Rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral and Western Culture
The mourning for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris began even as the flames were burning. The reaction of Mr Rod Dreher is representative of what many in the West are thinking and feeling about this event:
There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.”
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What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon.
Like James Poulos above, I cannot see this as anything other than a sign. The only church in all of Western civilization more important than Notre Dame de Paris is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The consuming fire is likely to have been started from a construction accident. I hope that is the case; if this was terrorism, then France is in for unimaginable spasms of violence. Nevertheless, if this was an accident, it still symbolizes what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony. What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.
It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.
This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course now.
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The flames of Notre Dame de Paris are a call to repentance and conversion. As the monks of Norcia have been doing since their church met catastrophe, so let us all do as we mourn the loss of one of Christendom’s greatest cathedrals. There can be no greater tribute to what this holy and revered temple meant to its builders and to all those faithful who worshiped beneath its vaults all these centuries than to turn, in sackcloth and ashes, back to God, and to raise again the vaults of His sanctuaries in our hearts and families and communities — while there is still time.
For you in the West who are not religious, I hope you will reflect on what this cathedral meant in artistic, architectural, and cultural terms, and that you will think hard about what we are losing as we collectively repudiate our patrimony.
If you were waiting for a sign of the times, this is it.
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We do not wish to seem callous to those who are mourning the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, and we are not trying to be. However, we would like to view this event from a different perspective.
From the view of the Orthodox Church, the West left Christendom in 1054 A. D. at the time of the Great Schism. The culture that grew up after that time in the West, including her architecture, necessarily reflects the new religious underpinning. Christos Yannaras explains how this worked itself out in the giant cathedrals of Western Europe in his book The Freedom of Morality:
“Gothic art,” observes Choisy, “operates with antitheses, contrasting with the plains the elevation of its perpendicular lines and enormous spires.” What we have here is not simply an aesthetic or proportional contrast, however, but an anthropocentric tendency, a demand for the earthly to be elevated to the transcendent. The union of created and uncreated is not here regarded as a personal event, as the transformation of man, the world and history in the person of God the Word incarnate. It is an encounter between two natures, with human nature clothed in the dignity and transcendent majesty of the divine nature— which is exactly what happens with papal primacy and infallibility, and with the totalitarian centralization of the Roman Catholic Church. “The vaulted construction of a Gothic church desires, and tends, to give the impression of a monolithic framework” — it is the image that the Roman Catholic West has of the Church. Approaching the divine presupposes in this context a comparison between human smallness and the grandeur of divine authority an authority tangibly expressed by its monolithic, unified and majestic organization and its administrative structure. The Church is not the world in the dimension of the Kingdom, the harmonization of the inner principles of created things with the affirmation of human freedom in Christ’s assumption of worldly flesh; but it is the visible, concrete potentiality for the individual to submit to divine authority. This is why in a Gothic church the material is not “saved,” it is not “made word” and it is not “transfigured”: it is subdued by a superior force. To use specialized terminology once again: “The supports prevail over the weight placed on them… the vaulting with its supple formation clearly shows that it concentrates there all the action in the forces, and compels matter to rise up to the heights.” This compulsion of matter in Gothic architecture represents a technology which leads straight to contemporary technocracy.
--Gothic Cathedral in Rouen, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_architecture
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“It was nevertheless the art of the Gothic cathedrals which, in the whole of Christendom, then became the instrument— perhaps the most effective one— of Catholic repression”: Duby, L’Europe des Cathidrales, p. 72. Direct experience alone can justify and verify these conclusions. In the cathedrals of Cologne, Milan or Ulm, and other European cities, anyone with experience of the theology and art of the Eastern Church can see the justification for the “rebellion” of the Reformation and for the various ways in which man revolts against this transcendent authority which is expressed with such genius in architecture: it is an authority which humiliates and degrades human personhood and even ultimately destroys it. Revolt is inevitable against such a God, who consents to encounter man on a scale of such crushing difference in size.
