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Medievalisms: Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Re-creation of the French Past

By Ken Mondschein

In the center of Paris, on the island in the middle of the Seine known as the Île de la Cité, stands Notre-Dame Cathedral. Begun in 1163 and completed in the mid-thirteenth century (albeit with later additions and remodeling), it was intended to be a monument to royal power. If Paris was to be the heart of France, then Notre-Dame was to be the heart of Paris. To the majority of people, the cathedral seems an unchanging monument of French patrimony, its carved saints, gargoyles unchanged since the days of the Capetian dynasty.

What many don’t realize is that the majority of what one sees when one looks at Notre-Dame’s west façade is a modern restoration. The French Revolution badly damaged the symbol of the hated monarchy, robbed the treasury, and threw many of the art and artifacts contained therein into the River Seine. The 28 statues of biblical kings on the west portal were beheaded, even as the flesh-and-blood Louis XVI had been; the majority of the other statues destroyed; and the building itself used as a warehouse.

While Napoleon Bonaparte restored the building to the church in 1802, Notre-Dame was still half-ruined. Victor Hugo’s bestselling 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) drew attention to the cathedral’s plight. In 1844, Louis Philippe, the new king of France, entrusted the project of restoration to Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Lassus was 37 and a veteran of other restoration projects; Viollet-le-Duc, born into a well-connected family associated with the monarchy and employed as a professor at the Royal School of Decorative Arts, was only 31 years old but a prolific artist, engraver, and architect. They had earlier collaborated on the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, Louis IX’s royal chapel, and both shared a belief that the Gothic style was a true French, Christian tradition and superior to the “foreign” neoclassicism then in vogue.

To try to undo the damage done in their fathers’ time, the two relied on sketches and drawings of the original features where they existed and imaginative reconstruction “in the spirit” of the first builders and based on contemporaneous medieval artworks where they could not. For instance, destroyed stained-glass windows were replaced by new ones of Viollet-le-Duc’s design, new bells were cast to replace the ones melted down to make cannon in 1791, new statues were carved, and the original spire and bell tower were rebuilt and strengthened.

Drawing of Notre Dame by
David Roberts in 1821, before its restoration.

But the Notre-Dame they created was not a restoration of the medieval building—it could not have been. Rather, it was a nineteenth-century medievalism, intended to recreate a monument to France’s past. Moreover, it sought to ignore the cathedral’s past as a living building and turn back the clock by restoring two of the bays to their original four-story height and removing baroque decorations added in the time of Louis XIV. The archbishop’s residence was likewise turned into a museum, a testimony to the common past of the French people.

Conversely, modern curatorial practice is to preserve what remains; if any restoration or stabilization is required, it should be as visible and frank as possible and mentioned in any interpretive materials. To do otherwise is not only counterfeiting, but imposing modernity on the past. A modern stonemason cannot carve like a thirteenth-century one, and even if they could closely copy the original, they would not be doing so with the same intent. At a microscopic level, the tool marks would be different, and the stone from a different quarry, or a different place in the same quarry. Similarly, there is no way to account for centuries of weathering. Added to this was the fact that knowledge of medieval building techniques was in its infancy in the mid-nineteenth century; much of the methodology used to rebuild was speculation.

The restoration work went on for 25 years, lasting past Lassus’ death from liver disease in 1857. Viollet-le-Duc restored or even rebuilt many other medieval buildings while this slow work was going on—notably the basilica of Saint-Denis, the burial place of French kings, but also the medieval walls of Carcassonne and the castle of Vincennes outside Paris. In so doing, he worked closely with first Louis Philippe and then, after the coup of 1852, the new Emperor Napoleon III. His restorations and writings, which praised “national” styles of architecture, launched a fashion for neo-gothic building not just in France, but also in England and America. His influence also pointed to the future: Viollet-le-Duc’s dictate that “form follows function” and study of medieval techniques for building higher and lighter influenced the first skyscrapers, and one of his last projects, left incomplete by his death in 1879, was designing the frame for the Statue of Liberty.

Photograph of Eugène Viollet le Duc by Félix Nadar

As much as Eugène Viollet-le-Duc has been critiqued as departing from the originals and creating a “condition of completeness” that never existed, his restorations are now as much a part of the architectural history of the buildings he worked on as were the original builders’ intentions. Just as gothic architecture is a document to medieval mentalities, so, too is Viollet-le-Duc’s architectural and written work an example of how nineteenth-century nation-states erected monuments to the idea of a shared common history and culture. In so doing, Viollet-le-Duc and his contemporaries used the past to advance their nationalistic agendas. It is also a lesson to modern re-enactors and recreationists. The quest for complete “authenticity” is, in the end, impossible. Even with complete verisimilitude in methods and materials, we are, like Viollet-le-Duc, modern people doing things in a modern context and for our own reasons.

Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.

Top Image: The west facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo by Peter Konieczny



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