Tag Archives: notre dame de paris

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

St. Denis and Notre Dame

When the great minds of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ wanted to denigrate the art, architecture, and bookhands of the previous generation(s), they chose the word ‘Gothic’, as opposed to their re-birth of alleged Graeco-Roman ‘humanism’ in architecture, handwriting, and the visual arts.

In what follows, do take a look at the hyperlinks, for they take you to images on my Flickr photostream; the Notre Dame photos are not up yet, though! I am having trouble with file sizes and WordPress, soo….

I have recently visited two Gothic masterpieces here in Paris, Basilique St. Denis and Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the world-famous cathedral). Neither is worth denigrating (nor is the mindblowing Duomo of Milan).

The Basilique St Denis is north of the centre of Paris, in one of the <em>banlieux</em> where you feel like you’re in a mélange of French North Africa and French Subsahara with European architecture everywhere. In the Middle Ages, this was not Paris. The community would have arisen up here around the basilica and monastery.

St. Denis was, as tradition has it, founded by St. Denis, third-century bishop of Lutetia (Paris) who was beheaded on Monmartre (Mons Martyrorum) with two companions. Having been beheaded, he picked up his head and walked with it to where he wished himself to be buried. That was up in St. Denis. So they buried him in what would become his basilica’s crypt.

True story, if Hincmar of Reims (806-882) has anything to say about it.

St. Denis was conflated with another person of the same name, (Pseudo)Dionysius the Areopagite, writer of early sixth-century pseudepigrapha of a very mystical nature worth a read or two. It’s about reaching the uncreated Light and all that jazz.

So in the 12th century, Abbot Suger of the monastery at St. Denis decided to make a cathedral of light in honour of St. Denis, theologian of the light of God.

He (re?)built the chevet, the entry point of the church before you reach the narthex as well as a double ambulatory. An ambulatory is a place for walking behind the apse of a church (an apse is the round bit that sticks out like a bump at the back, where the high altar is in traditionally-arranged churches), and a double ambulatory has an extra arcade full of altars for the celebration of private masses.

This space is full of light, because a pointed Gothic arch can span a very wide distance, leaving room for naught but coloured glass.

Later, Suger’s successors rebuilt the Carolingian and Romanesque portions in the mid-twelfth century. This includes the high and lofty nave that reaches in a light, airy manner into the reaches of the heavens above, as well as the addition of transepts. If you imagine a mediaeval cathedral as a cross, transepts are the arms of the cross. Using the weightlessness of Gothic architecture, the transepts include very beautiful rose windows.

St. Denis basically blew my mind, architecturally. It is light and airy and is ribbed with magnificence.

Two nights ago, while Jennie was visiting, we turned up in Notre Dame during one of the Masses for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We thus had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and experience Gothic architecture the way it was meant to be experienced — with choir and priests and bishops chanting out prayers and scripture readings and alleluias:

The nave was full, so I am unable to compare the height and grandeur of Notre Dame with the height and grandeur of St Denis. But here as well we have the high, fluted columns stretching to pointed arches and walls made of stained glass. We have rose windows.

And we have the chapels of a double ambulatory.

These chapels at Notre Dame are interesting. I do not know whether the painting is original, but I do not doubt that they represent an image of how such places were intended to look — full of colour and vibrance, dazzling the eye with the wonder of God’s good creation.

When I visit these large, airy Gothic places, I cannot side with anyone who would think poorly of them. They are magnificent, whether Notre Dame, St Denis, York Minster, Rosslyn Chapel, the Milanese Duomo!

I recommend a visit.