The Spire, Aglow

Armand Guillaumin, The Bridge of the Archbishop and the Apse of Notre-Dame, c. 1880. I returned again to see the Impressionism exhibit at the AGO today and this painting was timely.

The spire, aglow, burning red. Two hundred metric tons of wood, 50 tons of lead, all in flames, the lines of its neo-Gothic tracery outlined in its death throes.

Reuters: Benoit Tessier

It could not hold, and so it fell, collapsing down into the transept.


As I gasped in horror and awe, recalling nothing so much as the falling of the World Trade Center towers, I thought I was witnessing the death knell of Notre Dame. Flames now consumed the roof, inching inexorably towards the iconic towers at the end, home of the famous bells–unable to toll that once last time.  “It’s all gone,” said a witness, regarding the wood structures, “there’s nothing left.”  I pictured the great rose windows shattered, the organ wrecked, the statuary cracked and burnt. I imagined the massive limestone vault of the church consumed in flames, and I flashed again to an image of Old St. Paul’s, once the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, subsumed by flames during the Great Fire of 1666, its leaded roof melting away.   Already in semi-ruinous state at the time of the fire, little could be saved, and so the old walls were cleared away for the glories of Wren’s new St. Paul’s–now, an iconic symbol of London.  (I, of course, mourn the old one).  I may not be a Francophile or a Catholic, but as a historian (particularly one with a love for the 12th and 13th centuries),  Notre Dame has special meaning to me–not least because it houses the famous Shirt of St. Louis, one of the key exemplars of tunic construction we still have available to us in the 21st century.  Paris is an old city, one of the birthplaces of the medieval university, and while so many of its famed structures–the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre–are much more recent, Nortre Dame evokes that long history like no other building in the city.

My imagination turned out to be far too vivid. Notre Dame still stands today, four days later, scarred and hurt, but not broken.  Notre Dame’s interior is mostly stone, with the carved woodwork it does have being mostly at ground level.  What had burned was the famous “forest” that supported the roof above the stone of the vaulting, creating a kind of attic. Many of these massive support beams dated back to the earliest years of the cathedral, and so their loss is tragic–but not as works of art.  Those were mostly saved. The ferocious flames I saw consume the roof never reached the ground level.

There is already talk of how to rebuild.  Popular opinion in the days following the fire assumed that the “old methods” used to build the original were in all likelihood lost (which is vehemently not the case–Europe has a thriving preservation industry.),  But the spire dated only from the 19th century–part of the restoration work done by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  The original spire had been damaged by wind and removed in the 18th century.  In fact, the entire cathedral had deteriorated significantly by the early 19th century and was in real danger of falling into complete ruin until Victor Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, leading King Louis Philippe to order the building restored. Viollet-le-Duc’s new spire was based on drawings of the old one, but was taller and more ornate.

So what should the new spire look like?  While I would not have an issue with a reconstruction based on either the original or the 19th century version, I have a vision of an entirely different kind of spire–one made of glass, lit from within.  Oddly enough, it was that vision of the spire in flames–and its stark and horrible beauty– that gave birth to this vision.  But it was also something else.

In 1933, after the Reichstag burned, the German legislature never returned there.  Its damaged main meeting hall was used by the Nazis for rallies and military purposes.  During WWII, it became a target for air raids, and was one of the key objectives for the Red Army during the fall of Berlin because of its symbolic value. At the end of the war, the building lay just inside of the Allied Sector. A ruin, it had no real use as a government building–the West German government had relocated to Bonn. In 1956, they decided to restore the building, but the damaged cupola was removed, along with most of the vestiges of the building’s past.  It became a museum and the occasional location for large gatherings, but not as a seat of government.

This changed after German reunification. Since 1999, the German parliament has met in a wholly restored Reichstag (although this time, traces of history, including Soviet graffiti, has been preserved.)  The crowning glory of the restored building–and a symbol of light and unity–is the glass cupola constructed to evoke the original, which dated from 1894.  From darkness and division comes light.  The cupola shines above the restored building, symbolic of hope, transparency, and peace, after years of discord.


Paris, the “City of Light”–one of the first European cities to receive street lights, cradle of the Enlightenment and of education and learning–is no stranger to this symbolism of light.  What could better pay homage to this heritage than a new spire made of glass–following the lines of contours of the old spire, but glowing from within, triumphant, a phoenix rising?

It’s already been done, for a smaller church — the 12th century Church of St. James in Dublin, Ireland.


That would be my own dream for a rebuilt spire. The interior of the church–restore it, as much as possible, with an eye to history.  But the spire, in many way, stands apart from the rest of the building, and there is the opportunity there to evoke the past while looking to the future–and from darkness and destruction, to bring forth a symbol of light.