--Notre Dame Cathedral, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_architecture
Blessed Father Seraphim Rose explores this change in art/architecture in the West further:
And finally he [Hans Sedlmayr--W.G.] gives a sort of summation of all these destructive, dark influences as they have been in the history of Western art. And although he himself was a lover of art before the Revolution, that is, up to the eighteenth century, in this little history of his, he shows very well that these destructive influences go right back precisely to the moment where we discussed the beginning of the apostasy, that is, the twelfth century.
The first outburst of this demonic elements, he says, occurs in the late Romanesque. “It is in this phase that the sacred world is suddenly endowed to a quite terrifying degree with a demoniac character. Thus in the doorways” of various cathedrals, “the sacred figures have the appearances of corpses and of ghosts, a thing that can in no wise be explained by a certain remoteness from humanity that marks the art of the high Middle Ages. Christ sometimes resembles an Asiatic idol or an Asiatic despot. The Apocalyptic beasts and the angels are all distorted by this demoniac quality. This curious phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of the dual intention that is discernable in much medieval art, the intention to administer a certain awful shock to the beholder and at the same time, by means of the sheer absurdity of the visible symbols [it created], to spur his mind towards purely spiritual contemplation; for directly beside the sacred figures, and in the very midst of them, and indeed scarcely distinguishable from them at all, are images of demons and of demoniac beasts and chimaeras that even invade the interior of the church.
“At the same time the figures themselves begin to acquire a most remarkable and unprecedented quality of instability. Those on the great arch above the door” of the Cathedral “at Vezelay seem positively to be tottering, and look as though they might crash down at any moment from the great curve on which they have so precarious a footing. This is the period when figures begin to be tangentially affixed to the frames of the great doors, and it is to this period that belongs the great Wheel of Fortune that lifts a man up and [ineluctably] casts him down, and it is this period also that for the very first time stands architectural forms upon their heads.
“All this is the visible expression of [that volubilitas rerum,] that instability of human affairs, that people have suddenly begun to feel with a peculiar and painful intensity. It is in fact the visible symbol for the dominant mood, the dominant feeling about life and the world.
“In religion the dominant emotion is fear, the principal theme is the Day of Judgment, expressed to the uttermost potential of all the terror that it can inspire. In the crypt-like gloom of the church we can with our mind’s eye see the faithful standing ‘in fear and trembling before God.’ Never has the [mysterium tremendum]” tremendous mystery “attained such force over men’s minds.”cccxxii
So, already for some reason art begins to become unstable. Although the main Gothic tradition goes on with its great cathedrals, still he senses here some kind of instability. Why? Because they, at that time they began to realize that they had lost Orthodoxy. And the artist is more sensitive than other people. This begins to come out in him. And when Orthodoxy is lost, the demons begin to come in. And therefore the demons directly inspire the artists.
Then there’s a second period, which is that of Hieronymus Bosch. “In the Romanesque” period “the demoniac world had really not yet achieved a separate life of its own. It is only in the Gothic that light and darkness are divided and the cathedral indirectly brings into being as” its “polar opposite to the Heavenly Kingdom, which is shown forth in itself, a Kingdom of Hell,” even “though this [last] remains [essentially]” still “a subordinate thing. [Then]” Thus “as the representational art of the late Middle Ages develops, we begin to get painted representations of Hell. The culminating point of this development is to be found in Hieronymus Bosch who flourished [between 1480 and 1516.]” around 1500.
“Bosch, a contemporary [and actual co-eval] of Leonardo da Vinci, created the world of Hell as a kind of chaotic counterpart to the new cosmic art of the High Renaissance,” which we already saw, this idealistic, chiliastic painting, “and what is entirely new about Bosch’s infernal world is that it has its own creative principles, its own chaotic ‘structure,’ its own formal laws, and it is really these that make it into a true counterworld to the worlds of Heaven and earth. It is only since Bosch that we have anything like a picture of Hell made visible.
“There is definite novelty in the very shapes of these creatures from Hell. They are not ‘fallen children of men, who by a simple process of metamorphosis have been turned into beasts of the Devil,’ but” they are “wholly independent and as yet unknown forms of life, born of the marriage of every conceivable kind of creature, fish, beast, bird, witch and mandrake, the products of a kind of ungoverned cosmic lewdness and debauchery, in which even lifeless things can mingle with the living. All this was something that lay wholly outside the horizons of antiquity.
