In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the world can consider itself fortunate that this magnificent building was not completely destroyed, whilst interesting questions are being asked about any restoration work. Should it replace the spire as it was, or opt for a modern replacement given that the spire itself wasn’t original? Or how about trying to restore the building to its medieval look before the spire was built in the 19th Century? There are valid arguments for each. Macron has promised something better in its place, an easy promise for a politician with a short tenure compare to the time it will take to complete such work.
What is interesting is that the building was never intended to become so significant; its contents, or more specifically one relic was to have been the focus of the religious tourist trade to the city. Notre Dame was begun in 1160 and was mostly complete a century later, yet when Louis IX bought the Crown of Thorns in 1238, he placed it in the nearby royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle (another exquisite gothic structure). The Crown remained there, until the French Revolution when it was moved to Notre Dame. Those who believe in the veracity of such relics will be relieved that it survived the blaze, and yet most will be more concerned about the damage to the church.
A few decades later (though details are sketchy as to its origins) another artefact linked to the crucifixion took up residence in Turin, again in premises owned by royalty. You may not have realised that the “real” crown of thorns was in Paris, but I’ll be bet you know where the Turin Shroud is! The medieval city (and the church) made sure of that by incorporating it into all sorts of imagery, even though it had been challenged as a fake as early as 1390. Carbon dating also places its origins in this period!
Still, why spoil a good story. We may be more aware than ever of how fake news is spread but the phenomenon is not new. Turin continued to trade on the relic, and in the 17th Century a special chapel was built to house it under the direction of Camillo-Guarino Guarini, an architect and mathematician of the region. That mathematical brain was given free rein here as he incorporated all manner of geometric shapes into his design. The chapel interior, and particularly that of the dome is far more spectacular than a piece of stained fabric, though it has yet to overshadow its relic’s reputation in the way that Notre Dame does the crown.
And then in 1997 it caught fire. Like the crown, the shroud was rescued, firefighters using sledgehammers to break the display and bullet proof glass that contained the cloth. The shroud was safe, Guarini’s masterpiece was not. The floor of the chapel was a metre deep in marble fragments and molten bronze.
The restoration of Notre Dame is expected to run to billions and Macron is predicting it will take 5 years. Il Cappella della Sacra Sindone cost only €30million but required the reopening of an old quarry to match the black marble, the construction of an oil-rig-like scaffold inside it, and took 21 years. The altar remains untouched; some parts charred, others burned away completely but the rest is magnificent.