Image of Cathedral at Notre-Dame on fire
House of God, Temple of Reason, Wounded Masterpiece. Notre-Dame. Photo Wandrille de Préville ©

Wikimedia commons, under licence and adapted from the original.

April 2019

The moving images of Notre-Dame on fire have brought home the importance of building as symbols, of cultural heritage in general, and of the vital need to protect that heritage. The UK can and should build on the work it does around the world to help protect artistic fabric of supreme importance to humanity. 

A Symbol of the Aspirations of Mankind

The world watched Notre-Dame burn. It applauded the bravery of the firefighters, the survival of the towers, the saving of the great windows. Now attention turns to the reconstruction. President Macron has announced that the cathedral will be restored within five years, and hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged by philanthropists and ordinary people from around the world.

It is a symbol and powerful example of the spiritual and artistic aspirations of mankind

For those people Notre-Dame is a symbol. First of course it is a symbol of Paris and of France, both in the eyes of the French themselves but also as something that helps define France in the eyes of the rest of the world. It is a place which has played an important role in the history of France, witnessing everything from the coronation of French Emperors and Kings (and even English Kings, back when they claimed to be rulers of France) to services of thanksgiving after victory and deliverance in the World Wars. For Victor Hugo it was a romantic symbol, the setting and arguably the real protagonist of his famous book about the ‘Hunchback of Notre-Dame’. It sits at the heart of Paris, and distances across France are measured from Notre-Dame. But most importantly, for millions of people in France and across the world, it is a symbol and powerful example of the spiritual and artistic aspirations of mankind. 

An Old Survivor

Notre-Dame has survived serious threats in the past. In 2016 Islamists attempted to blow it up with a car bomb that was intercepted before it went off. In 1944 Hitler ordered it destroyed by his retreating forces (the Nazi governor, Dietrich Von Choltitz, was persuaded to ignore the order). The hard left government of Robespierre who ruled after the Revolution threatened to pull it down, then turned it into a secular ‘Temple of Reason’, and decapitated many of the statues. Somehow throughout this long history, the great building survived and maintained its dignity and its status as the cultural and spiritual heart of France. It is striking that this has remained true even as the country became more and more secular, so that it is viewed as much as a work of art as it is a religious building, and people of all faiths and none have united to express their concern and affection for it. This tragedy therefore does bring home quite how much culture and heritage matter to most people.  

Notre-Dame has much in common with the parlous state of repair and financing that is an issue for all sorts of cultural heritage across the world

Nor is the cathedral any stranger to rebuilding. Whilst many of the roof beams tragically lost in the fire date back 850 years, Notre-Dame was extensively restored in the mid-Nineteenth Century, when Victor Hugo rekindled its popularity after the despoliations it suffered in Revolution. Its original medieval High Gothic structure reused material from a previous Romanesque cathedral on the same site, which itself had replaced Frankish, Visigothic, and Roman era churches that had been built over a pagan Romano-Celtic temple. It was undergoing much-needed renovations: the bronze statues which descend from the spire had fortunately just been removed, and the loft area was undergoing protection work. Churches throughout France have been after struggling with the underfunding and high cost of repairs – 875 of them suffered vandalism or arson in 2018 alone. In this respect, Notre-Dame has much in common with the parlous state of repair and financing that is an issue for all sorts of cultural heritage across the world. 

The UK is something of a leader in the field of helping to protect cultural heritage. The Cultural Protection Fund, administered by the British Council in partnership with the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, seeks to use the skills the UK has to help preserve and restore buildings and artefacts threatened by destruction, war, and neglect, often in countries that do not have the resources needed to do it themselves. This has allowed the rescue of much of serious artistic value (and has the happy side effect of helping to generate good will towards the UK). France has copied the same model, and is able to draw upon a wealth of expertise both from within France and elsewhere. The UK should do what it can to join those efforts to help save and renew the fabric of Notre-Dame. We have much to offer in expertise, including the renovation techniques developed after the lightning strike on York Minster and the Windsor chapel fire. The cathedral will hopefully soon rise again proudly from the ashes, and become once more as Fulcanelli described it in Mysteries of the Cathedrals: ‘a monument to the end of time’.

A new exhibition on Protecting Cultural Heritage has just opened in the British Council London building at 10 Spring Gardens, just off Trafalgar Square. It is free for all visitors.

Alasdair Donaldson, with thanks to Steven Stenning, Head of Arts and Society, and Bob Lewis, Country Director France, British Council

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