The Throne of Paris

Portals on the west façade of Notre-Dame with statues of the kings of Judah above. Photo:
Portals on the west façade of Notre-Dame with statues of the kings of Judah above. Photo:

Imagine a re-enacted processional route to escort Jesus’s crown of thorns from Sainte-Chappelle, commissioned by Saint Louis IX King of France, to its new home in Paris’s Catholic cathedral a few blocks away. Accompanied by bishops and priests and a congregation of faithful, the crown is taken out into the street corridors.

The procession follows behind in a trail of incense and chant, ultimately breaking into the openness of Place Jean Paul II, before the commanding presence of the familiar and iconic façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral. They see the façade with its harmonious geometrical frame, housing a rich tapestry of sculpted iconography. Each element plays its part: the triumphal entry arches, a band of niched royal kings of Judah, a rose window.

This whole ensemble is book-ended and capped on both sides by the ascent of two robust towers. Just beyond the towers and between them, a glimpse of the flèche is a foretaste of the interior. All amounts to a triumphal building, hinting ever inward and upward.

Triumphal Entry

As the procession gets closer to the church they see the striking details of the triumphal entry portals. On the north and south portals, exquisitely carved reliefs of Marian imagery.

The central portal, like the others, has a community of figures funnelling our gaze toward the center doors. There, a statue of Christ welcomes each member of the procession while supporting the tympanum arch with scenes from the Last Judgment culminating in Christ enthroned.

Once inside, the verticals force our gaze upward, while the repetition of bay openings and ethereal light emanating from the brilliant stained-glass windows keeps us moving forward through the crossing transepts with their splendid glowing rose windows and ultimately past the bishop’s exquisitely carved wooden throne, through the choir and to the high altar in the apse. There sits Our Lady at the foot of the cross, where the crown of Christ is brought for veneration and a celebration of the Eucharist.

This description only scratches the surface of the people’s sacred experience, the experience they would actually encounter through the other senses: smelling the incense, hearing the organ and choir, and feeling the stone. All present are blessed to partake, with awe and reverence, in the magnificence of the cathedral.

Place of Primacy

The depiction of this extraordinary liturgical event illustrates the place of primacy the cathedral holds within the Catholic community in Paris and beyond, first and foremost as a house of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a cathedral as “the official church of the bishop of a diocese. The Greek word cathedra means chair or throne; the bishop’s ‘chair’ symbolizes his teaching and governing authority, and is located in the principal church or ‘cathedral’ of the local diocese of which he is the chief pastor.”

We saw Christ enthroned on the façade at the entry of the cathedral in the central portal tympanum. The same furnishing, a throne, is re-presented for the bishop within the cathedral, alluding to Christ in carrying on his mission as leader and shepherd of the Church.

Further, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, provides a qualitative description of what is expected from the cathedral. “The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent,” it says.

“Therefore, all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.”

The cathedral’s purpose, by these definitions, is to be an authority and a shepherd, meant to set an example for the faithful to follow and be a part of, as a community in procession. The cathedral building itself has a critical role to play as well. It is very much an act of community from its construction to its liturgy, an inclusive endeavour and an achievement of communal pride.

Pope Benedict described this quality in a general audience. “Another merit of Gothic cathedrals is that the whole Christian and civil community participated in their building and decoration in harmonious and complementary ways. The lowly and the powerful, the illiterate and the learned; all participated because in this common house all believers were instructed in the faith.”

Evident Splendor

These definitions of a cathedral, however, cannot capture and justify the evident splendor of Notre-Dame. It is not accidental that the cathedral appears as it does. The sensate experience that occurs in encountering the cathedral is theologically intentional. Its purpose goes well beyond functional aspects of accommodating particularly large and elaborate liturgical celebrations, and providing a place of prominence for the cathedra.

The cathedral rises much further with theological purpose, in being intrinsically responsive to the purpose and spirit of the liturgy. It is the liturgy in stone, not just its container. With this calling, the cathedral provides a distinct place that nourishes the mind, elevates prayer, reveres the liturgy and sacraments, and transcends the mundane on an exemplary level. In sum, it provides a worthy intercessor between heaven and earth, God and man, and points toward truth, goodness, and beauty.

