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It doesn’t matter how the fire started. The cause of such disasters is always sin. Perhaps it was the sins of the French, who since the Revolution have abandoned their ancestral faith. Perhaps it was the sins of the West, its secular materialism. Perhaps it was the sins of modernity, the belief in perfectibility and progress. On Monday, as the world watched, the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris burned—and Christians were confronted yet again with the question of why they build churches, particularly churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother of God.

There are right and wrong reasons to restore the cathedral. Wrong reasons include: because it is old; because not to do so would be to surrender to the barbarians; because the building is an important tourist attraction. It would be right to mourn if the cathedral were left in ruins (like the façade was left for some decades in the nineteenth century after many of its statues were beheaded during the Revolution). But is it right to argue solely on the basis of beauty, as if the cathedral were little more than a museum?

Already millions of Euros are being donated, even as some fear what form the restoration might take. Do we have the skills necessary to imitate the work of the medieval masons and other artisans? Does anyone know how to make glass in the right colors, never mind replicate the medieval designs? It doesn’t matter, at least one commentator has argued, for we lack the love with which the original building was built.

Henry Adams thought much the same thing when he visited Notre-Dame of Chartres at the beginning of the previous century. Far more original stained glass remains at Chartres than remained at Paris even before Monday's fire, and yet Adams declared even Chartres empty of faith. Adams, as an American, could appreciate how expensive such churches were to build, but they seemed to him trifles—dollhouses built to please the Queen of Heaven. All he could see in the magnificent glass that survived from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was color and light; nothing of the love for the Virgin that animated her medieval devotees to build palaces in her honor. As he saw her in the windows at Chartres, Our Lady looked down from “a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.”

Much has changed in the Church since Adams took his tour of northern France in quest of the Virgin. The cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims was bombed more than once in the First World War, yet it opened its doors again in 1938 after extensive renovations. There is clearly the will to rebuild Paris's Notre-Dame. The question is, for whom? Adams was right that medieval Christians built the cathedrals of Our Lady at Chartres, Paris, Laon, Noyon, Reims, Amiens, Rouen, Bayeux, and Coutances in order to please her. He was wrong to insist, as he emphatically did, that such dedications had no theological significance and, therefore, were simply about creating a certain “feeling.”

The clergy who served the Virgin during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when Notre-Dame de Paris was first under construction were not playing dolls, nor were they tricked into their devotions by a bourgeoisie and peasantry too simple to understand the mysteries of the Trinity, as Adams claimed. Paris did not need such a beautiful cathedral merely to show off its wealth, nor to attract tourists. The medieval Parisians wanted such a beautiful cathedral for the sake of worship. They wanted a building as beautiful as the Virgin in whom the Maker of all things had taken his rest. They wanted a building as beautiful as Mary, the living temple of God.

It is there in their liturgies, above all in the psalms they sang daily in her Office (Vulgate numbering). Mary was the Mother of the Lord who made the heavens and earth (Psalm 8) and of the bridegroom who set his tabernacle in the sun (Psalm 18). She was the ark bearing the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies (Psalm 23), the queen standing beside the throne of the Lord on his wedding day (Psalm 44), the tabernacle sanctified by the Most High as his dwelling place (Psalm 45), and the city of God of whom glorious things were said (Psalm 86). She was the wood from which the Lord reigned (Psalm 95), the cloud, throne, lightning, and glory upon which the Lord rode (Psalm 96). Great was the music to be made, for through her “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 97).

In the Middle Ages, it wasn’t the building of stone, glass, and wood that mattered. It was the worship offered therein, which is why, when cathedrals caught fire—as they regularly did—medieval Christians took it as an opportunity to develop the skills they needed in order to rebuild. Nobody prior to the mid-twelfth century had built anything like the currently standing cathedrals at Paris or Chartres. Nobody knew how to make such beautiful glass before medieval glaziers learned the secret of the reds, greens, and blues. If the craftsmen of the Middle Ages could figure out how to make glass and carve stone, surely modern Christians can do so again. They have the medieval exemplars on which to model their work. All they need is the will to praise God.

Rachel Fulton Brown is the author of Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought.

Photo by Daniel Dudek via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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