Saturday, 27 November 2021

Restoration or Devaluation?

 Dispiriting reports from Paris of plans for the restored Notre Dame
This kind of thing – using the vast, eloquent space of a cathedral to project fashionable secular themes – is a noticeable trend in this country (e.g. the recent Science extravaganza hosted by Lichfield, among others), and, at a lowlier and less intrusive level, there is a tendency in parish churches to label such basics as altar, pulpit and font with a kindergarten-level explanation of their function. At least such explanatory apparatus has some Christian substance, but that is hard to discern in some of what is planned for Notre Dame, which seems more concerned with the new secular religions of environmentalism and inclusivity. 
  France being the kind of nation it is, Notre Dame has been through similar indignities before, notably in the Revolutionary period, when the great cathedral was desecrated, much of its iconography mutilated or destroyed, and the building dedicated to the, ahem, Cult of Reason. Notre Dame recovered from that, helped by Napoleon (who reconsecrated the building and had himself crowned there), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and a surge of renewed interest in old buildings, led by the likes of the indefatigable 'restorer' Viollet-le-Duc, who conducted the great 19th-century restoration that gave us the Notre Dame we knew before the calamitous fire of 2019. 
  Heaven knows what the final results of this latest restoration will look – and feel – like, but these early reports are not hopeful. It would be a terrible shame if resources were sunk in the service of transient secular religions that could have been spent on serious, much needed conservation and restoration work. The imperative should always be to rebuild on the Venetian principle of 'Dov'era e com'era' (where it was and as it was), or indeed, in the English manner, to restore conservatively, with as little fakery, disguise and reconstruction as possible. What you then do with the restored building is a secondary question, for later consideration. In my view, there's a lot to be said for leaving these great monuments of faith to tell, by their structures and their very existence, the stories they have always told, even if fewer and fewer people are listening. 'In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells', as Peter Scupham puts it, in his poem Dissolution. An empty shell can be resonant and even eloquent – certainly more so than an echo chamber of secular received wisdom... As Larkin writes at the end of 'Church Going' (written nearly 70 years ago now, in times when the church had a far stronger presence and clearer purpose than it seems to now),

For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

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