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Tuesday 16 April 2019

Our Lady's Not For Burning

Feeling pretty sad today.

First, we have the news that Notre Dame de Paris was gutted by fire. To those who only know me as a gobshite atheist, it might seem a little strange that this even bothers me, but those who know me well will grok and even feel some of the sadness I feel.

Regular readers will, of course, be aware that much of my leisure time over the past thirty years has been devoted to looking at the ancient ruins and buildings of Europe, and that I have more than a merely passing interest in art. In a guest piece I wrote for the blog of my wonderful friend Molly (if you're a regular here, and haven't read that, you'll see a different hackenslash there), I spoke in awe of my first-hand experience of one of the great devotional masterpieces of all time, Caravaggio's Beheading of John the Baptist, when I went to see it at St John's Co-Cathedral in Valetta, Malta. 

It's hardly surprising that much of the history of art, particularly in Europe, is a history of devotion. All else aside, the church reigned supreme over Europe for most of two millennia, so a jobbing artist would be destitute without the patronage of the church propaganda machine.

That said, as much as devotional art and architecture have been tools of propaganda, they're also something else, but first a diversion to my second sadness.

In the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame, there's been a rash of 'content' from a faction of the online atheist community I like to call 'hur-hur atheists' (usually identified by their low-brows and shitty excuses for thinking), many laughing about the destruction of Notre Dame. Here's an example:

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This is just one of many memes floating around social media today, all with the same tone, as if the destruction of this beautiful building would somehow have some impact on the figures for child sexual abuse.

In reality what this does is to trivialise the abuses suffered at the hands of pederasts (not paedophiles; this is an important distinction worthy of a discussion in itself). It takes a horrible experience suffered by far too many, including people in my immediate orbit who I love and care about, and makes it the foil for a cheap fucking joke. I'd warrant that the creator of this meme isn't a survivor of any such abuse. Frankly, this behaviour is disgusting, and should be met with the full force of our loathing.

I have my own issues with the Catholic church, not least the depredations visited upon my motherland and my immediate family, which are documented to some degree hereabouts, should the casual reader care to investigate.

As I said, I've spent thirty years wandering the ruins of Henry VIII's power-grab* and other ecclesiastical buildings, including Notre Dame, and what I see is the relentless drive of progress, especially in human ingenuity and expression. Yes, much of it is a testament to folly, yet it's also an expression of the deepest of human expressions, and the drive to be better than we are, which is not, in and of itself, an ignoble aim. From wandering the lonely Norman churches of Suffolk and the grand Cistercian and Benedictine abbeys dotted around the UK and Europe (including one still-working Gregorian monastery in Austria), to the grand gothic cathedrals of Rouen, Cologne, Salisbury and, yes, Notre Dame. 

As we learned in my guest piece on Molly's blog, prior to the reformation, moveable type and the easy dissemination of information, these works, artistic, musical and architectural, were the books of their day. They're not just massive repositories of information about the society in which they were built, they contain, in many cases, the day-to-day lives of those not recorded by historians. We see the ancient mason's marks on the stones, and can trace the works between one building and another. We can glean huge amounts of information in the symbology that is quite literally built into the stone and timbers.

In some cases, where construction of individual buildings took place over centuries, we can see the family history of the stonemasons whose families made their livings for entire generations working on a single construction. 

Notre Dame isn't just a building, it's one of the most important buildings in the history and culture of Europe, and it tells us not only about the people who built it, it tells us who we are, as products of that history. Not for nothing is this building deeply interwoven into the history of Parisian life over centuries. Who among us would wish to see the works of Victor Hugo disappeared? Alexandre Dumas? Marcel Proust? George fucking Orwell?

It's almost impossible to find anything written about Paris for the last 900 years that doesn't mention it, or lean on it heavily.

Our ancient buildings aren't merely testaments, they're historical records. In the realest sense possible, they're the history books of Europe, and we all know what happens when we burn books, let alone when we crow gleefully about their destruction. The only motivation I can think possible for such behaviour is self-aggrandisement. 

Of course, it aggrandises nothing but stupidity, and the burnings are never far behind.

* Dissolution of the monasteries, 1536-1538. The monastic orders, particularly the Cistercians, were becoming extremely rich and owned huge tracts of land, as well as being major producers of everything from wool to beer and spirits (pun intended). 

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