The tragic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on April 15, 2019, has had a more visceral effect on many people than we might have anticipated. On the night of the fire, hundreds gathered and sang the Ave Maria while watching the roof of the church burn. Around the globe, people stood in front of television screens stunned into silence.
For so many, it seems like when the ceiling fell,
it fell on their hearts.
Many of those who mourned had never been to the Cathedral, having seen it only in pictures. And, some had no religious connection with the Cathedral at all. Offers of help to repair and restore Notre Dame have poured in from around the world and more than a billion dollars has been pledged so far. For so many, it seems like when the ceiling fell, it fell on their hearts. We are left to wonder why this damage to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris had such a profound effect.
The architecture of Notre Dame itself had much to
do with the effect the event had on people’s emotions.
Actually, the architecture of the place itself had much to do with the effect the tragic event had on so many people’s emotions. 1 And, that is especially true of Notre Dame, which is a Gothic-style church, dating from the mid-1100’s. The design and architectural character of churches has evolved over many centuries. And, various influences, such as religious, cultural, climatic, and so on have contributed to the formation of particular styles of church architecture.
Because of intense persecution, the very earliest Christian “churches” were people’s homes. After 380 AD, when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Christian churches which were constructed by the Empire followed the Roman architecture style. But, Christian thought and sensibilities were so much different from the decadence that had been Rome, that the style of Christian churches began to change. However, this change in architectural style abruptly ceased upon the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD; not to be revived until the time of Charlemagne in the year 800. Still later, the religious enthusiasm, manifest in the Crusades, gave rise to the development of the architectural style known as “Gothic.” Notre Dame was one of the first Gothic cathedrals.
The flying buttress feature enabled the use of very high, elaborately decorated ceilings, and walls.
Among of the most prominent features of the Gothic-style was the flying buttresses, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by the buttress structures outside the building. This eliminated central columns and enabled the use of very high, elaborately decorated ceilings, and walls that could accommodate large stained-glass windows.
In a time of wide-spread illiteracy, these windows “told the stories” of the faith. Soon, the storytelling role of the windows was supplemented by religious-themed sculpture. This sculpture enabled the kings and nobles of the time to become “patrons of the faith” through statues, chapels and processional aisles.
As well as being the principal places of worship during the Gothic period, churches were also the main public meeting places. They were the very center of community life and were generally regarded as national monuments. This was particularly true in France. A number of important national events in their history, such as the coronation of Napoleon, took place in Notre Dame Cathedral. So, for Frenchmen to suffer damage to Notre Dame was to suffer damage to their very identity.
Another prominent architectural feature of the Gothic-style was the use of high pointed arches replacing the rounded arches of the previous Romanesque period. 2 Rows of pointed arches are common in Gothic-style churches like Notre Dame. Gothic masons supplemented the pointed arches with great towers tapered upward above them. It was such a tapered tower above the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral whose collapse so shocked and saddened churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike during the tragic fire.
The windows, sculpture and Stations of the Cross
“tell the stories” of the faith.
Construction of Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163 and was largely completed by 1345. During that time, in 1217, the Franciscans were granted control of the “holy places” in Jerusalem and the practice of replicating the Via Dolorosa by erecting “stations of the cross” in churches began. This soon standardized on fourteen “stations” each associated with an event in Christ’s passion and death, thus telling the story of Good Friday.
This telling of the stories through its architecture, led to Notre Dame Cathedral being referred to as Liber Pauperum, or the "poor people's book." In time, the Cathedral has become the symbol of both the beauty and history of Paris. The pointed arches and the spires above served no structural role, rather they were intended to provide visual expression of religious aspirations and directed people's thoughts and eyes heavenward. 3
Christians anticipate the return of Jesus “from above” as promised in Luke’s account of Jesus’ Ascension: “While his disciples were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven’” [Acts 1:10-11].
So, churches like Notre Dame are more than just buildings, they’re worship spaces especially designed to touch our heart and affect our emotions, to direct our attention to “things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” [Colossians 3:1]. The architect’s artful use of verticality creates a sense of transcendence toward Heaven and the architect’s generous use of beauty draws us yet again to ponder the marvel of God’s creation. But, most of all the architecture tells us the stories of our faith, stories that refer to the past, serve the present, but inform our future.
It’s no wonder that when the Notre Dame Cathedral ceiling fell in that tragic fire on April 15, 2019, it seems like it fell on many hearts, not just those in Paris that night, but all around the world.
'Till next time,
Dcn. Bob Evans
May 10, 2019
1 Sarah Robinson, et. al. (eds), Mind in Architecture, 2017.
2 Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture, on the Comparative Method, 17th edition, 1961,
3 Ibid, p. 368.
Acts 1:10-11; Colossians 3:1