“New also is the actual scenery of Hell, and we see aspects of the face of this earth which had never before been put on canvas. We see here dark gulfs, empty stretches of earth and sea that seem to tell us how utterly God has forsaken them, the desolation of empty cities, strange hideous places whose vegetation are gallows-trees and wheels of torture, slime and morass. Here are neither sun nor moon, such light as there is comes from vast conflagrations or from the irridescence of strange phosphorescent shapes. Hell can show us the work of human hands, but it is distorted, arid in decay. Above all we see ruins, we see them continually -- and in Hell there are also arsenals, a fighting equipment of strange machines, pieces of apparatus that are often meaningless, though sometimes they have a meaning, being instruments of torture, while through the air sail airships, demon manned and demon piloted.”cccxxiii
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--Orthodox Survival Course, http://tinyurl.com/gncvke7, pgs. 114-5
Considering the foregoing, what is it that we really see in Notre Dame Cathedral? In essence, one of the crowning symbols of the apostasy of the West. Its post-Schism art as we have seen is an art of the Fall, with all its death, decay, and confusion. With the arts in the Orthodox Church we see something very different, an art of the Resurrection, of the transfiguration of man and the world in Christ:
The portrayal of “christ”, this anti-spiritualism, is an offspring of camp santo, the skeletons, the macabre Trappist monasteries, the depiction of the Second Coming, such as that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the gargoyles, this is to say, the grotesque statues of the Church of Notre Dame, a confusion between saints and demons.
In the devotional icon, everything is elevated from the world in its depiction. The figure itself, the grass, the rocks, buildings, trees, etc. Nothing in an icon is shown in a corruptible state, but in a supramundane manner. Christ, in His icon of the Crucifixion is shown standing on the cross. One can not tell if the cross is holding Him up or if He is holding up the Cross. Any afflictions that had befallen Him are expressed in the icon as gentleness and forgiveness towards those who inflicted harm upon His body. His face is tranquil, humble, a saddening joy, a sample of the nature we will have once we have gained our salvation.
Photios Kontoglou: “The crucified body is not just anyone, but is the very Body of the God-Man Himself; therefore it is not a corpse, but rather incorruptible unto eternity, and the source of life. It radiates the hope of resurrection. The Lord does not hang on the Cross like some miserable tatter, but it is He, rather, who appears to be supporting the Cross. His hands are not cramped, being nailed to the Wood, rather, He spreads them out serenely in supplication, according to the Troparion which says “Thou hast spread thy palms, and united what before had been divided, that is, God and man.”
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--Paul Azkoul, http://www.traditionalbyzantineiconography.com/2017/11/09/on-the-differences-of-western-religious-art-and-orthodox-iconography/
The religion of Christ is the revelation, by Him, of the truth. And this truth is the knowledge of the true God and of the spiritual world. But the spiritual world is not what men used to—and still do—call "spiritual."
Christ calls His religion "new wine" and "bread that cometh down from Heaven." The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away: behold, all things have become new."
In a religion like this, one that makes the believer into a "new man," everything is "new." So, too, the art that gradually took form out of the spirit of this religion, and which it invented to express its Mystery, is a "new" art, one not like any other, just as the religion of Christ is not like any other, in spite of what some may say who have eyes only for certain meaningless externals.
The architecture of this religion, its music, its painting, its sacred poetry, insofar as they make use of material media, nourish the souls of the faithful with spirit. The works produced in these media are like steps that lead them from earth up to heaven, from this earthly and temporary state to that which is heavenly and eternal: This takes place so far as is possible with human nature.
For this reason, the arts of the Church are anagogical, that is, they elevate natural phenomena and submit them to "the beautiful transformation." They are also called "liturgical" arts, because through them man tastes the essence of the liturgy by which God is worshipped and through which man becomes like unto the Heavenly Hosts and perceives immortal life.
Ecclesiastical liturgical painting, the painting of worship, took its form above all from Byzantium, where it remained the mystical Ark of Christ’s religion and was called hagiographia or sacred painting. As with the other arts of the Church, the purpose of hagiographia is not to give pleasure to our carnal sense of sight, but to transform it into a spiritual sense, so that in the visible things of this world we may see what surpasses this world.
