Function is everything. If a building doesn’t have one, it is of no use. It follows that its past is of no importance – at least, if the building serves no practical use now. Or so one school of thinking would have it.
Over eight hundred years after the start of its construction, Notre Dame Cathedral still has a function for most of its vistors. This, for the non-Christians who now make up the majority of them, is as a tourist attraction.
But it was conceived, of course, as a place of Christian worship, and has served as such ever since (for most of the time): as a church containing a cathedra, a bishop’s throne: in this case, that of the Bishop of Paris. For that function’s purposes, a square building with a flat roof would have done just as well, if those who designed the cathedral had simply wanted a building to accomodate lots of people. Instead, they wished to create a space with a sense of the sacred, and that sense implies beauty. And so to the Notre Dame that some of our readers will have visited, with its flying buttresses, Gothic columns, rose windows and rib vaults.
Others will never have been there. Some may not have passed the doors of any cathedral, anywhere – like, at a rough guess, the majority of people in Britain. That didn’t diminish the shock of the pictures that filled our media yesterday evening. If nothing else, the dismay that has followed is a kind of repudiation of functionality. Like our own cathedrals, with their stained glass and tombs and old flags and carvings and whitewashed walls, Notre Dame has a value of its own. It has it not by doing anything but by being something.
In his poem “Church Going”, Philip Larkin asks whether “we shall keep / A few cathedrals chronically on show” and later, stumbles upon an answer to his question, as he contemplates an English parish church. “A serious house on serious earth it is / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet / Are recognised and robed as destinies / And that much never can be obsolete”. If asked whether it is right to be moved by a blazing building in a world full of suffering people, Larkin’s poem offers the beginning of an answer.
Notre Dame and the fire that engulfed it – in the holiest week of the Christian calendar – is beyond politics, or should be. But if cathedrals are sermons in stone, it is worth listening to what they are saying. Those things include: the past isn’t just another country; heritage counts; function isn’t everything; beauty matters; something can be important even if you make no use of it; people, like buildings, have value. That last conviction is part of the belief system that drove the creation of cathedrals in the first place – part of the stuff of which they are made, if you like. They are exercises in conservation and, to conservatives, conservation ought to matter.
So it is not irrational to be moved by the desolating pictures from Paris – not unreasonable, anyway. And important to praise the firemen who have saved Notre Dame from total destruction. Now the work of reconstruction begins.
We should count our blessings here at home. In 2001, an arsonist set fire to a stack of chairs in Peterborough Cathedral. The blaze could have taken out “the most ancient painted ceiling in Europe”. Fortunately, it was extinguished, and the cathedral remains intact – tomb of Katherine of Aragon and all. York Minster, too, was saved, after the roof of its south transept was destroyed in 1984.
Meanwhile, cathedral attendances here have been rising in recent years. Perhaps the gain comes from a revival of their original function – though there’s more to them than that, as we’ve seen. That may be a consolation on a smouldering morning for Paris and the world.