Sunday, April 28, 2019

My Notre Dame Memories

Sometimes,  I find myself wide awake at ungodly hours.
A few days ago, I gave up trying to fall asleep and checked out the news online. 
What I saw made me sit up in shock and dismay.  At 2:00 a.m., the news feeds were all about the fire that was currently engulfing the Notre Dame in Paris.
I watched as the flames surrounded the spire until that delicate structure slowly toppled -- would the church be saved?  
I was devastated, completely désolé -- like a masochist, I watched all the videos I could find -- sleep was now the farthest thing from my mind.  
Notre Dame was for me, a monument of all things French and the iconic symbol of Paris. 
And now, I wasn't even sure if she  could survive the angry flames that seemed to overpower her. 
I could have wept.   
But I had faith that the church would survive.  I had less faith though that my remembrances of all
the personal experiences I had with Notre Dame would. 
So on those early hours of Tuesday morning,  I resolved to write this post -- my memories of
Notre Dame. 


I thought I wouldn't find this photo  -- it was buried deep in an album from 1978, the year my
parents took me on a month long tour of Europe.  
Yes, that is my inelegant,  gauche twenty-one year old self, forty one years (and forty one pounds) ago, shivering by the chilly waters of the Seine.  It was a cold day in March  but I didn't care --
it  was (almost) spring and I was in Paris
And behind me was the most amazing church I had ever seen.  I loved the magnificent flying buttresses of the cathedral.    This was my first glimpse of Notre Dame, and many years later, 
I would always come around and seek out this view.


Thirty one years after that first trip (and yes, thirty one pounds later too) it was our turn to bring our son to Europe.  In Paris on a Sunday, our first stop was for the morning mass at Notre Dame.
This is the west facade of the cathedral, with the spot of greenery called Parvis Square in front of it.
Notre Dame is acclaimed as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture.

The west facade has these massive stone doors or portals.  There are 28 statues on top of the doors, representing Kings of the Old Testament.
On the leftmost  is the Door of the Virgin, the largest door in the middle is the Door of the Last Judgment and the one on the right is the Door of St. Anne
Each of the stone doors is carved with hundreds of small figures -- they are astounding works of art.

The Door of the Last Judgment shows Christ in the middle with his twelve apostles on the side. 
Each of the doors were built sometime in the early 1200s.  Ordinary people in those days did not always have the capacity to read the Bible so medieval churches were created to include "visual aids" -- the faithful merely had to look at the statues, the frescoes on the ceilings, the scenes on the stained glass windows where the most important teachings from the Bible were depicted.  Being inside a church in those days must also have been a catechetical experience. 

The Door of the Virgin  features Mary carrying the Child Jesus.  On the tympanum,  you will see the death of Mary depicted in the middle portion and on the top, her subsequent coronation in Heaven.  The many small figures carved on the arches above all the doors are representative of the Heavenly Court, composed of angels, saints, martyrs, etc.

My favourite of all the doors is the one on the right side, the Door of St. Anne.  The tympanum depicts different scenes from both Jesus' and Mary's life.  On the topmost is a seated and crowned Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap.  The middle panel shows the Annunciation, the Nativity and
the Visit of the Three Kings. 

The bottom panel of the tympanum shows the marriage of St Anne and St Joachim, Mary's parents.
I don't know if it's just me but somehow these small figures carved onto this tympanum seem a bit different from the figures found on the other doors.  
The faces are more pointed and they remind me so much of the small figures carved on the
Bury St Edmunds cross, which can be found in the Cloisters in New York City.  That cross also
dates back to the 12th century and is one of my favourite pieces of ecclesiastical art. 

Inside the cathedral is this wooden scale replica  -- from this angle you can see the flying buttresses which flank both sides of the back of Notre Dame. For tourists who do not have time to go around the entire church, this is the best chance to see how it really looks. 

While mass is going on, the nave is off limits to tourists and only mass goers are allowed inside. 
If you are inside and continue to take photos while mass is going on, one of the marshals may spot you and you will be asked to stop.  

After the mass, it was time to see more of the Cathedral.  Thankfully, our son Carlo had his DSLR camera with him on this visit so he was able to take good photos of the cathedral's interiors -- something my little camera phone could not do.  These are some of the many beautiful stained glass windows on top of the ambulatory. 

Fittingly called "Crown of Light", symbolising God's Light, here is one of the massive chandeliers
of Notre Dame, displayed at eye level. 

