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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 35 page 19


However the practice began, it is well recorded that a quick whizz had become part of the stained glass process. We should note that taking a pee on the construction site of a cathedral would not in itself be considered blasphemous. For believers, cathedrals only became holy sites once the buildings were completed and blessed into existence by the Archbishop, so no matter what you did on the site, no blasphemy would be possible until that time. It seems to me that, given some of the habits of medieval folk, worse things must have happened during the erection of these masterpieces. In any case, vinegar is used today instead of urine to mix the vitreous solution that is applied to the glass.

For all my fascination with Notre Dame, I visited the place only once, which was on a trip to France in 1979 for some totally different purpose. I couldn’t stay long, but I took advantage of my proximity to Paris to go visit the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course Notre Dame. I parked in St-Denis, just outside Paris, and took a cab.

I think that in recent times people had to buy tickets online and visit Notre Dame at specific hours, but back then I just got out of the taxi, looked up at the Gothic arched doors, the two bell towers and the rose window, breathed in their magnificence, and walked straight in.

It took my breath away to see it in person. Despite the thousands of tonnes of concrete and masonry the structure looked light — to my eyes, not quite floating but not quite rooted to the spot either.

Inside is where the floatiness and the heavenly vault shot through with light is most apparent. I sat quietly, drinking in the history and the smell of the old timber and marvelling at the structure. The light seemed to come from everywhere, not just from the rose windows but also from other Gothic arched windows punctuated all along the central nave. One does have a sensation of floating in the vault of heaven — even for an atheist like myself. (Actually I was agnostic at that time.)

I stood for several minutes staring up at the North Rose, my rose, recalling all my sketches and descriptions, keeping in mind that I was someone who had never seen it live until now, and I said to myself, yes, I pretty much nailed it.

Rose windows in the Gothic age were a statement. You have to remember that churches prior to that time, for the most part categorized as Romanesque architecture, were solid, thick-walled structures with small windows, producing dark heavy interiors not especially conducive to the transcendent euphoria associated with Christianity, with Heaven, with God!

In contrast, the French Style, later termed Gothic, sought to give worshippers a glimpse of Heaven, a hint at the reason they suffered in this life, a peep at the afterlife, an intimation of the beauty of being in the presence of God.

The builders of this period, no doubt encouraged by local ecclesiastical heads such as the famous Abbé Suger of St-Denis, demanded more and more flamboyance and the pushing out of boundaries. Extreme veneration was the order of the day. The engineering initiatives of the French Style — the flying buttresses, the unbelievably high vaulted ceilings, the thin walls pierced with vast expanses of coloured glass depicting Biblical scenes, the interior flooded with light — all allowed the worshippers, almost entirely illiterate, to experience Heaven on Earth.

I grieve for this building from an architectural, artistic, and cultural point of view. Notre Dame belongs to Europe. As a cultural icon it has no peer and its loss would have been inestimable. Try to imagine Rome without St Peter’s or London without Westminster.

It’s incredible that the fire brigade managed to save so much. All three rose windows were saved, as I understand. It looks like the builders in the thirteenth century built their cathedrals to last. Okay, we have heard estimates of a billion euros and fifteen years to clean up and renovate, but at least there is something substantial upon which to build.

The ashes will be raked through forensically, and only when they are sure that all that is saveable has been saved will the reconstruction begin. Perhaps decades of painstaking labour lie ahead, but it has to be done. Notre-Dame must be given back to Europe.

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