It seems obvious that the present moment is the product of all the time that went before; what is not so obvious is that the past is also a product of the present. That is, we always see the past through the eyes of the present; the present has need of a version of the past that validates the way we see ourselves now.
History is uncontrollably large and what we consider the history, which we consolidate in books and Ken Burns documentaries, is a tiny fraction of what actually occurred, and each generation gets to pick the bits it wants or needs to justify itself.
All of which makes history not a fixed and certain thing, but a constantly flowing eddy of revisions and reconsiderations. And each age sees itself reflected in the mirror of its historiography.
The Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.
But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.
Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.
Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel, Notre Dame de Paris (better known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), and began a personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Jean-Jacques Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).
The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.
This is where history and its progeny enter the picture. For most people, little says Paris and the Middle Ages more than the monster animals that stare down from the summit of Notre Dame de Paris. The most famous chimera — Le Stryge, or “The Vampire” — is perhaps the second symbol of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). It seems to tell us more about the Middle Ages than any number of scholarly tomes. It is hard to imagine Notre Dame without its guardian spirits, yet they are completely the invention of Viollet-le-Duc. They are the 19th century imagining the Middle Ages.
It is true that Viollet-le-Duc justified his invention of them by claiming he had noticed in some old engravings the remnants of what he took to be the original chimerae, the remains of some broken birds’ feet left carved on the balustrade of the upper stories.
“On every corner of the balustrade,” he wrote, “birds have come to perch, demons and monsters have come to squat. These picturesque figures have just been reestablished; the originals exist no more, but some of them, in falling, have left their claws attached to the stone.”
And there is recorded evidence that such things were once part of many Gothic churches. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a rant against them as being unsuitable for a Christian church:
“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. … Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”
But what these “savage lions” and “unclean monkeys” were looked like, and whether Notre Dame de Paris had ever featured them, are not known. But for Viollet-le-Duc, they were an essential part of what made the cathedral genuinely Gothic.
At any rate, Viollet-le-Duc designed and sculptor Victor Pyanet carved the 54 monsters. Each is of a piece with the portion of the balustrade atop which it sits, monster and fence a single piece of stone.
Viollet-le-Duc also designed the more-than-a-hundred actual gargoyles that stick out from the walls and buttresses of the cathedral, replacing the ugly lead that had defaced the architecture.
(We tend to use the term “gargoyle” for all the mythical beasts on a Gothic church, but a true gargoyle is a rainspout, the word coming for the Medieval French word for “gullet.” The other figures are usually called grotesques or chimerae.)
Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.
Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”
So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.
What we see now is the past through the lens of Viollet-le-Duc’s imagination, an imagination formed by the epoch of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Hector Berlioz and Eugène Delacroix.
Now that lens is more than 150 years old itself, and we who are perpetually modern use our own lens to judge the motives and achievements of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc and their colleagues.
But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.
And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.
The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.
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