Nearly a year has passed since a fire engulfed most of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. At the time, French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the church in five years. A new movie, however, confirms the impossibility of Macron’s promise, while noting that the deadline doesn’t matter, anyway. As Notre-Dame de Paris: The Age of the Builders shows, the cathedral, like New York’s subway system, was never really “completed.” The trick is not to finish it but to submit to it, as a testament to the human ingenuity—and human failure—that has already marked it through nearly a millennium.
The movie—presented as animated, but realistic, documentary-style fiction—explores Notre-Dame’s 850-year story through the eyes of the people who built it. It features Bishop Maurice de Sully, who, in the late twelfth century, sketched out his dream. Sully brought his crude wax drawing of a two-towered cathedral to builder after builder; all said that it was impossible. His idea of Notre-Dame, with its skyscraping stone and light-filled nave, was just too high and wide. Sully eventually found his man, but the project faced countless setbacks: partial collapses due to engineering and construction miscalculations, flood damage caused by poorly protected stonework, and a skeptical Church’s periodic miserliness. It would take a century—past Sully’s time—before the edifice looked like today’s Notre-Dame.
From the beginning, the cathedral was subject to near-constant repair, renovation, and reimagining, with every generation wielding a chisel. As the Middle Ages passed into the Renaissance, architects supplemented the materials of the previous epoch—stone and wood—with those of the new world: iron and glass. Successive visionaries unbuilt and rebuilt everything from Notre-Dame’s roof to its windows. And when it wasn’t subject to reinvention, Notre Dame was neglected—or worse. In the eighteenth century, for example, revolutionaries beheaded many of its medieval statues and covered stained glass with black paint. Only Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, saved the cathedral from total ruin.
Published in 1831, Hugo’s book was a literary rescue mission that inspired architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the manic visionary behind Notre-Dame’s mid-nineteenth-century renewal. As critics noted then and now, Viollet-le-Duc didn’t so much restore the cathedral as reinvent it. His most notable contribution was Notre-Dame’s intricate wood spire, which burned and collapsed last year. He also covered the cathedral’s exterior with its fantastic climbing menagerie of chimera and gargoyles.
At the U.S. premiere in New York earlier this month, director Emmanuel Blanchard clarified that the film, though featuring fictional characters, is based on the historical record. The film itself was in the works before the fire, but the cataclysmic event forced a change in narration and tone—a dedication to “the builders of tomorrow.” Last year, more than 6 million people watched it on French television. The new version, dubbed into English, will be released to American audiences later in 2020.
Overall, The Age of the Builders depicts Notre-Dame not as monument to the ages but instead as a living building that changes with the centuries. The cathedral’s statues of medieval-era saints and kings, for example, were once brightly painted. Its Gothic architecture—composed of dulled stone, cut almost 1,000 years ago—was once vivid and modern.
All these structural features remain under restoration, while the cathedral is barely stabilized. Site workers spent last year repairing the flying buttresses. The fear was that the buttresses, exerting too much pressure with no countervailing force from the roof, would collapse. Workers are now cleaning the contamination released by the burning of Notre-Dame’s leaden roof. The next step—which will take yet another year—involves dismantling, or incorporating, the metal scaffolding that surrounded the structure as part of pre-fire repair work. The metal had melted into parts of the cathedral.
As such daunting tasks show, twenty-first-century builders must follow Bishop de Sully’s example by playing the long game. “It will take more than two lifetimes to finish,” he, or at least his fictionalized shadow, predicted at the end of his life. He said that more than eight centuries ago. The work continues.
Photo: Nick Paschalis/iStock