Notre Dame Is Falling Down: Why The French Need Our Help (Again)

If I asked you to name the most famous church in France, more likely than not you would pick the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Thanks to its prominent location in the French capital, its appearance in films, television, and works of art, and its significant influence on church design around the world, Notre Dame is perhaps the best-known religious building in France, even if it’s not quite the most beautiful or interesting church in that country. So it will no doubt grieve you to learn that, as a result of centuries of neglect, Notre Dame is falling down – and needs about 150 million euros to be saved.

As described by the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris charitable group:

Unfortunately, the architectural state of the cathedral is in very bad condition. This does not appear at first glance as the façade was restored in the nineties. However, below are a few examples of the urgent repairs needed :

  • the nearly 100 meter high spire and the 12 apostles that crown it have a large number of cracks and fissures that need an immediate restoration,
  • the aging stonework of all of the flying buttresses are causing problems for the stability of the whole building,
  • many pinnacles and gargoyles are in disrepair or have fallen down and
  • the lead framework of the stained glass windows is weakened

The Ministry of Culture summarized all these needed repairs in a 2014 audit. The overall cost of the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is estimated to be around €150 million. This estimate includes both the base infrastructure as well as other architectural and cultural treasures. Ideally, these renovations need to be completed within the next 5 years, and at the latest within 15 years.

We can lay the blame for this situation at a number of doorsteps. The passage of time, pollution, declining Mass attendance, poor management, and other factors all have parts to play. However, I suspect that a significant part of the problem lies in the strange relationship which Notre Dame the building has with the congregation which it serves, or rather with the secular government which controls it.

For you see, rather bizarrely, the Archdiocese of Paris does not actually own Notre Dame. It is in fact the property of the French government, which permits the Church to use the Cathedral for religious purposes, but does not provide any funding toward the running of the building. There are comparatively small-scale government grants made to the building for historic preservation purposes, but on the whole, any major restoration costs fall on the Archdiocese’s tab. This head-scratching arrangement was codified at the turn of the previous century, but really began in 1789.

Of the many things which you were probably not taught in school about the French Revolution was the fact that churches like Notre Dame were stolen from the Church by the French government, and desecrated in the name of atheism. In addition to attacks on the fabric of these buildings themselves, where towers, facades, or sometimes even entire structures were torn down, countless works of art contained within them were destroyed or defaced. Graves of the dead buried within these churches were plundered and the bodies thrown onto scrap heaps, while innumerable numbers of books from their libraries were burned, all in the name of worship of the secular French state.

To substitute for Christianity, ceremonies were invented to celebrate the State, or amorphous concepts such as “Liberty”, albeit not a form of that concept which I daresay any reasonable person would care to live under. One of the more egregious examples of this, in the case of Notre Dame, was the celebration within its walls of “The Festival of Reason”, which was described by the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his “The French Revolution: A History” (1837). As part of the bacchanal of blood involved in this event, an actress and prostitute – but I repeat myself – by the name of Amélie-Julie Candeille was dressed as a personification of liberty, paraded around Paris, and brought to the now-desecrated Notre Dame, so that she could be worshiped where the high altar once stood by the President of France and his toadies:

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;–Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And so straightway, Reason taking seat on the high- altar of Notre-Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; National Convention chanting ‘the Hymn to Liberty, words by Chenier, music by Gossec.’ It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion of Chaumette.

After the re-legalization of Christianity in the 19th century there was some improvement to the situation, in the form of an over-zealous restoration project headed by the legendary architect and theoretician Viollet-le-Duc. However, apart from the restoration of some windows after World War II, and the cleaning of the façade twenty years ago, there has been virtually no maintenance work on the Cathedral for nearly two centuries. It’s no wonder, then, that the building is quite literally falling to pieces.

Given the fact that Notre Dame is in the state that she is in is, at least in part, due to the abuse and neglect which she has suffered at the hands of the State, it seems to me that the only proper course of action is either for the French government itself to pay for her restoration, or for the State to wash its hands of the entire cause célèbre by returning ownership of the building to the Church. Neither of these things will happen, of course, since France is too busy paying for important necessities such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s $30,000 makeup bill. In addition, anti-Catholicism is so rooted in the workings of the State, that any attempt to return the Church’s rightful property to her would be doomed to legislative failure.

And so once again, it falls to the international community – and particularly Americans, natch – to take on the work which the French are too impotent to handle themselves. That’s not an excuse for us to sit back and do nothing, of course, while the Cathedral falls into ruin. But it’s rather embarrassing that, once again, the rest of the world has to come to France’s rescue.

Garg

Advertisements

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

A new exhibition at The Städel Museum in Frankfurt called “Heaven on Display” caught my eye in the art press this morning. Although the gallery is filled with beautiful works of art created over many centuries, as with any exhibition of this sort the visitor is cautioned not to forget the fact that such a show is something of a Frankenstein monster. Torn from the fabric for which they were created, and chopped into bits for the benefit of greedy governments, the objects on display provide a good opportunity for us to call to mind exactly why they were made, why they ended up as they have, and what we can learn from their story.

The centerpiece of the The Städel exhibition is the Altenberg Altarpiece, which was created in the 14th century for the Abbey of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Sisters in Altenberg an der Lahn. Its central portion consists of a well-loved statue of the Madonna and Child, which was placed in an architectural framework of Gothic tracery. This was flanked by hinged wooden wings, painted with lively, colorful images of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The entire ensemble stood on the High Altar of the Abbey Church for centuries, and was greatly admired by numerous visitors.

In 1803, Altenberg Abbey was secularized by the local princelings, in collusion with the secular French Republic led by then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters were forced to leave both their home and their religious vows, Altenberg was stripped of everything of value, and the Abbey’s contents were broken up and sold to the highest bidder. Today, the component parts of the Altenberg Altarpiece are scattered among municipal, regional, and private collections around the world.

The story of how the Altenberg Altarpiece ended up in its present state is a part of Western history which at best is usually glossed over in school. While England’s Henry VIII is certainly the most infamous of despoilers of the patrimony of Western Christianity, a supposedly “enlightened” Europe decided to match his efforts beginning in the late 18th century. Hundreds of abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, and buildings, land, and contents were sold off. This was done supposedly for the benefit of “the people”, but in reality for the benefit of people like the (Un)Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, an eternal embarrassment to the Habsburg family, and those who backed the radical destruction of Catholic culture.

This practice picked up pace under Napoleon, and continued well into the 19th century. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal for example, one of the largest pigs ever to achieve the feat of walking on two legs, is responsible for the fact that many works of Christian art and architecture were ripped out of Spain and sold to private collectors. When you see bits of frescoes from Catalan Romanesque monasteries or embroidered altarcloths from Burgundy in places like Boston or Philadelphia, the secularization process begun under the Enlightenment is most probably responsible for how they ended up where they are.

Understanding how these works of art came down to us is important, since they are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created. In seeing the Altenberg Altarpiece patched back together, we can be reminded that while an age of faith created this work of art, and built the Abbey that housed it, an age of secularization needed to destroy these things. The visual impact of Catholicism needed to be diminished or eliminated by secular forces in Western Europe, just as the communists needed to bulldoze cathedrals in Eastern Europe to show that there was no going back.

In earlier times, man’s creative energy was put at the service of God, cataloguing his blessings upon us all. Today, surrounded by contemporary art and architecture that catalogues and celebrates the self, which accepts no criticism of any kind, we may very well ask what such things portend. As we head into an increasingly perilous age for Christianity, perhaps in seeing what became of Altenberg Abbey and its beautiful Altarpiece, we have a preview of what may be in store.

image

Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece

When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome