I’m sitting at my friend Penny’s kitchen island, sipping a glass of wine and catching up on accumulated news and gossip, when news flashes on my phone screen. Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is burning. I read it out loud, incredulous. Penny turns on BBC News and in silence and shock, we watch the flames destroy the vaulted Medieval roof and spire and threaten the two front towers and the famous rose window between them. Millions of people are having the same reaction, although not everyone is silent about it. Twitter is going mad. On the TV, people of all ages have gathered by the Hotel de Ville, the Paris town hall across the river from Notre-Dame. Many are weeping, their tears illuminated by the glow of the fire. We watch the spire fall, the roof disappear. We hear commentators saying that it might not be possible to save Notre-Dame at all. We go to bed not knowing what will happen. Will Notre-Dame be nothing but a pile of rubble tomorrow morning?
Lying in bed, I remember my first visit to Notre-Dame, when I was 11 years’ old. My family and I were spending a few days in Paris. We all love history and art, so Notre-Dame was one of the first items on our ‘Essential Sights’ list. I have a habit of wandering off when I’m in a group, and protected by the beautiful pillars and vaults of Notre-Dame, I drifted away from my parents and little sister. I was staring at the light filtering through the stained glass rose window, when I overheard a conversation a few feet away from me.
“The master of works – what we’d call the head architect today – commissioned masters from the various corporation of builders and craftsmen. Every corporation had its masters, who were the top specialists in their craft. They engaged other skilled workers called journeymen, as well as training apprentices in their craft.”
An old man was talking to a boy of roughly my age. I edged up to listen and he stopped and smiled at me.
“You want to know how they built the cathedral, 800 years ago?” I nodded vigorously. “Come on, then, join us.” And though I’d been warned more than once not to talk to strangers, I didn’t think of refusing. Besides, the other child seemed OK, for a boy.
“Are you a historian?” I asked.
The boy corrected me. “My granddad used to be an architect specialising in conservation and restoration”, he said. “I’m going to do the same thing when I’m grown up.”
That afternoon, I heard how the stonemasons, glass cutters, carpenters, sculptors had all imprinted their stamp on their work, even though we didn’t know all of their their names. Their skill lived on in the stone, the wood, the glass, the buttresses and vaults, the statues and the carvings. It was as strong as the faith that had inspired the cathedral. Stronger even, as the faith had dwindled from its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the beauty and power of the craft lived on.
From that time, I’ve seen Notre-Dame not as an inanimate old building, the legacy of a time of all-pervading faith, but as a complex and vibrant organism created by skilled craftsmen and masters, who poured in their skill, their artistry, their love and their sweat into every chisel mark, carved leaf, every coloured and cut piece of glass. Those who created the cathedral between the 12th and 14th centuries. Those who continued, modified or added to it between the 15th and 17th centuries. Those who wept at its decay in the 18th century. Those who turned what was a Gothic miracle of architecture and engineering into an Enlightenment Temple of Reason during the French Revolution. Those who repaired and restored the neglected church in the 19th century, when they rebuilt the fallen spire and made it much taller than the original Medieval steeple. Thousands of workmen, skilled craftsmen, designers, artists and architects passed on thousands of stories in their sketches, materials and the work of their hands. Before I fall asleep that night, I can’t help crying for the old architect and for the generations of craftsmen who together built the marvel we know as Notre-Dame of Paris, and whose work could be lost forever.
Over breakfast, we find out that the 400 or so firefighters battling the flames brought the fire under control, having saved much of the structure – including the two towers and the rose window. Notre-Dame would be rebuilt. A new generation of architects and craftsmen would bring their living skill, their art, their vision, their love and the sweat of their hard work and embed it in stone, metal, glass or wood. The old architect’s grandson, if he fulfilled his childhood ambition and followed in his grandfather’s path, must be at the height of his expertise and career by now. Perhaps he’d be involved in the restoration of Notre-Dame? I can’t help hoping that he would.