5 Oct 2004
I never fancied myself a devout Jew, but I still didn't anticipate that entering the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris would nearly convert me to Catholicism that very instant. Seriously, I actually thought about entering a confession booth and telling the preist that I had clearly made a mistake early on and really belonged in this church.
Seeing Notre Dame is not like seeing other cathedrals. I've seen a few— the one in Uppsala, Sweden being perhaps the grandest— but Notre Dame blows them all away. First, it is in Paris. Because of this, your aesthetic senses are already aroused before you begin your approach. And you will approach gradually: you begin by seeing its spires over the neighboring buildings and river. Then you start to follow the curves and points of its elaborate ironwork. You enter an adjacent park, where a central fountain is flanked by dozens of benches, each row shaded by a line of trees whose canopies have been trimmed flat on six sides that meet at right angles.
At this point, you will spend several minutes attempting to reconcile the fact that Notre Dame's flying buttresses are just big ass stone supports for big ass stone walls with their incredibe aesthetic effect. You might walk around to the front, where a statue of Charlemagne on his horse will distract you momentarily. And then you'll stare at the doorways. In each of these doorway arches there is more art than the average person will meaningfully take in within twenty years.
But this is all just window dressing for the interior. Outside it is all roughly grey; inside the stained glass streams color richer than Poussin's draperies.
These days, it's easy to avoid being religious, because we see so few miracles. Science and literacy and communication and art have become so ubiquitous outside political circles, that we are hardly touched or shocked by anything. Past a certain age, we've all seen the photographs, read the stories, and heard the music from Bach to Biggie. But long ago, our destinies were not thought to be so much within our comprehension, let alone within our control. To stand in Notre Dame, with its dozen alcove chapels and statues and paintings and carved stone and confessionals and 300-foot vaulted ceilings and, my god, two rose windows that actually literally gave me goosebumps— well, then you start to believe in miracles.
I can only imagine how it would have affected one in the 13th century.