Thoughts While Exploring Notre Dame, Paris

Adam Pagryzinski ’14 – Mar. 14 – We like to think of gothic cathedrals as temporally static, giant stone anomalies which have escaped the passage of time; constants that connect us with the genius of a lost age. This perception of cathedrals as constant and unchanging engenders feelings of comfort, security, awe, and perseverance which speak to the human desire for universal truth, for immortality. The thought that these stone giants could be movable, transitory, or destructible is existentially troublesome, for how can something that has endured so long be subject to the fickleness of time, subjectivity, or human interpretation? This was the very struggle encountered today while exploring the cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres.

Despite the breath-taking exterior, intricate carvings, and the most magnificent stained glass windows ever created, the focus of our investigation and discussion was the partially complete renovation project seeking to return the cathedral’s interior to its original state. Rather than the gloomy, somber, and bare stone walls so associated with the gothic aesthetic and the medieval ages, we instead found brightly painted walls and columns in hues of yellow, red, green, and blue. The shadowy mysticism and cold uniformity of the building was lost, and along with it all the feelings and sentiments typically associated with the gothic.

In the quest to rediscover the lost historical aesthetic of the cathedral, a different aesthetic truth has been destroyed. The perception of cathedrals held by modernity, although not true to history or the creators’ intent, has maintained for centuries and is engrained in the global mind. The traditional bare stone walls offer us something; they fulfill some need, satisfy some unique desire which remains unaddressed by society. While it is true that modernity has a duty to antiquity, to preserve and rediscover the lost realities of lost times, we must also be careful not to destroy the modern conception of the cathedral that has been developed over hundreds of years. It is evident after appreciating the cathedral in Chartres that the role cathedrals play in politics, community, religion, and society has changed since the birth of the gothic, however we must reach a balance between remaining true to the gothic aesthetic of antiquity and exploring the modern gothic interpretation lest we lose the many things that this new aesthetic provides.