In Notre Dame’s Ruins, a Glimpse of Eternity
Even supposedly immutable monuments are just as transient as anything else.
On a recent trip to Paris, I swung by Notre Dame. I expected a blackened ruin. Instead, I was surprised to find what looked like a construction site, complete with scaffolding. It all felt orderly, for want of a better term, which seems like a minor miracle in the wake of the April fire that destroyed the structure’s roof and spire.
I walked around the perimeter, which was blocked by a tall wall (presumably to protect passersby from falling debris). The big question, now that funding for reconstruction is secured, is whether that reconstruction should remain faithful to the former design, or follow some new, as-yet-unimagined path.
But why rebuild? In a fascinating essay, Jay Rubenstein makes the case for “magnificent ruins,” writing:
“It’s daunting to imagine at the center of Paris a new Colosseum or Parthenon, the wounds of fire and the ages transformed into a badge of honor, no less spiritual for being unwillingly opened to the heavens, gardens now inside and out, religious practice occurring, if at all, in the limited sheltered spaces. But it is a vision worth contemplating.”
Indeed, the ruins are pretty incredible:
No, of course the French will rebuild; it seems an insult to their national soul to leave a blackened patch on the Île de la Cité. To that end, various artists have proposed some… odd upgrades to the structure, including a 300-foot-tall replica of the consuming flames (“made of carbon fiber and covered in gold leaf,” according to The New York Times). While it seems unlikely that the French will embrace that particular idea (très gauche!), a number of design firms are hoping against hope that their ultra-modern concepts will eventually make the cut.
(Personally, I doubt that any of them will win. It’s one thing to debate whether the caretakers of Notre Dame should reproduce a particular statue; it’s harder to see anyone agreeing to build a glass-and-steel spire that clashes with the existing stone.)
Monuments like Notre Dame are supposed to exist as exceptions to the world’s endless churn. We freely use terms like “immortal” to describe them. Within our limited timeframes, they are indeed unchanging, eternal — unless the universe’s hammer comes down in a spectacular fashion.
Indeed, Notre Dame has fallen into disrepair before, and its structure was a mishmash of pieces and elements hailing from the Medieval to the 19th century. It’s only because we live such short existences that we have a hard time grasping that even these supposedly immutable monuments are just as transient as anything else.