By Amanda Metzger
Why do I care if Notre Dame burns?
I’m not Catholic. Sure, French gothic architecture is a breathtaking feat of engineering and aesthetic. And of course, j’aime Paris. Who doesn’t?
But it’s not my church. It’s not my community. It’s not my culture. Or is it? When the flames rose up and the bells tolled, did they toll for me? Do I even have to ask?
I’ve never been to Notre Dame, but last month I was incredibly fortunate enough to stand in the Sistine Chapel for about 20 minutes. I saw it with my own eyes and soul, not through the lens of a smartphone camera. Talking and taking pictures are both forbidden within this marvel from more than 500 years ago. Sorry, no selfies with “The Creation of Adam.” Your Instagram followers will just have to take your word for it that you were there.
Sometimes people (referred to by our Roman tour guide as barbarians) began to whisper and the hum of their murmuring rose to a decibel level that prompted a disembodied male voice to boom “Silenzio!”
Then everyone shut up and remembered to look up.
There might have been 10 languages spoken at once during the oblivious yammering, but regardless of culture, country of origin or ethnicity, when everyone finally looked up at the ceiling, they were speechless. The painstakingly detailed paintings of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti seemed 3D — almost like his sculptures for which he was known when commissioned to paint the Papal Chapel. Even the tapestry painted on the walls seemed like you could reach out and feel the texture.
The Sistine Chapel was built from 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV, hence the name. It was Pope Julius II who commissioned Michelangelo to paint it.
Michelangelo painted more than 300 figures on the ceiling over a four-year period. To get an idea of the standard Michelangelo held himself and his art to, Pope Julius II originally asked for the likenesses of the 12 apostles. These were “frescos” which means they were painted using a chemical reaction between damp lime plaster and water-based pigments to permanently fuse the painting into the wall. At one point the plaster was too wet and grew mold. Michelangelo had to tear it down and start again. Talk about dedication.
It wasn’t easy. Michelangelo wrote this poem about the whole ordeal:
“I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.”
I watched the shaky video of the Notre Dame spire topple over. I cried. It gave me a lump in my throat. My arms tingled with goosebumps. I felt sick to my stomach.
Later that night I closed my eyes and I saw it again. I saw the flames that seemed to gleefully dance up the frame of the spire glowing and eating it up until the base buckled and it crashed down into an inferno, launching up a pinkish orange cloud at the base of dense gray smoke.
This was an 850 year old building. How could it suddenly be gone in my lifetime? Unfortunately I recognized the feeling. It was not unlike how I felt as a freshman in high school when I watched the Twin Towers collapse.
Thankfully, Notre Dame is not gone. Macron has vowed to rebuild, and I believe they will.
At least one firefighter was reported injured, but thankfully the list of injuries isn’t longer.
Even though I am not French, Catholic, an artist or architect, I love Notre Dame because I am human — just like you, and just like the people who dedicated themselves to building this international treasure centuries ago. To borrow from the English 16th century poet John Donne, the bell tolls for thee.
Amid the ashes of Notre Dame I’m left to wonder what legacy I am leaving for posterity. In a throw-away society obsessed with sex and instant gratification, it seems like we’re more devoted to posting #blessed than carrying out God’s blessings. Where does that leave us? What does that leave for our children?
Is Notre Dame symbolic of what we have done to our culture? If so, it’s time to pick up the firehose and start fighting.