrote those lines in his classic novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. On Monday evening in the French capital, that iconic church was, itself, ablaze, the news of the fire having reached far and wide and drawn many a bleary eye to a screen by the time the steeple succumbed to the inferno. Thankfully, the integrity of the main structure was preserved, and as firefighters did their heroic work, a gathering of locals and tourists, many on their knees, sang the Ave Maria.
Who knows how many of them were aware of the sacred, historical bond between the city and the Virgin, of the Apostle Paul’s missionary visit and the first venerations of Mary, which may well have happened there. Some, it goes without saying, will have carried the residuum of that holy past their entire lives, trickled unknowingly onto them by a previous generation, and onto it by the generation before, and onto it by the one before that, all the way back to the spring of 1163, when the cornerstone was laid, the ceremony presided over by Pope Alexander III. But it doesn’t really matter.
"The greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of a community," Hugo wrote. "Each wave of time leaves its coating of alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monuments, each individual contributes his stone to it."
We are co-creators of our surroundings, of our cityscapes, of the spaces we inhabit, of Notre Dame. And along with us is everyone who has ever crossed to Île de la Cité, who has so much as laid eyes upon the Last Judgment portal, Saint Denis and the rose windows, from Joan of Arc to Nostradamus, Napoleon Bonaparte to Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Gaulle to Ernest Hemingway. "Great edifices, like the great mountains," Hugo proclaimed, "are the work of ages."
They are also, he explains in a treatise on architecture contained midway through Notre-Dame de Paris, the pages on which we express ourselves, on which we tell our stories. At least, the old ones are. The sculpture and gilding of Notre Dame, for example, tell stories from the Bible — visual, animated texts for what was, until the invention of the printing press, a predominantly illiterate populace. Mass printing and the subsequent universality of literacy changed forever both the symbolic purpose of buildings and the way we interact with them. "The book of stone," Hugo wrote, "so solid and enduring, was to give way to the book of paper, more solid and enduring still."
Hugo, incidentally, was deeply concerned with the state of disrepair into which Notre Dame had fallen during his lifetime. In the preface to the first edition of his book, he recalled finding the Gothic inscription "ANÁIKH," meaning fate, or destiny, on one of the towers. "Soon, perhaps," he mused, "the Cathedral itself will have vanished from the face of the Earth." A chilling prophecy in light of Monday’s disaster.
The thing is — and as we learned late Monday night when inspectors declared the integrity of the church’s structure to be sound — books of stone, while requiring attentiveness and care, do not easily crumble, do not go quietly into the night or up in smoke. We may no longer read the book, the Cathedral, in the manner Hugo at once prescribed and lamented, but we do understand Notre Dame as a cultural touchpoint, as a symbol as a whole and a library of symbols within. That the functionality of the building has transitioned to a repository of sacred semiology perhaps makes us cherish it all the more.
Which is why fire of Notre Dame Cathedral, while physically destructive, was also a hopeful event. Naturally, there are firefighters and the heroic Père Fournier, who braved the flames to rescue the holy relic of the crown of thorns, to thank for the preservation of the structure and protection of the art and artifacts, but in the years to come, there will also be reconstruction, a fresh coat of alluvium, another layer deposited on the monument. And that’s a hopeful thing.
Starting in the next few months, a new generation and more will encounter the sound of centuries. "Tink-tink-tink," hammer to chisel to stone. A new spire will ascend; the song, the breath, the book that is Notre Dame will be renewed. The work of ages continues. Ave Maria.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg writer who regularly reports on soccer in the Free Press sports pages.