(200415) -- PARIS, April 15, 2020 (Xinhua) -- File photo taken on April 15, 2019 shows the Notre Dame Cathedral on fire in Paris, capital of France. The cathedral in central Paris caught fire on April 15 last year. (Xinhua/Alexandre Karmen)

Notre Dame—1163 and all that

A year on from the fire the future of the cathedral is still uncertain
May 6, 2020

Just over a year ago, fire ripped through the upper parts of Notre Dame de Paris, without doubt the world’s most famous Gothic cathedral, though by no means (let’s whisper it) the best, even in France. Agnès Poirier’s book on the fire and the cathedral’s 850-year career must therefore have been written at some speed. This has bequeathed a certain energy: the events of the fire and its aftermath are told in the present tense, like a classier version of a Dan Brown thriller. Poirier is a shrewd observer of French culture and politics, both present and past. But there’s a glibness about some of the historical material—a sort of “1163 And All That” quality.

As absurd as the rituals of the Revolution might have been, giant hats on trees and so forth, they’re not intrinsically any less so than, say, those of Catholic Christianity, as the writers of Father Ted would have understood. Baron Haussmann’s “uncluttering” of Paris in the late 19th century is presented as a simple matter of hygiene and progress, rather than of social control and political cleansing. In 1944 Charles de Gaulle arrives in Paris and accepts former Nazi governor Dietrich von Choltitz’s letter of surrender; but there’s no mention of von Choltitz’s near-mythical refusal to implement Hitler’s scorched-earth policy.

We are left on a bit of a cliffhanger. Notre Dame’s distinctive flèche, a delicate spirelet installed by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, was lost in the fire, along with some of the lead and timber from the roof. But fears that the stone vaults would spring open without the weight of the roof to hold them in place, and tip the walls catastrophically outward, proved to be unfounded. The baroque Pietà over the high altar was similarly spared as was the cockerel that surmounted the flèche—and, hearteningly, the beehives on the roof. There will be some sort of public vote on whether the new spire should be a copy of the old one, or a new design. Poirier doesn’t tell us which she would like to see.

Notre Dame: The Soul of France by Agnès Poirier (Oneworld, £16.99)