Joseph Shaw

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Don’t modernize Notre Dame

April 24, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — LifeSiteNews has a petition going to oppose the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, badly damaged in a fire, with modern additions. Ominously, President Emmanuel Macron has already opened a competition for architects to propose designs.

Like previous French presidents, Macron may well wish to leave a mark on a great historic building. President Mitterrand spoiled the classical masterpiece of the Louvre Palace, now a museum, with a much derided glass pyramid in the middle of the great courtyard and added insult to injury by obliging visitors to use it as the entrance.

What can we expect to see with Notre Dame? A glass obelisk, to replace the gothic spire that was lost in the fire? That would surely be too tame. Perhaps we’ll get something that combines modern materials, such as polished steel, glass bricks, and reinforced concrete, into a bulbous concoction symbolizing the modern France of same-sex marriage, concerns about climate change, and cars being torched by rioters.

Whenever dilapidated historic buildings need to be repaired, or adapted for new uses, the question arises of whether to restore to them to their former glory or use the remains as a jumping-off point for something new. There is nothing wrong with rebuilding even sacred structures: it happened to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, although it is interesting to note that the great popes of the Renaissance, who certainly didn’t lack self-confidence or imagination, refused to do the same thing with an even more venerable structure, the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This retains its ancient form, with its ancient pillars encased in marble.

The problem with Notre Dame, today, is that the French state does not share the values the cathedral was built to represent. Yes, Notre Dame was built, expanded, and adapted over many centuries, and yes, the builders of each age worked using the style of their own day. But as they did so, at least up to the 17th century, they worked not only with the kind of reverence for the past that a secular antiquarian might have, but with something much stronger: a unity of spirit and intention with their predecessors, which flowed not just from a unity of abstract doctrine, but of spirituality. It was not simply that generations of craftsmen believed in the Trinity and the Resurrection: they understood the spirit of the Catholic liturgy, for which the building was a setting, in the same way.

This is why things went wrong in Notre Dame, and many other great Catholic churches, in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is then we find stained glass being destroyed, rood screens removed, and tussles over devotional images. These conflicts were the result of a debate about the spirit of the liturgy and spirituality. The French Jansenists and Austrian Josephists who wanted to dispel the medieval gloom with clear glass and open sight lines ultimately lost not only the theological debate, but also the aesthetic one. What they did to ancient churches is today regarded as a travesty and, where it cannot be reversed, a permanent loss to human culture.

It hardly needs to be added that something similar happened all over again in the 1970s.

Those changes, which were really at war with the original structure, tend to be reversed, where possible, by later generations, by contrast with the additions made in harmony with it, which sensitive restorers like the great Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored Notre Dame after the French Revolution, preserved wherever possible.

The historical, artistic, and scientific expertise of restorationists has performed staggering feats in recent decades, for example with the restoration of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, together with its wonderful Giotto frescoes, all but destroyed by an earthquake in 1997. This is an area of modern life where we may say that in objective terms, we surpass our predecessors. The world’s best restorationists could bring Notre Dame back to life as a masterpiece of Medieval spirituality, a commentary and meditation on, as well as a setting for, the Church’s ceaseless and perfect prayer, the prayer of Christ in the Church.

What pass today as the world’s foremost architects are no more capable of contributing to that masterpiece than Led Zeppelin could be asked to complete Beethoven’s Unfinished Symphony.

They haven’t the skills, and they haven’t the will. They are, by contrast, perfectly adapted to their usual run of commissions, such as housing faceless and inhuman organizations in buildings which balance brutality with banality.

It is the function of cathedrals not to crush the human spirit, but to raise it in prayer. Please sign the petition.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.