The burning of Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday was a unifying moment for the Western world. We all watched mesmerized, stunned, horrified as the flames tore through the building, and as the orange glowing spire fell. As when the Towers fell, I was glued to the images, too far away to make another pilgrimage, but unable to turn aside to a Hallmark movie.
I found myself remembering my senior year in college when I took a course in decorative arts. I loved that course even though it was at 8am. There was no one professor; each time period was taught by the department specialist. The section on Gothic-inspired furniture (which was not very attractive actually) required us to understand Gothic architecture – and so we studied cathedrals, including, of course, Notre Dame de Paris.
If you’ve never been to a European medieval Gothic cathedral, you’ve really missed something amazing. The high, high vaulted ceilings reaching up to God. Intricate carvings. Gargoyles. Fabulous art work. Flying buttresses to support those impossibly high walls to keep them from falling.
And the windows. Oh, the windows. Stained glass in deep rich colors set into lead, glowing high in the nave, telling Bible stories and the lives of saints in pictures, a kind of Bible picture book for the illiterate medieval Christians who built the cathedrals and worshipped there.
Huge Rose Windows, round windows of incredible glass and stone tracery, are a hallmark of cathedrals. And Notre Dame had three of them. These windows dominate the space and the glory of intricate color and design just overwhelm us with beauty and the point to the glory of God, for whom they were made. As of tonight, the Notre Dame Rose Windows are safe, but we’ll have to see if the heat from the raging fire caused damage we can’t see.
I’m grateful I was able to go to Notre Dame twice in my life, and to other cathedrals on my travels. They can start to look alike after awhile – all amazing, all huge, all powerful, all crowded with tourists even as they function as living churches. But Notre Dame was, is, one of a kind.