How truly sad, ironic and chilling that just days before Easter, La cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris, the haunting 850-year old Gothic masterpiece should be swept by a colossal fire. Predictably, responses have been widely diverse. In addition to the tears shed, Psalms intoned, and vast sums already donated for its reconstruction, many of the cyber-cretins who inhabit their modern version of the Asylum of Charenton have proclaimed that it was a conspiracy - an act of Muslim terror. Just as predictably, the so-called “Yellow Jackets” have begun protesting that the donated restoration funds (already in excess of $1 billion) can and should be spent for aiding the hungry, the homeless and the grossly impoverished of France. The ashes and embers of Notre-Dame have brought people the world over together; so too, these same ashes and embers have torn people both up and apart.
Without question, Notre-Dame de Paris is the most famous of all Gothic Cathedrals of the Middle Ages and is, for its size, antiquity and architectural interest. It was built on the ruins of two earlier churches, which were themselves predated by a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The cathedral was initiated by Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, who, in about 1160 conceived the idea of converting into a single building, on a larger scale, the ruins of the two earlier basilicas. The foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163, and the high altar was consecrated in 1189. The choir, the western façade, and the nave were completed by 1250, and porches, chapels, and other embellishments were added over the next 100 years.
This is not the first time Notre-Dame has been severely damaged. After the French Revolution it was rescued from possible destruction by Napoleon, who crowned himself emperor of the French in the cathedral in 1804. Notre-Dame underwent major restorations in the mid-19th century. And the popularity of Victor Hugo’s 1831 historical novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris , which takes place in the cathedral, was said to have inspired the renovations. (n.b. As of this morning, Hugo’s classic novel is now the #1 best seller on Amazon.com.)
One of the things which has always fascinated me about Notre-Dame is how long it took to be built: nearly 250 years. Imagine that! The people who went to work on the first days of construction - more than 1,000 carpenters, masons, metalsmiths and other laborers knew that they wouldn’t live long enough to see it through to completion. Nor would their children or grandchildren. And yet they persisted, going to work six days a week. Today, no one has that kind of patience; no one takes the long view. A skyscraper must be completed in the wink of an eye; and, without all the architectural brilliance of Notre-Dame de Paris.
In terms of lapsed time, Notre-Dame actually took a fairly short time from foundation stone to completion. Consider, if you will that:
The Great Wall of China, the longest man-made structure in the world, took more than 2,000 years to build, cost more than 400,000 lives and has yet to be completed. According to legend, every one of those 400,000 deceased slaves were buried within the wall.
No one truly knows how long it took to build the Kufu (Cheops) pyramids at Giza in Egypt. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus estimated that it took 30 years. This makes no sense whatsoever. Consider that the Great Pyramid consists of 2,300,000 blocks in the largest pyramid,. The average weight of each block was around 6 tons. If Giza truly took 30 years to build, that would be putting in 210 2 1/2 ton blocks a day!, 365 days a year . . . presuming you had nearly a million slaves at work. (For those who assume that these were the Hebrew slaves mentioned in the Biblical Book of Exodus, you’re getting your history from Cecil B. de Mille; the pyramids were already completed before the first Hebrew - Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rebecca - entered Egypt.)
Two other Wonders of the World - Petra and Stonehenge (above) - not only took more than 500 years to construct; no one really knows how they were built, considering what tools were yet to invented. Indeed, human ingenuity is truly remarkable.
One of the things which has long attracted me to the study of history and human accomplishment is just how small and relatively insignificant it makes me feel. The wonders created by people throughout the ages frequently defy understanding; how they built, wrote, created and generally brought so much awe-inspiring artistry into the world is to make one mute and dumbfounded. But beyond their urge and ability to create such wonderments, I find their patience, their innate ability to take the long view, all the more compelling. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, the architects and master builders of Cheops and Notre-Dame de Paris, not to mention Petra, Angkor Wat and the Moai Statues on Easter Island Chichen Itza, and Machu Picchu, all understood the value of taking the long, long view.
Of course, none of those involved in creating the timeless classics of the world lived under the shadow of fear; fear that the world could be destroyed by the lethal mayhem of missiles, the pushing of “the button,” or a mostly man-made ecological apocalypse. Without that fear, the giants of the ages were free to build, create and even legislate for the eons . . . not just for tomorrow.
Sadly, we now live in an era where our leaders are far, far more concerned about their todays, apparently forgetting - or not giving a fig - about our collective tomorrows. We hogtie future generations with the overwhelming debt created today, all the while engaging in cacophonous argumentation about our planet’s future - argumentation which blocks out the sound of the ticking clock. Few seem to grasp that having greater riches today cannot save our future progeny or planet from the bill which will eventually come due.
Perhaps - just perhaps - out of the ashes and embers of Notre Dame de Paris we can learn a lesson about working together; about taking a long view which ultimately can help us win the future. I have no doubt that the cathedral which has stood for eight-and-a-half centuries will eventually be shored up and reconstructed.
This is both good and great. One need not be a Catholic to stand in awe of this masterwork.
The question is; can we find the strength and wisdom to take the long, long view which the cathedral so wondrously symbolizes?
562 days until the next election.
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone