Four days ago, the world was stunned by the sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames, and in tears at the possibility that it might collapse. Its salvation came down to a matter of minutes as the firefighters fought to keep the fire from spreading to the wooden frames of the bell towers. Had that happened, it would have been game over. The bells would have come crashing down, taking the two towers with them.
Since then, we’ve learned that Notre-Dame has fire monitors who inspected the wooden frame that held up the roof — known as la forêt (the Forest) — three times a day. We’ve also learned that just last year the Parisian firefighters carried out training exercises in how to rescue Notre-Dame’s artwork and relics. At the height of the fire, when it was thought the Cathedral was at risk of collapse, 100 of the 500 firefighters were busy moving those works of art to safety. They were following the protocol set in place long ago: first save the people, then save the art, then save the building.
But we’ve also since learned that Notre-Dame’s wooden roof structure had no sprinklers or firewalls, which contributed to how quickly the fire spread. And there has been a years-long battle between church and state as to who should pay for the overdue and badly needed restoration work that was underway. (All cathedrals in France are owned by the French state and leased to the Catholic church.)
One doesn’t need to be a person of faith to be impressed by Notre-Dame for its architectural beauty and its historical significance. Gothic architecture originated in France and Notre-Dame was among the first of the great cathedrals to be built. Construction began in 1163 and took 200 years to complete. Stained glass and flying buttresses were new ideas back then, and Victor Hugo called the result a “vast symphony in stone.”
There is probably no symbol of France and French culture equal to Notre-Dame. It sits on the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, known as Lutetia some 2000 years ago when humans first settled along the Seine. The “snail” of the famous arrondissements of Paris begins directly in front of the Cathedral. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804; its bells toll at times of national significance, such as the end of Nazi occupation in 1944. Heavily damaged during the French Revolution, Notre-Dame has since survived other revolutions and uprisings as well as two world wars. That endurance is likely why, as a building, it is so close to the hearts of so many people.
That endurance is also likely why we take Notre-Dame for granted. On my last visit to Paris, I didn’t even bother to go inside. To be honest, I’ve never been much impressed by its interior. I find it dark and grimy compared to other European cathedrals and the crowds are unbearable. My nieces took one look at the long line of people snaking across the square in front and emphatically declared they were not waiting in line to see a church, even if it was Notre-Dame. I didn’t push it.
Instead, I took them around the back to show them where Notre-Dame’s real beauty lies: in its intricate exterior and its symphony of flying buttresses.
I get why people talk of Notre-Dame as if it were a sentient being. And if you think of it like that — as a living, breathing building — then this week’s fire is simply one more event in its long and sometimes turbulent life.
And therein lies hope for its future. All great cathedrals have been nearly destroyed and then restored. England’s York Minster suffered a devastating fire in 1984 — something I only learned about this week despite having visited that church several times. Its roof was rebuilt with English oak. Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris, lost its medieval roof in 1836. It was rebuilt with iron and copper. And because of restorations like these and others, the know-how needed to rebuild Notre-Dame exists, despite media reports that those skills are long gone.
This week happens to be Holy Week — one of the most significant weeks in the Christian calendar. Regular readers of this blog know how enamoured I am with ecclesiastical architecture, as evident by my annual Lenten series. I’m sure I am not alone. The most awe-inspiring architecture has always been built for the gods we worship. Think of the Pyramids at Giza, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Acropolis in Athens …
Think of Notre-Dame …
Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of Holy Week that commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. As I looked up at the brand-new wooden roof of the cathedral in which I was worshipping, I found myself wondering how quickly it might burn if it were to ever catch on fire.
I pray I will never know.
Today is Palm Sunday, and I’m posting a photo of the Pieterskerk in Leiden. Dedicated to Saint Peter, this church dates back to the early fifteenth century.
Pieterskerk has an American connection; it’s where the Pilgrims worshipped for over a decade before they sailed away on the Mayflower in 1620. Some years before that, the Spanish lay siege to Leiden from May to October of 1574. When the siege was over, the citizens of Leiden held a service of thanksgiving, where they ate herring, white bread, and hutspot (a mash of potato, carrot, and onion). Some think that elements of this thanksgiving celebration, which became an annual affair, were carried to North America by the Pilgrims.
Which means we have the Dutch to thank for our custom of eating mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.
For the Fifth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the two churches that border the Vrijthof, which is the main square of Maastricht.
The church on the left is Sint Janskerk, a Gothic church dating back to the seventeenth century. Dedicated to John the Baptist, the distinctive red tower of this Protestant church was originally painted with ox blood (ugh), but these days, they just use regular paint.
