Colby Faculty Reflect on the Power of Notre-Dame
As flames consumed parts of the iconic medieval Notre-Dame Cathedral, Professor of History Larissa Taylor felt a deep connection to the global catastrophe and common grief.
Notre-Dame was the first historical site Taylor visited when she moved to Paris in 1985 for her dissertation research on the Middle Ages. Although she was one of millions visiting the cathedral every year, its impact on her was profound.
“I’ll never forget the moment when I touched the stone when I walked inside and I was almost overcome by it,” she said. It was, Taylor explained, the feeling of touching hundreds of years of history and experiencing the Middle Ages beyond readings for the first time. “I remember my eyes were drawn up by the height of the building,” she said, and then to the Rose Windows, making jeweled colors on the pillars on sunny days. “When you see that, it’s very otherworldly and it makes you think you’re not in your daily existence anymore.”
That day she sat in Notre-Dame for hours, and in her two years in Paris, she kept going back. Despite being anti-religious at the time, she said she attended masses without knowing why. “I think it was awakening a kind of spirituality in me and I didn’t really do much about that until significantly later in my life.”
Taylor returned to Paris and Notre-Dame in 1995 to help measure the distance between flying buttresses to assist another researcher. “It was just a wonderful experience to me, not only just looking over the rest of Paris, but realizing that I’m on this top of this eight-hundred-year-old building.”
When she saw the spire collapse on Monday, she thought that was the end for Notre-Dame. “I feared that I was truly losing a part of myself,” she said.
That feeling of spirituality in Paris was the intention of Saint Louis, explained Valérie M. Dionne, associate professor of French, who considers Paris her home. “What Saint Louis wanted [was] to bring back that spirit … that transformation of making Paris certainly a place of pilgrimage and discovery for a lot of people,” she said. The notion of Notre-Dame as a destination for pilgrims remains, she said, though now more for cultural than religious reasons. With its colors, music, art, and relics, she said she thinks of Notre-Dame like the French Jerusalem.
“Notre-Dame in some ways is the center of France not only the all the roads get Notre-Dame, it’s a bit like Rome you would say …, but Notre-Dame really seems to be like ground zero for France,” she said. With its beautiful façade, she said she feels divinity from inside and outside, but it’s more than a church. “It’s the blood of men who worked in this for many years that lost their lives. It’s blood. It’s sweat. It’s work. It’s engineering,” she said. “It’s rationality in the medieval time the way they would construct such a beauty that stands so many centuries.”
“Notre-Dame had all kinds of things happen to it,” said Professor of Art Véronique Plesch. The cathedral has outlived many wars, survived the French Revolution, witnessed famous weddings, and even was the site of Napoleon’s coronation. When Plesch heard about the fire, she immediately thought of the Twelve Apostles and symbols of four evangelists, which were taken down from Notre-Dame earlier for renovation. These were added during a 19th-century renovation by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who also built the metal spire that collapsed.
Because Notre-Dame underwent so many restorations, Plesch said, there are other, better examples of Gothic cathedrals. But Notre-Dame is the national, religious, and touristic symbol, and its symbolism has been evolving.
When it was built in the middle ages, cities were just developing and building Gothic cathedrals “became a real sign of civic pride,” explained Plesch. The cities competed with each other to build the tallest one. “Gothic style, called French work, was a real source of national pride,” she said, especially because national identity was an old and established phenomenon in France. The country early on began centralizing around Paris, too. With its location, Notre-Dame is located in the heart of Paris, thus France.
“It’s so much a symbol of Paris itself,” Plesch said. “Now we can say that as a building that has suffered this cataclysmic event, it’s taking yet another meaning.”
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