Where exactly does our soul live?

Cultural history : Where Europe's soul lives

So much unimaginable has happened in this weird and terrible year of pandemics that it has displaced almost everything else. The virus affects our lungs, social life and memory. Because of course 2019 was not disaster-free either. A particularly bad moment: On April 15th, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was badly damaged by a devastating fire.

Among other things, the 800-year-old beams of the roof truss (called la forêt, the forest) and the striking spire (la flèche) above the crossing as well as the part of the vault that the crossing tower broke through when it fell. A huge scaffolding merges with the masonry, at the moment it is being dismantled in a very complicated action.

Agnès Poirier's book “Notre-Dame - The Soul of France” is welcome. Also to remind you: Pandemics come and go, while completely different periods of time are being negotiated here.

[Agnès Poirier: Notre-Dame - The soul of France. Translated from the English by Monika Küpfer. Insel Verlag, Berlin 2020. 240 pages, € 24.]

According to the blurb, Poirier, who writes for “Le Monde” and the “Guardian”, lives opposite the cathedral; she could watch the fire from the kitchen window. A fire that has caused consternation worldwide, including in Germany, where even Cologne Cathedral does not arouse as many emotions. That has less to do with the architecture of Notre-Dame itself than with its location in the center of Paris. Which is at the same time a European soul place that everyone can agree on.

Ride through the centuries

Poirier designed the drama of April 15th, such as the rescue of the crown of thorns, as a framework for a ride through the centuries. A ride, on which the Catholic, however, repeatedly passed through pathos and kitsch, conspicuous, for example, in the tendency to ascribe traits to a building: “The bells are howling. Notre-Dame is crying, ”she writes. Or: “Just as for Catholics consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, a kind of transubstantiation takes place on this evening on the Île de la Cité in the hearts and minds of the audience, whether near or far. Notre-Dame is indeed made of flesh and blood, it is part of our identity. “Can it be one size smaller?

It is more convincing in the "hard" sections. If she stays close to the facts and details, for which she interviewed, among others, Jean-Claude Gallet, chief of the Paris fire brigade, and the architect Philippe Villeneuve, under whose supervision the cathedral has been renovated since 2013. For the Middle Ages, it is based on Georges Duby's standard work “The time of the cathedrals. Art and Society 980-1420 ”.

This is where it starts, the foundation stone is laid in 1163 under the legendary Bishop Maurice de Sully. The first four builders of Notre-Dame remain anonymous, we do not know their names, only the sections that were created under their aegis: towers, transept, facade. At this point one would have liked to find out more about the previous structure, Notre-Dame did not come out of nowhere. Since Roman and probably Gallic times, gods have been worshiped at the eastern end of the Île de la Cité.

Thanksgiving service after the revolution

What did the earlier cathedral, which was built around 550, look like, what gave the impetus for the new building? Agnès Poirier describes how Notre-Dame has won its place in the hearts of the French over the centuries. Because at the beginning other cathedrals, Saint-Denis or Reims, are far more important. What Poirier does well: sketching the general political and social situation, then zooming in and describing what that means in concrete terms for Notre-Dame. So you learn a lot of amazing things.

Everyone knows what happened on July 14, 1789. But one day later, on July 15th? The Parisians held a thanksgiving service there - in Notre-Dame. The relationship between the revolution and the cathedral, which was never closed, let alone demolished during the Terreur, is extremely exciting. "The revolutionaries linked the cathedral with their political achievements and claimed the transcendental character of this place for their cause," writes Poirier.

It vividly describes the transformation into a “temple of reason” including the grotesque contortions that arise when one wants to squeeze enlightened thinking into a ceremonial framework.

[If you want to have the latest news from Berlin, Germany and the world live on your mobile phone, we recommend our app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

About Napoleon's imperial coronation, Victor Hugo and his eminently powerful book “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, the brilliant restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and another Eugène, namely Baron Haussmann, who exposed Notre-Dame in the course of his radical modernization of Paris and enables a view of the cathedral that has never existed before, it goes into the 20th century. Charles de Gaulle holds a service in Notre-Dame after the liberation of Paris, although enemy shots are still whistling around him. In 2013 the church received new bells.

The book closes as it began: with the fire of 2019 and a résumé of the short but fierce reconstruction debate and the controversial donations of millions from wealthy French families, which Poirier passionately defends. And with one thesis: the disaster woke the country up. “In awe, France realizes how deeply Christian its history is, even if it has been whitewashed by secularism for more than a century.” Never mind that many will see it differently.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page