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Rebuilding Notre Dame: Form Is Not Fashion

As the world watched Notre Dame burn, everyone wondered what else was on fire.  Of what was the partial immolation of this, one of France’s finest Gothic cathedrals, a symbol?  The extinction of Christianity in Europe – or in that eldest daughter of the Church, the nation of Clovis?  Others wondered if it was not the flames but the smoke that mattered, that prophetic sign of warning, an indication to wake up, pay attention, extinguish the fire now, before it is too late. And to rebuild.

Now, Notre Dame stands, part of its vault collapsed, its walls, upright for centuries only by grace of the ingenious medieval system of distributing weight by vaults and buttresses, now vulnerable to collapse should a strong wind blow through Paris.  The French government pledges to rebuild it; the prosperous and institutions around the world pledge funds to that end.  Astonishingly, the small but devout remnant of Catholics in France, and many of their unobservant countrymen, turn out to pray and keep vigil over the fragile structure still stretching up in yearning and wonder to God.

Resurrection and rebirth may by the final meaning of an event so layered with signs as to live up to the hoary term of praise for Gothic churches: Gospels in stone.

As the classical architect Erik Bootsma warns [1], however, French President Emmanuel Macron, in haste to complete repairs within five years, has so far not consulted with those who know best the old cathedral and who could ensure that it is rebuilt to appear as it did before the fire.

Before the fire . . .

Meanwhile, architects have rushed in with proposals that would, at best, result in a “respectful combination of the dominant old with the best of the new.” [2]  Among the proposals are not simply modern but weirdly alien designs for a new spire, to replace the “forest” of the wooden roof with glass, or to turn it into an observation platform and garden.

All this has – quite rightly – raised fears that the French government will prove historically callous in supervising the reconstruction.

The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once observed that the medieval craftsmen repaired and rebuilt churches without regard to the style of their original construction.  He saw his contemporaries as mired in a sentimental attachment to old styles; they reproduced the antique in the form of kitsch rather than opening themselves up to modern genius and materials.

We must think analogously, insisted Maritain: if the Romanesque could be patched with the Gothic, the Gothic may be grafted with the modern.

We do not call something “sentimental” or “kitsch” unless we have already condemned it.  Maritain was probably correct to admonish his contemporaries to attend to new aesthetic possibilities if the alternative was to dig in their heels while an august tradition lapsed into decadence.

But his breezy exemplum– the medieval craftsman – is not without its irony and, finally, will not translate well to our present age.  For he was among the few modern minds to insist that aesthetic form is not merely a matter of historical fashion, and, further, he understood as well that at least some modern artistic practices found their inspiration not in the beauty of God but in an emptiness that was, at best, materialistic and, at worse, of the devil.

Photo by Thierry Mallet/AP

Let me offer a warning, then.  Maritain showed, by way of Aquinas, that beauty is rooted in form.  Every existent, natural being is a composite of form and matter.  Matter is purely passive and derived, but form is the active principle that causes things to be.  As Maritain writes, form is:

the principle which constitutes the proper perfection of all that is, which constitutes and achieves things in their essences and qualities, which is, finally, if one may so put it, the ontological secret that they bear within them, their spiritual being, their operating mystery – the form, indeed, is above all the proper principle of intelligibility, the proper clarity of every thing.  Besides, every form is a vestige of a ray of the creative Intelligence imprinted at the heart of created being.

Form is variously defined as the essence, nature, the intelligible and active principle of a being.  It is, therefore, both what causes a being to be this particular thing, but also signals that thing’s participation, as a creature, in the uncreated, creative and divine intelligence of God.  Through form things are, we know what things are, and we discern their relationship to other things and, finally, to the hand that made us.

The form of something, therefore, manifests at once its historicity – it is here, in time – and its trace of eternity – its origin lies in the mind of God.

Modern people tend to separate these traits categorically: some things are temporal and evanescent, while others are eternal and permanent; some things are products of their age, while others transcend them.


Alas, in Sacrosanctum Concilium [3] (1963) and elsewhere, the Second Vatican Council suggested that the eternal deposit of divine truth could simply be poured into this or that form entirely shaped by the “signs of the times.”  No particular style of art or architecture, and no particular political form, in the Church’s eyes, is, as it were, final.

But form, properly understood, suggests something more complex.  The specific work of culture is to discern, over the long course of history, those forms that are condign, that is to say, most adequate to manifest the truth that transcends them.  Sensible beauty is not something separate from truth, but rather the historically discovered form found suitable to show forth in splendor what lies beyond all history.

Though Gothic architecture does not manifest the Christian vision of the sacred exclusively (every created form reflects the divine), it does manifest it more fully and fittingly than other forms.  It cannot, therefore, simply be set aside without rendering our architecture and our culture less articulate than before.

But there is more.  Much of modern architecture, with its brutalist contempt for the past and gleaming obsession with the future, manifests nothing so much as a denial that form bears within it anything but its meaningless temporality.  It claims to be not only the present fashion of the age, but a defiant gesture of negation regarding the transcendent, hence Philip Rieff’s characterization of it as a work of “anti-culture.”

It would not, therefore, be merely a concern for historical preservation or a sentimental attachment to the old to insist that Notre Dame be restored just as it was.  Rather, we who live are responsible for ensuring that the vocabulary man has found, through history, to speak the glory that lies beyond this world not – not yet – be silenced.

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.