I really like churches – churches with a lower case c, that is. As I have written before, I have had the fortune of being brought up in France, but outside of the influence of any Christian church. I have never identified with that religion in a spiritual way, yet I have always liked churches, as buildings.
As a kid, I would often lie in my bed in the morning, hoping to hear the village church’s bells, so that I might know what time it was without having to move even a single finger. I used to pass by that very church, a massive, fortress-like, Gothic marvel, every day when I walked to school. While there, I sometimes got the chance to look inside the disaffected 14th century chapel located on school grounds. When I went out for a walk I often ran past an old convent up the street before I could reach the ruined medieval castle that crowned the hill overlooking the village.
Needless to say, growing up in an environment so saturated and entangled with ancient history is probably partly to blame for my interest in Paganism, and I am ready to bet I am not the only one. While over the years my fascination for the ancient world has only grown more intense, I have also become more aware of how fragile the heritage of said ancient world is. Every child is bound to learn at some point about the tragic fate of the library of Alexandria, but similar tragedies have happened since then, and continue to do so. I still vividly remember the profound disgust I felt when I saw the Taliban destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or when the Daesh started their destructive campaign targeting the region’s pre-Abrahamic heritage.
It was kind of the same feeling I could feel down my throat just about a week ago, when I saw the pictures of Notre Dame de Paris engulfed in flames. It made no sense – it was too big to be true, and it meant so much more than just a building being lost in flames. I had a very uneasy sleep that night, and even dreamed that a panel of architects had come to the conclusion that rebuilding the church would take about 110 years.
I was angry at these dream architects when I woke up, but eventually calmed down when I got the news that most of the church was actually okay. Still, how could something so massive, so tragic, happen at one of the world’s most well-known and beloved heritage site? While we still are not completely sure about everything, we now have at least a modicum of understanding about what took place that night.
On April 15th, foremen were hard at work setting up scaffolds all around the ancient roof of the cathedral. The painstaking process, which had started the year prior, was still far from being finished, and actual renovation work was still only in the planning stages. At the end of the work day, between 17:20 and 17:50 local time, the workers left the roof, took the construction site elevator down, locked the place, and turned the electrical system off.
Half an hour later, an alarm went off. The computerized security system of the church indicated something was wrong somewhere by the roof. Guards were sent there but didn’t find anything strange or out of place, and they left the premises.
Fifteen or so minutes later, the alarm goes off again, and smoke is soon being observed by the spire. The fire had started. It took the incredible bravery of hundreds of Parisian firefighters to contain it and save the church’s basic structure, as well as the priceless artworks and relics contained within.
The worst was thus averted. It was, after all, maybe not even the greatest threat faced by the much historied house of worship.
Some 2000 years ago, a small isle situated in the middle of the Seine river was home to the Celtic Parisii people and their capital, Lutetia. Following the Roman conquest, the island and its surroundings grew in importance and saw the development of a hybrid Gallo-Roman culture. Atop the island, at the heart of the city, lay a pagan temple, a witness to this ancient polytheist civilization which soldiered on until Christianization, when the city first became known as Paris.
During the centuries following Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity, a number of churches were built on or around the old temple’s site. A small Romanesque church succeeded the others and remained until the influential bishop and scholar Maurice de Sully ordered the construction of a much larger edifice, which would utilize newly-developed architectural engineering techniques. This was the conception of Notre Dame de Paris, and the year was 1163. It would take almost two hundred years and several generations of craftsmen for the building to be completed. In the centuries since, Notre Dame de Paris became more than just a symbol for the church or the city, but a microcosm for the entire history of the French nation.
It was in the cathedral that, during the Hundred Years War, the English king Henry VI was crowned king of France in an ultimately fruitless effort to assert English domination over the French. Later, during the bloody religious wars of the 16th century, the church suffered the iconoclastic wrath of the Protestant militants. Some two centuries later, the church was similarly damaged during the French Revolution, and the building was for a few years turned into a “temple of reason” where the goddess of freedom was celebrated. A few years later, the building, now turned back into a church, saw the self-coronation of emperor Napoleon.
As the romantic movement grew in popularity in 19th century Europe, Notre Dame turned into an icon of its own right with the help of the legendary writer Victor Hugo, who penned the Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831. Following the resounding success of the novel, the church was renovated, and, to a degree, expanded, through the sheer determination of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
It was then that the church took its definitive form as a marvel of architecture, sacred art, and a thrilling symbolism for France and Europe’s heritage. It could be argued that the Notre Dame’s churchly function was, in the end, far eclipsed by its civic status. This status was further amplified in 1905 when the French state officially separated from the church and established a tough regime of secular governance, taking legal control over most of the country’s Catholic edifices in the process.