On the right is Sint Servaas, a Romanesque church dating back to the eleventh century. The basilica is dedicated to Saint Servatius, first bishop of Maastricht and its patron saint. He died in 384 and is buried in the crypt. Sint Servaas is the Netherlands’ oldest church.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. I’m posting this photo from inside Kampen’s Bovenkerk for a couple of reasons.
Reason # 1 is because it was inside this church, listening to this organ, where I first fell in love with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
And Reason # 2? Because today is one of Bach’s birthdays. I say “one of” because apparently the man had two depending on whether you are looking at a calendar in the Old (Julian) Style or the New (Gregorian) Style.
This organ is one of three in the Bovenkerk. It has four manuals and 3200 pipes, the oldest of which date back to the early seventeenth century.
There was a music lesson was going on just before I took this photo. The student was up above at the console behind the pipes, while the teacher was down below, chowing down on a sandwich as he hollered out his feedback. I felt sorry for the student, but was so happy I got to hear the music.
For the Third Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the Church of St. Nicholas of Kampen. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers and many churches in the Netherlands are dedicated to him. (In the seventeenth century, this tiny republic along the North Sea had the world’s largest naval fleet.) The church is more commonly known as the Bovenkerk (Upper Church) and it gives the town of Kampen its distinctive skyline.
Archeological evidence points to a church standing on this spot since the early thirteenth century. A Romanesque church was built first and probably in use for about a century before it was replaced by a much larger Gothic building.
As far as Gothic cathedrals go, it is a fairly simple design, but that it was built at all speaks to the influence and power that the town of Kampen had as a trading town on the edge of what was then the Zuider Zee. Some form of a tower has existed since the building was first erected, but its present form and height dates from the nineteenth century.
The oldest church in Delft is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which was founded in 1246. The tower was completed in 1350 and has a lean of about two metres, although I did not notice this when I visited the church about eighteen months ago.
Both of Delft’s churches are known for their stained-glass windows, all of which were destroyed when a gunpowder depot exploded in Delft in 1654. Known as the Delft Thunderclap, the explosion destroyed much of the city. The stained-glass windows of the Oude Kerk were not restored completely until the twentieth century.
Most of the 27 windows in the Oude Kerk depict Bible stories, but a few are more nationalistic, which is understandable given the city’s long association with the Dutch Royal Family. The Liberation Window celebrates the end of World War II and the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. The Wilhelmina Window celebrates the reign of Queen Wilhelmina from 1890 to 1948.
It is the latter window that is my photo choice for today, the Second Sunday of Lent. At the centre of the window is Queen Wilhelmina, who is the longest-reigning Dutch monarch. The figures at the bottom represent, from left to right, sterkte (strength), geduld (patience), hoop (hope), geloof (faith), liefde (love), gerechtigheid (justice), and wijsheid (wisdom).
Once again, it’s the Season of Lent and I have more photographs to show you of the many Dutch churches I visited some eighteen months ago. For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here is one of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) of Delft.
It’s called the Nieuwe Kerk because it was built about 150 years after the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which is located a few canals over.
There is a story of how it came to be that a new church was built in Delft. Way back in 1351, a man named Jan Col shared some food with a beggar named Symon who was hanging out in the Grote Markt (Great Square) of Delft. At that very moment, the two men saw the same vision of a golden church.
Symon died soon after, but Jan Col continued to have the same vision for another 30 years. He began a campaign to have a church built on the spot where he and Symon first had their vision.
Eventually, the town burghers gave in. Construction began in 1393, and the church was completed in the mid-seventeenth century. There have been several towers — the first was destroyed by fire and the second by lightning. The current tower was completed in 1872 and is the second-tallest church tower in the Netherlands.
Oh, and those visions Jan Col had for 30 years? Turns out they were will-o’-the-wisps.
It’s Palm Sunday, and I’m moving on from Amsterdam to Haarlem. This is the Grote Kerk, or Great Church. Dedicated to Saint Bavo of Gent, it is also known as St.-Bavokerk and has been Haarlem’s main church since the fifteenth century. It is enormous and dominates Haarlem’s skyline.
I like this photo because it shows all the goings on in the square outside the church. (This is actually the quiet side of the church — the Grote Markt, or Great Square, is on the other side and is much larger.) All the goings on include two of Holland’s national pastimes: cycling and afternoon coffee, which is always served with a tiny koekje (cookie) or chocolate. My friend and I parked ourselves at the very café you see in this photo in order to fuel up before we cycled the 20 kilometres back to Amsterdam.