Tuesday 16 April 2019

Notre Dame

Terrible to see the overnight images from Paris of a burning Notre Dame, and to read the evident shock and grief in the faces of those looking on as one of France's – and the world's – great, genuinely iconic buildings seemed to be heading for total destruction. Today we learn that, although the wooden roof and much else is lost, the stone structure is intact and many artefacts have been rescued. It is already clear that there is a strong will to restore and reconstruct the cathedral to any extent necessary – so strong that one wealthy businessman has already pledged an incredibly generous 100 million euros to the work. I would confidently predict that, in a few decades, it will be as if nothing had happened, and Notre Dame will be restored to something very like – perhaps all but indistinguishable from – its former glory.
  When we look at a cathedral, what we are seeing is rarely the original structure – whatever 'original' means in such a context: most cathedrals replaced (or partially incorporated) an existing building, which itself might have replaced something earlier still. What we see is the result of a centuries-long process of building and rebuilding, demolition and replacement, repair and restoration, and adaptation to changing uses, both liturgical and secular (in Revolutionary times, Notre Dame was stripped and desecrated, and served as a Temple of Reason and a Temple of the Supreme Being). And, amid all these changes, there were also the ever-present threats of fire and structural collapse – towers and spires being particularly liable to the latter. Take Chichester cathedral, which I visited a few weeks ago: a fire in 1187 burnt out the building (and much of the town), the southwest tower collapsed in 1210 and was rebuilt, the northwest tower came down in 1635 and wasn't rebuilt till 1901, and the spire fell in on itself in 1861 and was promptly rebuilt, along with the central tower, by the tireless George Gilbert Scott (almost as tireless as his French equivalent, Viollet-le-Duc, who remodelled much of Notre Dame between 1844 and 1864, adding the famous spire). As well as all this necessary rebuilding and restoration at Chichester, there were also many modifications and reorderings of the interior over the years – including the installation of the Arundel 'tomb' made famous by Philip Larkin. And yet, when we look at Chichester cathedral, we still see a single thing, despite all the changes and remakings – an essence, a continuity. And so it will be with Notre Dame de Paris.

  As I watched the roof of Notre Dame burning, it put me in mind of the destruction of the old St Paul's in the Great Fire of London – and of a remarkable survival: Nicholas Stone's great monument to John Donne. Here, in an exclusive extract from my forthcoming book, I recall its happy escape...

'When the old St Paul’s Cathedral was all but destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, huge quantities of molten lead crashed down from what had been the roof and carried on downward, through the floor and into the crypt, destroying practically everything in the church and leaving nothing but ruined fragments of its former glories. What monuments survived were hideously mutilated – heads or limbs missing, grand effigies reduced to charred remnants, eerily reminiscent now of Giacometti sculptures. One monument, however, made of a single piece of white marble, slid off its pedestal intact, plummeted into the vault, and survived virtually unmarked. This was Stone’s monument to Donne, which lay unregarded among the rubble and fragmentary remains in the vault until near the end of the nineteenth century, by which time Donne’s poetry, long dismissed as flashy and uncouth, was being rediscovered. The great monument was rescued and reinstated where it still stands, in its niche in the Dean’s Aisle. If you look closely, you can still see a little scorching on the urn, the only mark of its extraordinary ordeal by fire.' 

  Donne's monument returned to the crypt for safe keeping during the Blitz. His successor as Dean, Walter Matthews, slept beside it, perhaps trusting that, having survived the Great Fire, it could survive anything.


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