The stained glass windows feature more scenes from Biblical stories.  The earliest windows date
back to the 13th century. Some of the windows sadly  have been lost through wars and neglect but most are still from the medieval period.  A significant restoration program done in the 1800s
included their reconstruction and repair.

Notre Dame's  three rose windows are justifiably famous --  one is on top of the west facade, it is called the West Rose Window.  There are two more over the transepts, the North Rose and the
South Rose windows.
Carlo's photo above is of the North Rose window which has retained almost all of its stained glass from the 13th century.  The figure at the centre of the window is the Virgin Mary and she is  surrounded by prophets from the Old Testament.
It was amazing to see this, still so brilliantly vivid after hundreds of years.  When you come to
Notre Dame, take a while to see these incredible works of art -- the rose windows of the Cathedral.  

Along the ambulatory you will find statues such as this one of Joan of Arc,  national heroine and
saint of France.  This statue is from the 1800s.

Carved out of limestone, this statue of the famous French saint and Carmelite nun, St Therese of Lisieux can be found in the south transept.

Great cathedrals in Europe always have tombs of dignitaries, usually bishops and cardinals. 
The only remaining marble funerary in Notre Dame is of Simon Matiffas de Buci who died in 1304.  He is shown with the customary lion at his feet, this animal is said to be the protector of the dead in the afterlife.  Hmm, makes you wonder where he is headed to that would necessitate any protection.
Evil thoughts aside, there were more bishops' tombs in Notre Dame but they were destroyed by angry mobs during the French Revolution -- they resented the oppressive opulence of the Catholic church and clergy.

One of the most interesting parts of Notre Dame is the Chapel of St Guillaume. 
This is also called the Death Monument, a funerary sculpture done by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, a
noted French sculptor of the 1700s.
Shown making one last attempt to rise from his tomb is the Count Claude Henry Harcourt,  a French general who died in 1769.
The lady at the foot of the tomb is his wife, the Countess Harcourt, who incidentally ordered this tomb from Pigalle.  Flanking the tomb on the left side is an angel and on the right side is the familiar figure of Death who keeps the Count from escaping his fate.  Death holds up an hourglass  to signify that the Count's time is well and truly up. 
This sculpture is an arresting but not at all disturbing piece of art.
Countess Harcourt who died in 1780 is also buried in this chapel.

While the fire destroyed Notre Dame's roof and her spire, miraculously most of the interior survived including the main altar with its Pieta statue and cross.  This is Carlo's photo of the main altar, the details are obscured by the railings on the side.

More than just a historic monument or an amazing architectural structure, Notre Dame is first 
and foremost a church.  At one corner are votive candles - I lit a few for departed loved ones and also  to say thank you for the grace of  being here again, thirty one years later -- in Notre Dame


Just over a year later, we found ourselves back in Paris to spend the Christmas holidays. 
Our flight was delayed for one night because of a snowstorm.  When we arrived  the first place we visited was Notre Dame where we found a snow-covered Parvis Square.

The roof had a fine dusting of snow -- I remember this as a bitingly cold but beautiful day in Paris.  

The Pont de L' Archeveche is one of the famous "love lock" bridges in Paris.  Every so often, authorities remove these locks because they're so heavy, the bridge's railings can collapse from the weight.  But they are just as quickly replaced by romantic couples, pledging their eternal love in this most romantic city in the world.  This must have been right after a "purge" since portions of the railing can still be seen. 

Leafless trees surround the Square Jean XXIII, named after Pope John XXIII.   In spring, you may
be surprised to find cherry blossoms -- there are sakura trees here that came all the way from Japan. Square Jean XXIII is a good vantage spot to sit on one of the benches  and admire the view of the chevet or the east end of Notre Dame along with the magnificent flying buttresses.  


We went back to Paris in 2011 to spend Christmas in our favourite city in the world yet again. 
In our previous visits, we had discovered this wonderful tour company Paris-Walks.  Run by a British couple who had been living here for decades,  they conduct interesting and fun tours of the various neighbourhoods of Paris.  On this morning, we joined the Ile de la Cite walking tour.

It may not be too obvious when you come to visit but Notre Dame stands on an island -- the
Ile de la Cite is one of two natural islands in the Seine in Paris and is the site of the earliest settlement of the Parisi tribes.  If you look at maps or photos taken from above,  the Ile de la Cite is shaped like a ship and behind it, follows the other island, the much smaller Ile St Louis

Because of its historical significance, Ile de la Cite is considered as the centre  of France. 
An inconspicuous marker embedded in the stones in front of Notre Dame is Point Zero --
it is from this spot that all distances throughout France are measured.  Not too many notice it and perhaps thousands just walk over it every day.