The fulfillment and result of this relationship is, as it should be hierarchically speaking, an exceptionally beautiful church—a cathedral. Saint Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary with Notre-Dame’s Gothic culture, makes a case for the significance of beauty as something more profound than aesthetic taste.

He points out that we are of body and soul and as such have interior and exterior spiritual needs. God comes to us through the facility of our senses. Further, we have a tendency to treat things with decorum, in dressing up objects that are important. As corporeal beings, we build beautiful things for God, for our sake. As Giles Dimock, O.P., wrote in Sacred Architecture 3, Aquinas points out, “Through the virtue of fortitude we overcome obstacles like expense in order to produce magnificence.”

Image of Heaven

This is what we have at Notre-Dame: a human effort to exercise great fortitude in building an image of heaven. In speaking of the cathedral as an image of heaven, or house of God, it is even more necessary for the success of the cathedral to make its theological point.

Here again we can defer to the mind of Aquinas, who says that in order for something to be beautiful—a thing that gives the viewer knowledge of the inner logic of its being—three different elements need to be accommodated: wholeness, proportion and clarity. (Here I draw upon Denis R. McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.) The cathedral largely meets these expectations through its exceptional provisions for comprehensive structure, including its verticality and directionality, iconographic content and crafted materials to enrich reading, cosmic unity through perfect geometries in emulating God the divine architect, and luminosity through stained glass that allows us to perceive the beauty.

Viollet-le-Duc’s design for a new flèche, completed in 1859. Image: Viollet-le-Duc
Viollet-le-Duc’s design for a new flèche, completed in 1859. Image: Viollet-le-Duc

For Notre-Dame, Gothic architecture plays no small part in helping to achieve this goal. Gothic architecture, as Abbot Suger’s liturgically inspired creation, has in its DNA the purpose of accomplishing beautiful religious architecture. This was primarily achieved in creating an architecture that saw a direct relationship between light and God. As the historian Otto Von Simson said in his The Gothic Cathedral, “Light and luminous objects, no less than musical consonance, conveyed an insight into the perfection of the cosmos, and a divination of the Creator.”

Here at Notre-Dame, the manifestation of cathedral theology succeeds in meeting expectations of “cathedral-ness,” in creating a beautiful sacramental house of God for the city of Paris, intent on helping lead souls to eternal salvation. It then further transcends time and space as a universal icon capable of continuing to be a source of sacred sustenance and a model for emulation for all.

Conservation of Beauty

It is for these reasons that, in the aftermath of the most recent fire destroying the roof and flèche, the powers-that-be should consider the conservation of this cathedral’s inherent beauty as the top priority. Rebuilding the cathedral fully to its previous state, especially given the availability of thorough documentation, is the right thing to do. To restore with anything alien would be to undo its success as a unified beautiful composition.

Comparative flèche design diagram. The “proposed” flèche design by the author is intended to be larger than the previous spire, being 40 feet taller and 10 feet wider at the base. Image: C. J. Howard
Comparative flèche design diagram. The “proposed” flèche design by the author is intended to be larger than the previous spire, being 40 feet taller and 10 feet wider at the base. Image: C. J. Howard

The other alternative would be to participate in the continuum of the Gothic tradition by offering a design that dares to exceed what was once there, just as Viollet-le-Duc had done. Today, with the atrophy of traditional building and design culture, it is hard to imagine surpassing those that were steeped in it. Nevertheless, I offer here a conjectural design for a new Gothic flèche as a more prominent beacon of the cathedral in Paris. The charge here is that if a design is congruent with the criteria of beauty for this cathedral and its purpose, then it too could be successful in helping Our Mother to thrive and inspire again.

Sketch of a new “proposed” flèche design by the author. The proposed flèche is elevated from early Gothic and Rayonnant styles to a chronological successor, the Flamboyant style. Image: C. J. Howard
Sketch of a new “proposed” flèche design by the author. The proposed flèche is elevated from early Gothic and Rayonnant styles to a chronological successor, the Flamboyant style. Image: C. J. Howard

C. J. Howard is an assistant professor in Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. As lead project architect for McCrery Architects, he led the design and construction of ecclesiastical projects like the Newman Student Center at the University of Nebraska and the Christ the King Chapel at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.