Built in the Middle Ages to glorify the Lord, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris now serves less as a sacred house of Christian worship than a densely thronged tourist attraction.
That rather churlish (perhaps even sacrilegious) notion struck me again after Monday's shattering news of the roof fire that seriously damaged the world-famous monument.
At a time when 5 percent or less of France's population regularly attends Roman Catholic Mass, 13 million tourists last year trooped through the towering structure at the heart of Paris. For many of these visitors, the Gothic masterpiece amounted more or less to an indoor theme park.
Long an addicted globetrotter, I've visited Notre Dame with wife Marcia nearly all the two dozen or so times we've gone to Paris since 1970. We are not religiously inclined. So our continuing admiration for the cathedral--and others like it in Europe--stems from the grandeur of its soaring design, along with the resonance of its illustrious and tumultuous history.
During our most recent Paris foray last May, I walked nearly every day to Place du Parvis, the teeming cathedral square on Ile de la Cite. It was a short hike, because our Left Bank hotel stood close enough to offer a gorgeous view of the iconic facade and its twin towers from our third-floor windows.
But I entered Notre Dame only once during those 10 days, daunted by the long lines that crept forward most of the day, as tourist battalions speaking a Babel's worth of languages queued up to pass security. Selfie sticks poked up like twitching insect antennae. Inside, the sense of solemnity was diminished by the phalanxes of fellow visitors, not all of them as silent as the setting should have called for.
As a tourist myself, I was part of the problem, and therefore a hypocrite for griping about the swarms of other tourists. I'd have been wiser to recall with pleasure and gratitude the week in November 2009 when Marcia and I bunked down as close to Notre Dame as possible without snoozing on a Place du Parvis bench.
We lodged along that square at Hotel Dieu, a major city hospital that rents a dozen or so rooms to relatives of patients and other visitors. From the sixth-floor room's skylight, we could glimpse the cathedral's spire, the one that collapsed during Monday's fire. The view was merely a sliver, but a view nonetheless.
It was a joy to step out the hospital front door each morning and find ourselves within a hop, skip and jump of Notre Dame's statue-rich main portals. If we showed up before 10 a.m., we'd be ahead of most tour groups and have the place (relatively speaking) to ourselves.
The hospital room was comfortable. But the setting seemed a bit antiseptic, so we haven't stayed there since. Perhaps we'll be ready to try it again next time around. Or maybe we'll return to last year's lodging, Hotel Notre-Dame St. Michel. From there, we'd be able to observe the monumental (pun semi-intended) reconstruction of the cathedral roof.
For now, I'm reflecting on the grief that has overwhelmed the French nation. It is a penetrating sorrow, though different from the shock that overwhelmed Americans after the 9/11 terrorist attacks claimed around 3,000 victims in 2001.
Thankfully nobody died in the Notre Dame fire. The late-afternoon tourists and the fewer number of worshipers at a Holy Week Mass were safely escorted onto Place du Parvis after the first alarm sounded at 6:20 p.m. The justly praised Paris firefighters all survived their stalwart work putting out the blaze, though several were injured.
The World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon, while important and imposing, were relatively new buildings of mainly functional design. There is surely no U.S. edifice held so deeply and dearly in American hearts as Notre Dame is by the French. The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, might come the closest to stirring our national soul.
With the Schnedlers both heading for 76th birthdays in June, it is unlikely that Marcia and I will set foot again inside Notre Dame. French President Emmanuel Macron told his mourning nation on Tuesday that the cathedral would be rebuilt in five years. But those in the know about the manifold challenges of repairing major damage on a structure so old and immense figure it will take much longer.
A Wednesday column by Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's widely respected architecture critic, observed that while "one of the latest photographs of the cathedral's fire-damaged interior paints a miraculous picture of survival," Notre Dame "is still subject to the laws of physics."
Kamin raised two key questions about the continuing stability of the 108-foot-tall structural skeleton:
• Did the intense heat of the fire weaken the cathedral's centuries-old blocks of stone, causing what structural engineers call "thermal shock?"
• Could the mortar that holds these blocks together have been loosened by the torrents of water that put out the fire?
Kamin lovingly described Notre Dame's 12th- to 14th-century skeleton as "that pioneering combination of pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses that made Gothic sanctuaries, in the words of the architectural historian Otto von Simson, 'the threshold to heaven.'"
All of us sorrowing over Monday's fire can find consolation in the fact that Notre Dame has suffered and survived worse perils in the past. A Wednesday story in The Guardian, a prominent British newspaper, summed up its "long and violent history of destruction and repair.
"The cathedral was heavily damaged by rioting Huguenots [Protestants] in the 16th century, remodeled by successive kings and plundered during the French Revolution, when the 28 statues of biblical figures on the west facade, mistaken for French kings, were ritually beheaded."
It was Victor Hugo's celebrated 1831 novel, titled in English The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that spurred a thorough renovation of the cathedral at a time when some thought was being given to its demolition.
In the 1939 movie version of Hugo's book, Quasimodo is played by Charles Laughton. By the film's end, the hunchback has saved the gypsy girl Esmeralda from false prosecution and fallen in love with her. But he sees that she has become enamored instead of a handsome young man.
Poised high in one bell tower, the pitiable Quasimodo speaks to one of the gargoyles that are a hallmark of the cathedral. He laments: "Why was I not made of stone--like thee?"
In France's secular 21st century, the stones of Notre Dame still stand silent. Meanwhile, plans for rebuilding are beginning to be developed. And tourists will have to settle for a long-range exterior view while snapping their selfies.
Jack Schnedler, retired deputy managing editor/Features of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, worked as travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1982-1994. He has visited all seven continents and more than 100 nations.
Editorial on 04/21/2019
Print Headline: JACK SCHNEDLER: The grandeur that remains of Notre Dame