Terrible Beauty

April 16, 2019 § 1 Comment

AP photo, published by CNN.

It was late in the afternoon of the day Notre Dame burned when my daughter called.

“This is your time period, isn’t it, Mom?”

“Well, mostly,” I answered, “apart from the 19th century Viollet le Duc restorations that, along with Victor Hugo’s novel, saved the building only that recently. One timeline has the building dating from the 13th century but it is actually far older. This building was begun in  … ”

I was in defensive, art historian mode.

“And everyone should just wait,” I said, unable to keep the edge out of my voice, “to announce the destruction of this place. That’s the roof burning but the vault is underneath. It’s meant to hold and it probably will, but we just don’t know. Let them put the fire out first, for God’s sake. Why do people have to jostle to be the first to tell other people, equally distant from the event, that the cathedral is destroyed, that its stained glass is gone, ‘melted away,’ …”

I had swung from denial to the anger stage of grief.

Only after she had hung up did I cry.

I am enough of a medieval art historian still to know that cathedrals burned on a regular basis in the middle ages. Everything we see from that time period is, first of all, fragmentary, and second, the result of a rebuilding campaign, usually prompted by some disaster or other. Cathedrals are generally monuments to human determination and endurance rather than to any illusion of permanence.

As a student both of medieval architecture and of war, I have seen many images of the destruction of major monuments. The cathedral of Coventry was utterly destroyed in World War II and is now rebuilt. Most of the churches in Cologne, Germany, were rebuilt following their destruction, many in a modern style and from their own rubble, the new stained glass windows a kind of crazy quilt pattern of the broken shards.

An early influence in the artistic casualties of war was Frederick Hartt’s Florentine Art Under Fire. Hartt had written the enormous textbook I had been assigned in my introductory art history class, a serviceable survey text but uninspiring, just the sort of thing required of beginning students who have to acquire a command of the dry, factual language art historians typically use. During the Second World War, Hartt had been one of the Monuments Men in Italy, charged with identifying and protecting works of art he had fallen in love with several years earlier and would spend his life studying. Florentine Art Under Fire is a slim volume of evocative stories of his experiences, each conveying a passion missing from his textbook. One in particular stayed with me:

Both the Germans and the Allies had agreed to spare Florence on account of its historical and artistic importance but the Germans compensated for this by bombing all the villages in a ring around the city and blowing up the bridges. (The heartbreaking story of the destruction of the Ponte Santa Trinitá, designed by Michelangelo, is in this book.) A man in one of the bombed villages found the fresco of a streetcorner shrine broken off its wall from the concussion of the bombs and shattered at the base. The man, a restorer, his own life shattered around him, gathered the pieces, took them by bicycle to his workshop, and put the fresco back together. This is resilience and courage at a time when things look impossibly dark.

Today the interior of Notre Dame, stripped of its embellishments, the vault at the crossing fallen, light pouring onto a floor filled with rubble, looks – at least to me – pure and noble. Stark, like the bones of trees in winter. And on the altar, still there, is the 18th century sculpture of Our Lady, wailing over the body of her son. It is Holy Week, with all of its despair … and all of its promise.

Weeping may fill the night, but joy comes in the morning.

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