Hence this art is not theatrically illusionistic. Illusionistic art came into being in Italy during the so-called Renaissance, because this art was the expression of a Christianity which, deformed by philosophy, had become a materialistic, worldly form of knowledge, and of the Western Church, which had become a worldly system. And just as theology followed along behind the philosophy of the ancients—so, too, the painting which expressed this theology followed along behind the art of the ancient idolators. The period is well named Renaissance, since, to tell the truth, it was no more than a rebirth of the ancient carnal mode of thought that had been the pagan world’s.
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--Blessed Photius Kontoglou, ‘What Orthodox Iconography Is’, http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-orthodox-iconography-is-by-photios.html
In the long history of the Orthodox Church, a defined style of Church architecture has developed. This style is characterized by the attempt to reveal the fundamental experience of Orthodox Christianity: God is with us. The fact that Christ the Emmanuel (which translated means: God with us”) has come, determines the form of the Orthodox church building. Orthodox Church architecture reveals that God is with men, dwelling in them and living in them through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It does so by using the dome or the vaulted ceiling to crown the Church building, the house of the Church which is the people of God. In the dome is painted the icon of “Christ the Almighty.” The painted dome, or the spacious, all embracing ceiling, gives the impression that in the Kingdom of God, and in the Church, Christ “unites all things in Himself, things in heaven and things on earth,” (Ephesians 1:10) and that in Him we are all “Filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19).
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It has been said that the Churches of Western Christianity with their Gothic design try to reach toward heaven, while the Byzantine structures of Eastern Christianity attempt to bring a little of Heaven down to earth. The design as well as the traditional adornment of the interior of our Church is based on this concept.
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Orthodox Church Tradition calls for the elaborate use of symbolism and iconography in the interior decoration of the Church Building. To the eye of a Western Christians, Byzantine iconography may appear austere and unemotional. Icons are not simply portraits representing people, but graphic presentations of spiritual truths. They remain unmoved, formal and with only a hint of emotion appearing in the face of the figures. Icons are not intended to evoke an emotional response as they do invoke understanding and wisdom.
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In the Orthodox Church the icons bear witness to the reality of God’s presence with us in the mystery of faith. The icons are not just human pictures or visual aids to contemplation and prayer. They are witnesses to the presence of the Kingdom of God to us, and our own presence in the Kingdom of God in the Church.
In the Triumph of the Orthodox over the Iconoclasts in 787 AD, icons were valid expressions of faith because the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:15) and that Christ is truly man and as man, truly the “icon of the invisible God.”
The power of icons is not mechanical or magical, but spiritual. It is a working of God’s grace in the act of a personal expression of faith and through the intercessory prayers of the saints who live in God’s glory. Icons teach us about Christ and His ministry, as well as about the Saints and their record of faith. As sacred art, icons are “windows into Heaven.” They seek to symbolize the transfigured cosmos and the victory of redeemed creation by the glory of Christ. In the word of Saint John of Damascus: “The icon is a song of triumph, a revelation and an enduring witness to the victory of the Saints.
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At the heart of the Christian life is the Incarnation of God and the deification of the human person. “God became man so that man might become god” said St Athanasius the Great. This is a synergy of God offering Himself and man offering himself. The ultimate role of church architecture is to reflect this truth and to help our deification become a reality. . . .
The cubic nave (representing earth) surmounted by the dome represents earth united to heaven. It is paradise with the tree of life in its midst. It is a walled garden, and so one often finds the soldier martyrs depicted on the lower register, for they guard paradise (the word paradise is a Persian one, meaning a walled and, usually, a royal garden). On the upper registers are depicted scenes in the life of Christ. Below that are various saints. This shows that the whole life of Christ finds its fulfilment in the saints, in the deification of human persons.
The incarnation is attested to by the womb-like apse, on which is usually depicted the Mother of God with the Saviour. Although rarely done, she is sometimes depicted alone, in which case her image is to be regarded as part of the entire iconographic scheme, and so related to Christ who is depicted in the dome. Through Mary, Christ in heaven enters the world as man. The apse is towards the east, where the sun rises, and so is doubly fitting as a place to depict the Incarnation. The troparion hymn for Christmas draws out this symbolism when it says that “they who adored the stars through a star were taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee the Dayspring from on high...”