When an entity becomes a symbol for a city, a nation, a culture, and a past, it is bound to be associated with controversy at some point or another, and the fire of April 15th only helped remind some of a certain incident that took place there some six years prior.
On the 21st of May, 2013, the cathedral witnessed a rare act of violence, a suicide by gunshot, perpetrated at the church’s altar by a man named Dominique Venner. Venner, an aging right-wing identitarian ideologue and historian, took his own life as a mean to publicly protest what he saw as the decay of western civilization through Americanization, third-world immigration, and the rise of the LGBT movement.
The execution of such a publicly morbid act made the relatively obscure Venner into the talk of the town. Venner, an avowed Pagan who had been involved in right-wing movements for over half a century, was lionized by his ideological offspring, the modern identitarian movement. Despite Venner’s Pagan inclinations, the choice of Notre Dame was not anodyne. It reflected, and amplified, a shift that has been taking place within France’s far-right recently in which a renewed focus on European, western, and especially white identity has slowly eroded a more traditional and Catholic-inspired worldview. The suicide of Dominique Venner was, in more ways than one, a way to accompany and aid this evolution and charge Notre Dame, and by extension France, with a certain power to bring forth change.
No surprises that, when news of the fire at Notre-Dame started to spread, this seemingly senseless tragedy immediately became an ideological battleground. Conspiracy-theory enthusiasts and other far-right ideologues saw, before the fire was even put out, the mark of terrorism, the will of a supposed new world order dead-set on destroying Europe’s heritage and culture. At the other end of the ring, a number of commentators started to openly minimize and mock the catastrophe, a few arguing that only white Westerners could care more about a church building than many other tragedies taking place around the world. Some internet commentators even referred to the fire as being some sort of divine retribution against the French people for the misdeeds of a teenage twitter user who, a day prior, had posted a pun about the holy city of Mecca on social media. The physical fire had not even reached its peak before it lead to a flame-war of a religious nature online.
Yet this latest conflict is nothing but a symptom of an ever-increasing religious and identitarian tension agitating the country. Since the beginning of the 2010s, France has witnessed the development of divisive identity politics in which various demographic groups vie for the domination of the public space and discourse. As a result, any public discussion of religion in France is bound to create controversy and pit French people against one another. The fact that such a monumental catastrophe as the fire at Notre Dame wasn’t enough to bring people together is just another sign of how divided we truly are.
It reminds me, to a degree, of the public reaction following the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, which was marred by a number of incidents in which some people mocked the victims because of the journal’s politics and overt criticism of religion. At this point, I doubt any kind of tragedy, incident, attack or catastrophe would be of a magnitude necessary to bring us all together. “A House divided cannot stand,” said the American president Abraham Lincoln; I feel I can relate somewhat.
To go back to the problem at hand: the fire at Notre Dame, which, besides being symbolic, was a very real incident, ended up on a more positive note than expected. The church’s basic structure and most of the treasure contained therein (including fragments of the crown of thorns and a piece of the true cross) were saved. The marvelous medieval rose windows, which reminded me so much of the one at my home village’s church, came largely unscathed as well, and only two people were lightly hurt battling the fire. It could have gone worse. In the days following the fire, millions of euros were raised to help fund the reconstruction of the edifice, a process that could take anything from five to twenty years depending on who is asked.
In the end, this tragedy had, in some way, a sort of positive outcome: it made heritage conservation into a hotly-debated issue the world over. Notre Dame will live, that is certain enough, but what about the other countless churches, castles, petroglyphs, or burial sites threatened by fire, negligence, and vandalism? That was the question many began to ask.
While the arguments about selective outrage were certainly flared up by the announcement that some of France’s richest oligarchs ear-marked hundreds of millions towards Notre Dame, I have also seen the general discourse toward this issue change in the past couple of days. Maybe this tragedy was enough of a switch for some to reach the realization that, in the end, yes, our past is fragile. Wood burns. Stone crumbles. Memory fades. But to us, as humans, this is nothing new. Isn’t it in our nature to wrestle forces that go so far beyond our control, and maybe, just maybe, not come out on top, but get even, just for one second more, one final instant?
This thought reminds me of Paris, the very city in which I was born, and its coat of arms, a ship sailing across treacherous waves, and her motto: Fluctuat nec mergitur. “She sails, but she does not sink.” A most fitting motto that French cartoonist Joann Sfar brought up following the events of 2015:
How beautiful is the motto of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur. It means to merde death.