Times of Israel: “Horror and Hope at the Portals of Notre Dame”

by Steve Brown, The Times of Israel

In 1981, I spent 10 weeks on a traveling fellowship in Europe while in architectural school, fulfilling the very loose directive to go forth and draw.  It is a very different notion of travel to sit, draw and think about why and how the choices were made that shape our world.  Psalm 115:8 says “Those who make them will become like them”.  The things we make not only tell our story but also change us.  I began to understand these designers’ intentions, whether to tell about discovery, hope and faith, or of despotism, or a mixture of each.   My sketches from the interior of Notre Dame have a note in the margin that says “extremely dark in here”, partially because the ancient stained glass windows, darkened by the soot of the industrial revolution, were yet to be refreshed in a renovation in the nineties, but also from the even darker history captured in Notre Dame’s portals.

I thought I was going to see a tale told in stone, a new form of urbanism, not shaped by walled protections from marauders but a spiritual building placed at the center of a city, and of the use of architecture to tame gravity to open a sacred space to luminous inspiration.  Certainly all of that was to be found, but tainted by the crushing animus of the builders of the Cathedral of Notre Dame towards Judaism, which was prominently declared in the statuary of the church’s main portal.  Framing the central portal are two larger than life statues of women named “Ecclesia” (the Church) on the left and “Synagoga” for which no Latin scholarship is required, on the right.  “Ecclesia” stands proudly, the scepter of a ruler in her hand, a crown on her head, a royal chalice in her right hand. “Synagoga” is portrayed with a menacing bare fanged snake wrapped around her head, blinding her.  In her hand are the tablets of the law, falling from her grip. Her head is bent and a crown is crushed at her feet. The designers of the church meant you to understand this message though few visitors today decipher this literal and figurative “handwriting on the wall”.   Judaism was represented as crushed, blinded, defeated.   This was meant as a religious statement as well as a legal construct.

Notre Dame’s construction commenced in 1160 and was largely finished 100 years later, in 1260.  A long sordid history of French antisemitism climaxed just as the church was being completed. In 1242, King Louis the 9th, the great patron of Notre Dame Cathedral, put the Talmud itself on trial, after a co-ordinated raid of all of the synagogues of France during Saturday services.  Jewish scholars tried to mount a defense, but of course, the Talmud itself was convicted of heresy and all 10,000 copies were burned in a plaza adjacent to Notre Dame. In 1306, 100,000 Jews, the entire Jewish populace of France were exiled in day and all their possessions confiscated. Jews were allowed to take only the clothes on their backs into exile and King Phillip III auctioned off all their property.  Thus the debts for the ongoing work of Notre Dame were paid for in part with this travesty.

As a Jew, I was not put off by Catholic churches, though I had seldom been in one before.  Indeed, while drawing in France’s Chartres Cathedral, I learned a profound lesson that I still think of often.  Pondering the marvel of its buttressing, letting the stone structure soar higher than it could naturally reach, inspired by the builders’ art at dissolving the visual weight of the structure into silken bundles of columns, a visitor passed me and paused for a moment to run his fingers over the square peg securing the pieces of a pew together.  In the midst of this grand space, he was drawn to this tiny peg, being able to touch the love and skill it represented. He looked at me and made an expression of awe. I later met the architect of an assisted living facility who scattered plastic army men into the construction backfill of his project in the hope that a child would discover them someday and want to visit his aging relative again.   Few grand designs inspire me as much as a square mortise peg at Chartres and a bag full of plastic army men scattered in the ground. I still hope to meet the needs of people and projects in a way that can show them how their world can better fit together.

The theme of Ecclesia and a blinded Synagoga is repeated throughout Europe. As hateful a view as that is, I was surprised to find a modern re-interpretation of the theme in a recent sculpture that I just visited.  It depicts Ecclesia and Synagoga sitting happily side by side, looking at the other’s writings, at ease in mutual respect.   The sculpture is located at the center of the Saint Joseph’s University campus in Philadelphia.   Right after it was placed, Pope Francis re-arranged his schedule in 2018 to visit and bless it, accompanied by a Rabbi.  “They are you and I – Pope and Rabbi learning from one another”, he said. Throngs closed in on the statue to touch what their Pope had blessed and ponder its message. Touching it like the visitor at Chartres who felt the mortised pew and connected to a larger good, or like a child discovering a gift from an unseen hand.

As Jewry in France is under siege, with large numbers fleeing France’s violent antisemitism,  I’ll be cheering for Notre Dame to rise from her ashes to make a better mark.