Notre-Dame: Copy the past

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Flanking photos show fire set July 18 at Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul at Nantes, in France

It seems as if French President Emmanuel Macron has turned totally about on designing the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame after its fire of last year. After the conflagration he called for a modernist rebuild. About a year later, the French senate said no way, and he has recently folded his tent. Good for him. The lost spire, especially, will be rebuilt not only in its original style (during the restoration by Voillet-le-Duc in the 19th century), but, as best they can, with original materials.

This is very good news. Macron gave way probably because he foresaw that the international design competition might add years of controversy to the project, which he wants completed by 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics. In fact, if experts are correct (a very big if), the renovation may take at least a decade or two, in part because some 400 specialized masons, carpenters, etc., must be trained. But it may not be so long for the structure to be sufficiently stabilized and repaired that visitors can be allowed inside.

This is mostly great news but it arrives amid bad news, news that is possibly worse by a considerable margin. Two weeks ago fire struck the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Nantes, near the Bay of Biscay, begun in 1434. The damage was less severe than at Notre-Dame, but its organ was consumed and its stained glass windows ruptured. The blaze is believed to have been arson, with fires set in three places. A Rwandan refugee volunteer at the building was picked up, released, then confessed. Worse, other French churches are being vandalized, and it appears to be anti-Catholic in motivation. (Of course, anti-Semitic crimes continue apace.)

Neither in Paris nor in Nantes has motivation for arson been established – at Notre-Dame arson itself has been denied. Some or all of this rash of violence may have roots in the same political radicalism evident in the riots that have torched parts of major American cities and toppled statues, including many with little or no connection to police brutality. Twitter comments originating in France strongly suggest a radical motive:

Another element active in Nantes, the far-left, appeared to celebrate the incident. A self-described anarchist wrote on Twitter “Je bois les larmes de cathos au réveil. 150 nouveaux abonnés en 24h. Vivement la prochaine église en feu.” (“I drink Catholic tears when I wake up. 150 new subscribers in 24 hours. Can’t wait for the next church to burn down.”) and “#Nantes La seule église qui illumine est celle qui brûle” (the familiar anarchist phrase “the only church that illuminates is one that burns.”).

Not pretty.

Speaking of such ugliness, and its antithesis, beauty, three cheers for the French authorities, who at the very least have reflected the feelings of the French people. A largely undeclared but powerful motive for repairing and rebuilding cathedrals and other memorials as they were originally designed or as glorified in the popular imagination is for the forces of tradition to push back against asinine soi-disant “philosophes” of both nationalities. As the French general at the Battle of Verdun declared, “They shall not pass!”

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Notre-Dame: Copy the past

  1. Drey says:

    I wouldnt take comments on Twitter as indication of anything: the rwandan immigrant was a christian, so it seems more of a case of mental illness than any larger cultural issue. Not that France doesn’t have said issues, but these two fires just seem unrelated to it.


  2. barry schiller says:

    I’ve been to Nantes, and its cathedral. its wonderful.. The Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne is nearby and is beautiful and impressive, now a city museum worth visiting. There is also a lovely botanic garden nearby. Its all right near the train station and a row of hotels so all can be visited without the need for a car and the depredations their parking demands.

    I think the underlying situation about the arson is not the few anti-Catholic crazies celebrating the fire, it is about massive immigration of people who largely don’t share French values which include relative religious tolerance for all religions and no religion, a free press, and a secular tradition that includes appreciation of the beauty and magnificence of the past, even if of religious origin. Hence Charlie Hebdo and nightclub massacres, the Nice truck ramming, the kosher market attack, etc etc. The US is better able to assimilate such immigrants but here too (think the Boston Marathon bombing, Ft Hood shooting…) we have to be vigilant.


    • Thank you, Barry. I would love to travel to Nantes someday and elsewhere beyond Paris, which I’ve already had the pleasure of visiting. My identification of the arsonist as a Rwandan immigrant hinted that the mostly Arabic immigration to France may be more to blame for the attacks on Catholics as Christians than the slice of opinion that is expressly anti-Catholic. Of course, the U.S. has indeed been able to integrate immigration over the long years, but are lately losing our touch (for some reason), and so we’ll need to be more watchful.


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