Of course the central place of the sanctuary, and therefore of the whole church, is the altar. St Germanos of Constantinople calls the altar the “border of heaven and earth.”
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Common to all churches, basilican and otherwise, is some sort of partition between the altar area and the nave - variously called the iconostasis, icon screen and templon.. Nowadays this consists of a three doored screen with icons of the Saviour, the Mother of God, saints and, usually, of liturgical feasts. This iconostasis aims to reinforce on the horizontal axis what is depicted on the vertical axis - namely the incarnation of God (Christ born of the Virgin) and the deification of the human person (the saints). As a wall, the iconostasis shows us that we are not yet in heaven, that we are on a journey. And simultaneously, as an array of icons and as a wall with doors, it shows how heaven and earth have been united in Christ.
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Christianity is very much a way of light, of participation in God as uncreated light. For this reason Byzantine architects gave great importance to the play of light in their churches . . . .
The church should give a sense of light originating from within. A Byzantine poet said this is precisely the effect of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople: “the space is not illumined by the sun from without, but rather the illumination originates from within.” While western models, from the Gothic period onwards, generally let light in directly through large, and often huge, windows in the walls, Byzantine churches have tended to emphasise the lighting from windows higher up, and particularly in the drum. Side windows are by comparison smaller, with the possible exception of the choir transepts, which can have largish windows to allow the choirs to see the music clearly.
Another way of reinforcing this sense of interior light is through the use of reflective materials such as gold mosaic, gilded icons, polished brass and silver, and coloured stone floors and walls. Also, the oil lamps and candles dotted around, with their light reflecting off the surrounding surfaces, illuminate the space from many different angles. This helps approximate the sense of all pervading light - Divine light, coming from the omnipresent One, having no one point source.
For the Byzantines the way to appreciate something beautiful was not to gaze at it fixedly, but to let the eyes wander over it. Only then, gradually and naturally, would a unity emerge from the diversity. Beauty was therefore an appreciation not only of the oneness but also of the diversity within God’s economy. This can be likened to the ascetic/mystical teaching of the Church Fathers, who say that after purification, one needs to perceive, through illumination, the many essences or logoi within the diverse array of created things. Only then are we ready to be united with the One, who is the source of the many logoi.
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Scriptures use crystal and precious stone imagery to describe the New Jerusalem. This has implications not only for a church’s geometry, as we shall see below, but also for its use of light. The church building should suggest something of a jewel’s capacity to incarnate light, to crystallise or solidify it. The ultimate expression of this is perhaps mosaic. Then there is the gilding on icons, polished metals, and polished stone. The aim is always to marry light and mass, to show the latter transfigured by the former.
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As a rule, despite their sometimes complex general forms, Orthodox churches (as compared to western medieval churches) have relatively plain and unadorned exterior surfaces. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is a prime example. The emphasis is very much on the splendour of the interior, with its icons, gilding, wall paintings and metal oil lamps. It is a design of asceticism, reflecting the adornment of the inner person rather than the embellishment of the outer. Perhaps it is also an affirmation of the physicality, the “massness” of the building, as compared to, say, the Gothic, which through its large windows, thin columns and flying buttresses tries to dematerialize rather than transfigure the mass.
Any adornment that is present in most traditional churches aims to represent mass transfigured rather than dematerialised - a subtle but theologically vital distinction.
--Aidan Hart, ‘Some Principles of Orthodox Church Architecture’, pgs. 1, 9, 10, 12-13, 20, https://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/orthodox_church_architecture.pdf
The Easter season is upon us, and the experience of the Resurrection of Christ is fresh in the hearts of many. But the West has been dying for 1,000 years because of her rejection of the God-man. If there is going to be any resurrection, any rebuilding, any rising from the ashes of Notre Dame or of Christianity in France and the wider West, it will not take place apart from the Orthodox Faith. If the attempt is made, the decay of the West will only continue onward, until complete death is reached. The shell of Notre Dame was saved; so too a delicate fragment of Christianity remains in the West. But it will not survive much longer separated from God and His Holy Orthodox Church.