I literally wept when I saw those pictures of Notre Dame de Paris in flames yesterday. I’ve never done that for calamities – shootings, bombs – which only hurt or destroy human beings. Is that bad? Does it make me cold and inhuman? Of course I sympathise with the victims of terrorist atrocities, and am shocked and angry at their plight. But that doesn’t get me as emotionally involved as the destruction – we hope not for ever – of an inanimate building, made of stone and wood. I really am deeply upset by yesterday’s events.
If I had to explain my reaction, if not to excuse it, I’d have to refer to my deep and lifelong love of Gothic architecture, and especially of French cathedrals, which are the flowers of that particular style. (Forget the ridiculous Ruskin’s Venetian Gothic; mere plasterboard by comparison.) Paris and northern France were at the heart of the mediaeval Gothic movement, beginning with the church of St Denis in a Paris suburb; and from where it spread into England – usually in the hands of French master masons – though rarely in a perfect form. Notre Dame was never my favourite French cathedral; but it was (is) the most perfect of them, especially in its proportions, which are essential in any style of architecture; probably because it was all of a piece: built in the relatively short period – for a mediaeval cathedral – of 200 years. And it is so compact! (See Pevsner’s Englishness of English Art to see how this distinguishes it from contemporary English versions of cathedral Gothic.) And then there are those wonderful flying buttresses: evidence of the sophistication of the Parisians’ understanding of structural engineering – ‘thrust’, and so on – which was not improved upon for centuries. Thereafter the ‘science’ of architecture fell away. French Gothic churches are the greatest cultural, artistic and also, therefore, technological achievements of the Middle Ages; justifying, or at least compensating for, all the horrors that are rightly associated with that period: wars, cruelty, tyranny, disease, religious fanaticism and poverty. They could even be said to justify the Catholic church, whose faith and ill-gotten wealth gave men and women the opportunities to express their finest human aspirations in material forms. In the shadow of one of these great cathedrals – we visited Amiens last year – all the dark sides of the 12th and 13th centuries melt away.
I’m afraid that’s how I think of ‘art’ generally: as justifying human society in a way nothing else quite does. Occasionally, in my lowest moments, I think forward to the inevitable demise of our planet as a dying sun swallows us up. I desperately hope that by that time we’ll have figured out how to spread, as a species, into other galaxies, to replicate and save the best of our human culture. People I’m not too bothered with – they can be replaced, after all; but I can’t bear to think that great and unique human achievements, like Notre Dame and her sisters, some of the great Buddhist temples, Shakespeare, Botticelli and Bach (these are just a sample) should ever cease to be. So get to work on those spaceships, you clever scientists, in order to preserve Mozart among the stars; and even Notre Dame, stone by stone, or perhaps holographically. Then I can dry my eyes.
Excellent and informative post, Bernard.