Unlike last year, winter was mild and there was no snow on the cathedral's rooftop.  Although the trees were bare, you could even see patches of green grass  on Square Jean XXIII.  

Each Christmas, you will see marche de noel or Christmas markets in various places in Paris -- along the Champs Elysee, at the Champs de Mars, in Montmartre and other high traffic, touristy areas.  
This one was at the Square Viviani, on the left bank, right across  Notre Dame.  
The Christmas markets sell regional produce,  crafts, specialty food items and are a must visit when you're in Paris for the holidays.

The drink of choice at the marche de noel is vin chaud or hot mulled wine.  So deliciously warming for this cold and festive season.  Here was my iconic Parisian Yuletide moment for 2011 -- cups of 
vin chaud in hand and a superb view of Notre Dame behind me ... à votre santé and joyeaux Noel!


One year later, we were back in Paris for Christmas.  We had booked an apartment near Place Saint-Michel and on the way there,  we peered out from the taxi window at this familiar and welcoming sight.   The cathedral seemed to glow against the late afternoon sky. 

To our delight, the cathedral was just 700 meters from the apartment.  We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and had more than enough time to catch the 6:30 p.m Pilgrim's Mass at the Great Altar.

Notre Dame may be a popular tourist attraction, open to people of all faiths but primarily, it is a solemn, spiritual place of worship.  It is very much a sacred space -- and you can feel this specially during mass.  It was an uplifting experience to come and hear mass at the cathedral,  something we made time for, on each trip to Paris

One major reason to attend Saturday evening services at Notre Dame is that after mass, the Great Organ is played.  Dating back to the 1400s, the Great Organ of Notre Dame is one of the largest organs in the world, with five keyboards and 7,800 pipes.  
After mass, we all sat transfixed --  for fifteen minutes the organist transported us to another world.  The organ's round and exquisite tones vibrated throughout the silent cathedral -- you could hear the history,  the craftsmanship and yes, the love that went into its creation, over six centuries ago.

A few nights later, we were back at Notre Dame.  We were extremely fortunate to be in Paris --  
the opening concert of the season heralding the one year celebration of the cathedral's 850th anniversary was held on December 18, 2012.  I had ordered tickets online a few months ago and now, we were off to attend the concert.  Lit up by floodlights, Notre Dame looked especially impressive on this winter night. 

The 90 minute long concert started at exactly 8:30.  An orchestra, soloists and a choir performed the "Vespers of the Virgin Mary" by Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi's vespers were first performed in 1610 and it was his first piece of sacred baroque music.  
The Vespers continues to be performed today and is one of the most popular set of hymns dedicated to Our Lady.   What a fitting way to usher in Notre Dame's 850th anniversary.  It was a gift of grace that Jay and I were able to be here in Notre Dame for this occasion.

On the late afternoon of December 24, not too many Parisians were out as they must have been 
busy preparing for "le reveillon" or the traditional Christmas Eve dinner.  I walked out of the apartment and looked back at Notre Dame, standing tall against the golden light.  
I turned my back on her and transformed into a flaneur -- one who strolls idly and saunters slowly.  Flaneuring is my favourite pastime in Paris and my favourite route was the one I was about to take. 

Over an hour and 3 kilometers later  (flaneuring is a slow walk -- not a race) -- I had the Eiffel Tower in my sights.  This walk from Notre Dame to Eiffel Tower is best done along the banks of the Seine and I recommend that you enjoy it in a most leisurely and unhurried pace. 

There was a full moon on our last night in Paris.  We took a farewell,  late night  stroll to Notre Dame to say our good byes.  She stood there, as she had for many centuries and enveloped us in her warm and heartfelt embrace...  à bientôt, she whispered. 


We felt more than blessed to have visited Notre Dame just as she was about to celebrate her 850th anniversary.  
Despite the recent fire, much of the cathedral miraculously survived -- her rose and stained glass windows, the Great Organ, the cross and the Pieta on the main altar and so many other priceless treasures.
I have faith that Notre Dame will be rebuilt and will continue on -- for more than another 850 years.  

Fluctuat nec mergitur.  

*She is tempest tossed but will not sink.