“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (Walter Benjamin)
Notre-Dame de Paris Is A Church
It may also be a world-renowned cultural icon, a destination for tourists, and an architectural wonder, but it is first of all a church.
For this reason my heart goes out to the communities that worship there daily. Notre Dame holds Mass Monday mornings, plus each noon day, and evening prayer, and Sunday includes a Gregorian Mass, an international mass, and an evening Mass presided over by the Archbishop of Paris.
That is a lot of worship now disrupted by the fire. No wonder so many made their way the evening of the fire in procession to the church, singing hymns. The place to which they walked frequently for worship was now wholly other than it had been, tragically disrupted and refigured.
Notre-Dame de Paris Is An Icon
The reason we’re all thinking about Notre Dame this week has to do with its iconic status. Although we should indeed be as concerned about the burning of churches in Louisiana (and you can donate here), and on some religious and political levels even more concerned for those churches, the fact remains… icons are icons.
Culture gathers around certain centers, and Notre Dame is one.
Notre Dame has been iconic in people’s lives in myriad ways.
Part of the response is nostalgia:
taking out old photos of when we once were there (my wife and I went to Paris from Slovakia for our honeymoon); part of the response is sheer spectacle, the way we’re all drawn to flashing lights on the side of the road, or a fire; and part of the response is wonder at the accretions of culture around such an ancient church.
Notre Dame is embedded in a very old tradition. Built in a long-ago era when the Roman Catholics built cathedrals (they quit building them in this way after the discovery of the New World in 1492), Our Lady of Paris is more than just the amazing structure it is… like many cathedrals it is iconic because of the rituals and tradition of which it is a part.
“Uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition” (Walter Benjamin).
Even now as the West has secularized, France in particular, nevertheless there is a sublimated and new tradition that gathers around these sacred cathedrals. Tourism is its own kind of tradition, and so in this sense the icon means something even if you’re from Japan and do not share the historic faith that traditions Notre Dame.
You Can’t Copy Notre Dame, It Has Its Own Aura
“What is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition… What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the…aura” (Walter Benjamin)
You can take a picture of Notre Dame. You can build a Lego replica of Notre Dame. But there’s just nothing like being AT the Notre Dame. Notre Dame isn’t the same apart from place and space where it happens to be, and the traditions of which it is a part.
This is why a fire disrupts much more than just the structure. The fire introduces something into the traditioning of the cathedral itself. A new story emerges.
In some ways, this has been the tragic beauty of this moment, that precisely through the fire happening, so much more has come out, the aura the cathedral gives off is so rich and dense that school children in Arkansas learn architectural insights and pastors like me learn about the trees growing to replace the roof, and we all watch the news of what was destroyed, and what preserved, and discuss whether it’s miraculous the gold cross stayed pristine (or recognized that in fact the temperature at which wood burns is much lower than the temperature at which gold melts).
And unfortunately, some try to make false meanings where there is no meaning. They take the moment as opportunity to share their anti-Catholic screeds, or warn of the dangers of secularization, or attempt to support their various conspiracy theories and biases by self-serving reference to an “act of God.”
When an icon burns, meaning will always be made. It’s the way of things. We have been losing great churches and buildings for millennia, and we know how it goes.
Which Brings Us To Holy Week, And The Temple
Remember that when Jesus was on his way to the cross he made mention more than once of the destruction of the temple.
Luke 21:6: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Of course this is intended as a double reference. He circles the idea around to the destruction (and resurrection) of his own body. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
But it’s also a reference to real events that take place in Jerusalem a few decades later. By the time the gospels are being written, the temple is in fact torn down, never (yet) to be rebuilt.
So in the text, the destruction of the temple is multivalent. It means something about Jesus. It also means a lot of things related to the city of Jerusalem and the religious observances of the people of God in that place.
In the case of Jerusalem, the temple is an icon precisely in its absence. One can imagine it, or even build models of what once was, but there is no longer any temple there. Only the wailing wall.
For the next few years, Notre Dame will be like this. It will be remarkable as the church you can’t climb, as a once great icon in the process of restoration (I’m thinking of the various restorations over the years of the Statue of Liberty, or the Washington Monument).
But apparently, not for very long, as billionaires are going to pay to rebuild it very quickly (an odd sort of thing, that). So Notre Dame will never be like the temple in Jerusalem, where the meaning is completely in absence.
The Tradition of Jesus Is In the Shattering of It
“Massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past – a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity.” (Walter Benjamin)
Holy Week is the week where the church gathers and tells the story of this destruction. The church recites the passion narrative–traditionally, from the gospel of St. John.
Most of the time this happens in church buildings, admittedly less grand than the Notre Dame.
The destruction (crucifixion) of Jesus’ body is recited verbally. It is also enacted through the distribution of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. It is as if a moment like the burning of Notre Dame cathedral is baked into faith itself.
Since Notre Dame is “Our Lady,” we know the one in whose memory the church was consecrated herself suffered deeply the death of her son. “Now standing beside Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).
Although they did not die with him, it was certainly a kind of death that day.
Burning churches are like this. Most Christians can articulate rationally that the church is just a building, where people go to pray.
But the accretions of a place, the way they rein a specific place, and people gather there, it is a kind of signification we can’t get around. So we can understand why a community would grieve the destruction (or even the damaging of a building).
I am thankful now after the Notre Dame fire that donations to rebuild the churches in Louisiana are also increasing. One might wish all of us would take note of smaller fires in smaller places, but it is places with auras in particular that will always garner greater attention, and spill off benefits or banes as they will.
But on this Holy Week, because of the Notre Dame fire, all of us will consider the intersection of buildings, tradition, and place in generatively creative ways, waiting in particular as Christians do for the renewal of humanity we trust takes place when one last place experiences massive upheaval… that is, the tomb itself, left empty.
Aura, a definition by Walter Benjamin:
A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance – this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch. Now, to bring things closer to us or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a copy, becomes more imperative. The difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the original picture is unmistakable. Uniqueness and duration are intimately intertwined in the latter as are transience and reproducibility in the former.”