Preserving Historical, Cultural Icons: My Reaction to Notre Dame

The news of Notre Dame burning hit me in the face (via Facebook) while I was taking a brief break from work on Monday. It was so absurd it didn't feel real. I was lucky enough to visit Paris in the fall of 2012. I visited Notre Dame on the first day and remembered how hard it was to take pictures inside. I've been inside many churches in Europe, but I do recall how beautiful the interior and the stained glass rose windows were. Due to my Catholic upbringing and education, I'm a sucker for stained glass. I remember going to Europe on another trip with a group of friends and during one day of sightseeing, my friend keep remarking about how many churches we were visiting, which led to likely the one and only time in my life where mentioning I studied abroad in Italy during undergrad was well within context of the conversation.

Most of art developed throughout history has been developed for religious or spiritual purposes. From a purely Western perspective, art rarely depicted anything other than a Christian deity until the height of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, which means if you visit any city that began more than 600 years ago and you want to look at art, you'll likely be visiting a church a church or two. In the case of Notre Dame, having the original Gothic architecture and structure of the 12th-century church destroyed in Monday's fire is a huge loss. The paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries hanging inside are very likely destroyed. Religious sculptures, ancient stained-glass rose windows, chandeliers, organs and church bells, as well as holy relics, have likely succumbed to the flames. The destruction of was not only a huge loss to the Catholic church, but to art historians everywhere.

Following the wake of the fire, millions of dollars in donations have been pouring in. Unfortunately, it's led to a lot of conflict about who has the right to be the savior in preserving this cultural icon / city landmark / religious symbol. Is Macron right to promise a complete rebuild in 5 years, well in time for the 2024 Olympics? Was French prime minister Edouard Philippe out of turn saying that modern techniques should be use to rebuild (leading to many memes combining Notre Dame to Manhattan's Hudson Yards' Honeycomb)? How much of the art within Notre Dame should remain part of the Louvre's collection? Did Apple make a good branding decision in donating money, thereby demonstrating again their positioning amongst other "brands" with cultural cache, like the Mona Lisa? Trump gave his condolences to the Pope for the loss of the Catholic cathedral. In terms of serving a religious community, is Notre Dame in Paris more important than the historically black churches in Louisiana that were burned from arson? (I will say I do love and appreciate how donations also increased for the repair of those churches in the wake of the Notre Dame fire).

If art and architecture has historically been used to celebrate and depict religious icons, is it possible for the art itself to become iconic, or if I dare, even an idol for a culture, or city? Does the destruction of that idol lead to a loss of culture in the city? When thinking about the loss of important cultural, historical icons, is there a difference between a cathedral like Notre Dame and a music venue like CBGB? In New York City, historical buildings are demolished left and right to make way for luxury real estate. Jeremiah Moss argues in "Vanishing New York" that the loss of venues like CBGB and other small businesses has destroyed the city's once unique culture. In my own neighborhood of Greenpoint, there are minimum a dozen historical churches within five blocks of my house that are at least a hundred years old. Will they remain safe while standing in the shadows of the luxury high rises along the riverfront?

Every old building destroyed is a loss of history and art, whether from expanding real estate, lack of priority for historical preservation, or war. Maria Puente of USA Today noted "The remarkable thing about Notre Dame is that this is the first major fire to wreak such damage in its history, despite its building materials and despite its location in a dense urban area of Paris and even after two world wars were fought in and around Paris." While Notre Dame was a blow to the religious community and art world for the sheer amount of art and artifacts, there have been many times that important religious, historical structures have been destroyed because of war, many within the past twenty years in areas like Syria and Iraq.

I didn't want to write a politically-charged post on a blog meant to be about my own creative practice. I wanted to sort through the feelings I have in reaction to the Notre Dame fire, especially when considering how easily historical buildings of variance importance are taken for granted and destroyed every day. It's not just about the historical art and architecture that should be preserved because it's beautiful, but the preservation of our own history as people and how much we accomplished before modern technology. If we don't understand the accomplishments of our past, how can we appreciate where we are now, and the gains we hope to make in the future?