Over the course of Holy Week, many of you probably saw images and video clips of Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flame. As the heart of France required 400 firemen to save it from collapse, the world watched and wept. And rightfully so.
The name of the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, is translated Our Lady of Paris. She is considered a sister church to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and an attraction to tourists from all over the world. Nearly 14 million people visit Notre Dame each year.
A Few Details
The age of the cathedral boggles the mind. The first stones were laid for the church in 1163 and completed by 1345. For our students going through the Medieval period this year, just imagine that this cathedral we are watching go up in flames in 2019 existed during the lives of Thomas Aquinas, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth (first and second), Henry VIII, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Columbus, Leonardo Da Vinci, and so many others.
Notre Dame exists on a small island in the River Seine called the Ile de la Cite. In front of the cathedral, there is a stone compass, known as “Point Zero.” All destinations in France are measured from that point. Before that point became the center of France, and an important seat of the Catholic church, it was a place of pagan worship, and sits atop the ruins of a temple to the Roman God Jupiter.
The dimensions of Notre Dame ( length = 416 feet, width = 157 feet, height = 141 feet) are wild to imagine when you consider the weight of materials being moved these distances without hydraulic machinery. Flying buttresses, the real name for these ribs, is a quintessential feature of Gothic architecture, and not only did they make higher walls attainable, but they also made the incorporation of immense and intricate windows possible. The three rose windows of Notre Dame are stunning to behold.
Atop these stone walls is a wooden roof structure that dates back to the 12th century and is nicknamed the Forest. Over fifty acres provided over 1300 trees, which became over 1300 beams set in place over 100 feet in the air. What we witnessed go up in flames this week is the work of men from the 12th century.
Math + Art = Beauty
If you take the height of Notre Dame and divide that by the width you end up with 1.61. In art and architecture, a ratio of 1:1.61 is known as the golden ratio and is considered to be the mathematical formula for the most pleasing or beautiful shape. It is understood to be the dimension of perfection in art or the “Divine Proportion” in architecture. The Parthenon in Athens (400s BC), Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1500s) and the Taj Mahal (1648) are other examples where one will find this combination of Math and Art.
Why the Fire Matters
So building a cathedral like Notre Dame de Paris was not simply deciding to put together just any place for people to worship God. It was to undertake a specific process that was good, true, and beautiful.
The work is good in that it required a generational focus and could not be completed without dependence on the skills of many. Very few people who set out to work on a cathedral expected to see it completed in their lifetime. Imagine that. Working on something you don’t expect to see completed means at least two things. First, you must depend on others to see it to completion after you are gone; and second, you must work with a desire to build something for others to use after you are gone. Many workers with many skills, were united in the effort of a single creation. (Glassblowers, stone cutters, carpenters). That is the image of the church itself. This is the good work sung in Psalm 102:18: “This will be written for the generation to come, That a people yet to be created my praise the LORD.”
The work is true in that it’s builders integrated knowledge of science and math with theology and art to construct a house for God’s people to sense God’s presence. In so doing, they designed ways to make tons of stone seem light as a feather, and contemplated arrangements for singular beams of light to refract into a multitude of color and imagery.
Both the true and the good work overlap with how the work is beautiful. The art and architecture are certainly examples of beauty, and yet the beauty of each part is not an end in itself, but a means towards the ends of worshipping God. The towering walls and elevated windows experienced when you enter into the church is meant to draw your attention upwards to God’s enormity. At the same time, you are drawn inwards at your own smallness in his presence. From the outside, Notre Dame might look intimidating and cold, but from the inside you see the light pouring in through the colored glass and you are warmed by a realization that this is not terrifying. It’s beautiful.
Reason to Mourn
And so we mourn this week for the loss of Our Lady of Paris. It is a monument of our civilization. It is a work of the hands of our ancestors. We mourn, in part, because we are designed to love things that are beautiful, good, and true.
On this side of heaven, we also mourn because we realize that the works of our hands are not permanent. Eight hundred years is a long time for any building made by human hands to endure, but even this will fade, rot, rust, and as we witnessed this week, burn. In an evening on the first day of Holy Week, a century of history can be swept away flurry of ashes.
Reason to Rejoice
But as we contemplate Christ’s journey to the cross, we mourn the reality of Good Friday when an innocent man was put to death. But we do not mourn as those without hope. This hit home when the first images came to light in the aftermath of the fire. Through the charred wood of fallen ceiling timbers, the spotlights of the inspectors illuminated the altar. And there at the center, standing without a single mark was a cross of gold.
What a reminder that death and destruction do not get the final word. Good Friday is followed by Easter Monday and an empty tomb. The dark of night is chased away by the light of the dawn. This is a work that endures to all generations by a God whose love and faithfulness endure to all generations. As the prophet Jeremiah said during a time of similar destruction:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”
Let that love of God be our hope this Easter.
Onward and Upward.