Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals

Image of Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals
Release Date: 
October 29, 2019
Reviewed by: 

“For the love of Notre-Dame, this is the book you want.”

Last April 15, bestselling British author Ken Follett’s quiet dinner at home was interrupted by a friend calling from Paris, urging him to turn on his television. What he saw there shook him to the point of tears: Notre-Dame, a structure he had long revered as one of the great achievements of western civilization, was ablaze.

For the rest of that evening Follett found himself in great demand by the French and British media as an expert on the Gothic cathedral. Though hardly the most eminent authority upon the subject, he is arguably the most popular, thanks to his worldwide 1989 worldwide bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, the story of the construction of fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral—a story, incidentally, containing a dramatic description of a conflagration that in several ways prefigures the fire at Notre-Dame.

Two days later, as Follett was in Paris for a television appearance, Follett’s French publisher proposed that he write a book in tribute to the devastated cathedral, with all royalties, and all publishers’ profits, to go to a rebuilding fund. Follet agreed, returned home, and in exactly a week he had produced Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals.

“Short” is the essential term: there are just 50 pages of text here. Yet in spite of that brevity, Follett does succeed in conveying his heartfelt appreciation of Notre-Dame both as technical achievement and as priceless cultural icon. He does so with a headlong tour of the cathedral’s finest cultural moments. He begins with an informed if hurried account of its century-long construction. He then jumps 600 years, to Victor Hugo’s magnificent literary appropriation of the building in his 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris. He then jumps a decade to an account of Viollet-le-Duc’s extensive and fanciful restorations.

From there another jump, to the cathedral’s most sublime 20th century moment: August 23, 1944, as Charles de Gaulle marched in a victory parade through Paris and into the cathedral. Braving sniper fire the entire way—even within the cathedral!—de Gaulle did not flinch while others dashed for cover or threw themselves upon the floor. (“One could see more bottoms than faces,” noted one observer.) His bravery and poise, recorded and viewed the world over, transformed him instantly from leader-in-exile to the undisputed head of the French state.

As stirring tribute then, Follett’s book has real value. More than this, it provides a fine means to support the cathedral itself, to fall in with President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge “nous rebâttirons”: we shall rebuild.

In one way, however, Follett’s book promises something that Follett does not deliver. In spite of the book’s subtitle, this book tells us next to nothing about the meaning of cathedrals—Notre-Dame, or any other.

Certainly, Follett repeatedly pays homage to the Gothic cathedral’s incredible spiritual and emotional power, but he generally represents that power as something not quite explainable. “It’s a bit like the first time you hear a Beethoven symphony,” he tells us in his final chapter. “There are so many melodies, rhythms, instruments and harmonies that at first you can’t grasp how they are linked and interrelated. It is hard to see the logic. A cathedral, like a symphony, has a coherent plan, its windows and arches form rhythms, its decorations have themes and tell stories, but the whole thing is so rich that at first it overwhelms us.”

That is about as far as Follett is willing to go. To take us past the overwhelming, to help us see the logic, demands detailed analysis. And that—beyond a few sketchy suppositions—just isn’t here.

Follett does, for instance, note the way that “the entire building seems to reach toward heaven” and thus soothes the human soul. Missing is any discussion of the way countless vertical lines, large and small, soar upward in every direction, soar, thanks to the Gothic innovation of the pointed arch—without interruption seemingly toward infinity, hinting at the promise of eternity.

Follett realizes that we are “enraptured” by the light of the Gothic cathedral, but has little to say about the ways in which early Gothic engineers rejected the dark, thick, largely windowless designs of their predecessors, and instead shifted the ever-growing weight of their ever-higher buildings outward with flying buttresses, allowing them to open huge expanses of walls as windows, to which they added meaning and wonder with acres of stained glass.

And as for understanding the sculpture with which a Gothic cathedral teems, Follett offers only the beginning of analysis. It is very much like deciphering a painting by Picasso, he claims. “We say: ‘Ah, of course, that must be Saint Stephen,’ just as after studying a Picasso for a while we may say: ‘Of course, there is her elbow, sticking out of her head.’” If we really are to understand the meaning of a cathedral’s sculpture—to understand how designers and artisans communicated a cosmic vision in a finite space—a far fuller lesson in Gothic iconography, arrangement, and aesthetics is in order.

Expecting Follett in this little book to live up to the promise of his subtitle is simply expecting too much. For the love of Notre-Dame, this is the book you want. For an understanding of Notre-Dame, look elsewhere.