As red flames licked the blue Parisian skies above Notre-Dame cathedral on April 15, I, along with millions around the world, watched the live footage with morbid fascination. Could it really be that one of Europe’s most iconic landmarks was disappearing before our eyes.
Fortunately, after the flames were extinguished, the main structure was found to be intact. The giant rose windows remained, and the two pipe organs were relatively unscathed.
Volunteers formed a human chain to rush artworks and relics out of the building early in the fire, and even some of the roof’s statuary had been removed a few days before as the roof was being renovated — it is speculated that a spark from renovation work on the roof was the source of the fire.
It was fascinating to see thousands gather on the banks of the Seine to watch, many in tears, and I shared their sense of loss.
Growing up in England I have been to Paris often. I have seen the cathedral many times, I have done the tour. The last time I was there I walked past with barely a nod. It is Notre-Dame. It was simply there as always. Notre-Dame is Paris. It is for the tourists, but it is also for the French. It is a symbol to the world, a source of inspiration for art, literature and French culture.
One of my favorite memories dates back 40 years when I was hiking through France and slept in a makeshift tent on the banks of the Seine. Late in the afternoon, armed with a bottle of disgusting, cheap red wine and plenty of Gauloises cigarettes (it was a different time when smoking was “cool”), a friend and I sat in the sun and watched a street performer do a fire-breathing act to earn a few Francs from the tourists (this was a time pre-Euros). He was shirtless and sweat poured down his bulging belly. As he swigged on whatever concoction he was using to spit on the flaming torches he carried in both hands, he would snarl something unintelligible in French, before spitting flames several feet into the air. He was clearly drunk off the fire water.
As he staggered around, many tourists cautiously backed away, many looking on with disgust. I thought it was hilarious. He made a few Francs from me — though not as many as he would like and he snarled at me something that suggested he thought my donation was an insult. I just laughed, I was a student, after all, and not overflowing with cash. He sneered and staggered off to terrorize some unsuspecting tourist before the police came and ushered him away.
For 850 years, Notre-Dame has been the symbolic center of France. Mileage to Paris from anywhere in France is measured to the area in front of its doors. It is a testament to the construction that she still stands, her flying buttresses still supporting the huge walls.
But it made me question the nature of permanence. In Europe, we are surrounded by structures as old, or even older, from Stonehenge to Westminster Abbey, to the Louvre and the Alhambra. They are always there and it never occurs to anyone that it will not always be thus.
French president Emanuel Macron has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame in five years, a gesture to the buildings place in the French psyche. I am sure it will be beautiful, but it won’t be the same. The aura of invincibility is gone. It is wood and stone, built by hands long since dead. These icons that we use to define us, in which we place our identity, are no more permanent than we are. These buildings will one day fall. These paintings will one day lose their color. This music will one day fall quiet. As I watched Notre-Dame burn, I wrote a poem (below) and pondered the meaning of permanence.
I am reminded of Masaccio‘s “The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and St. John and Donors,” located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Above the skeleton and crypt depicted in the lower section is the memento mori, “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.”
All things must end, and, for now, Notre-Dame is set to rise from the ashes. But the fire is a reminder. When it comes to iconic sights, get ’em while you can. You never know when the chance will be gone.
Monuments & Moments
Flames rise from the old lady of Paris,
The permanent unthinkably losing its permanence.
We take for granted that there are things
That simply exist, have always existed.
But, they are, in fact, as ephemeral as we.
There once was a world without the Mona Lisa,
Without Puccini, without the Bard of Avon,
Without Strummer and the last gang in town.
There once was, and will again, be a world without me.
I can fathom the idea that I will be lost to time
Easier than the idea these icons will fade from memory.
Yet all things must disappear eventually.
When my spire falls, thousands will not weep.
There will be no clamor to reassemble my weary bones.
But for a few moments, I exist — and that’s enough.