Broucke: Notre Dame

Apr 22, 2019

The impressive-looking flying buttresses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris are still standing – now seen by many as symbols of strength and endurance. But at the Notre Dame they have no real structural function. Resembling earthbound wings, they’re strictly there for looks. And I should know, because I teach architectural history at Middlebury College.

The Notre Dame is often held up as a typical example of Gothic. But in reality it’s not typical at all. It’s exceptional, and it has broken rules at every step of its long history. It stands as a crystallization of human history reaching back to 1163, when it was built on the site of four earlier churches and a Late Roman temple.

It was first constructed in the Early Gothic style, with pointed arches and spindly columns, and was remodeled in the 1240s, in the then new High Gothic style. And that’s when the buttresses were added.

Also in the 1240s, architect Jean de Chelles created the first of the gravity-defying circular rose windows — majestic structures of lace-like stonework and colored glass. On sunny days, the light coming in through them is otherworldly.

I was sixteen when I first visited Paris in the spring of 1977. Three friends and I had taken the train from Brussels. The cathedral at the heart of Paris made a deep impression on me. And it has held my interest ever since.

I first learned it was burning in a text from my wife. My first thoughts were for the Parisians, then the firefighters who kept the building from complete destruction with only half an hour to spare. And I thought how lucky my family had been to have seen it first-hand before so much was lost.

But restoration plans are already underway. Replacement for the spire, a 19th-century element added by the engineer Violet-le-Duc, will be determined by a global architectural competition.

And so the great cathedral will now be updated again in our times, adding yet another layer to its function as a crystallization of humanity. And even here in Northern New England, where history often seems so much younger, we will feel a kinship with it.