Lift high the cross: Local architect mesmerized by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

By Beth Donze

Photo courtesy Kieran Weldon

When local architect Kieran Weldon walked into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the first time in the late 1980s, he wasn’t prepared for the sight: The morning light streaming through the edifice’s jewel-toned stained glass was bathing the cathedral in a celestial glow.

His heart leapt.

“The interior was totally illuminated without the help of any artificial lighting,” marveled Weldon, a lifelong Catholic, then studying architecture in Rome. “It was almost as if God had a hand in lighting that church without artificial light. It was a glass palace! It was transformative.”

Weldon, whose Covington-based firm, fl+WB Architects, is responsible for the design of eight Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said that like millions of others around the globe, he felt helpless watching “the most important church in western civilization” being eaten alive by an inferno.

“I am devastated,” said Weldon, who spent his undergraduate years at another Notre Dame – the university in South Bend, Indiana. “Notre Dame (Cathedral in Paris) is a wonderful image of Mary and all of the things that we pray about and have faith in. If you’re in that place, you’re in a place where Mary is sacrosanct.

“And it was built over generations,” he added. “Think of all the generations of people who gave their blood, sweat and tears – and any money they had – to build the embodiment of their faith. They gave their life to a church they knew they would never see finished.”

‘Functional’ can be beautiful

The genius and tenacity of those builders, on display for more than 850 years, continues to dumbfound Weldon even after visiting the hulking cathedral at least five times. Among the many exterior accoutrements he cherishes are Notre Dame’s graceful flying buttresses, which Weldon says somehow manage to be simultaneously practical and aesthetically pleasing.

“Even non-architects know that we have to hold those walls up, but they were done in such a beautiful way and with such craftsmanship,” Weldon said. “They worked in details that didn’t make it look like it was just structural. It was art. That place is a living embodiment of art and faith.”

Weldon said the buttresses also allowed generations of artisans to fill in wall lengths of 30 to 40 feet with stained glass, and to support the heavy roof without the need for thick walls.

“We’re looking at an incredible engineering marvel,” he said.

Another exterior element revered by the architect are Notre Dame’s two towers. Although they appear to be identical twins, they actually are asymmetrical – built at different times and by different design masters and craftsmen who did not have the benefit of final architectural drawings. As an architect, Weldon can imagine the designer of the “newer” tower saying, “OK, I want to make a change on this one.”

“(Notre Dame’s architects) did all this while they were out in the field; they did it on site. We’re talking (the year) 1200,” Weldon said. “We think of the people of that time as not being very sophisticated, but, goodness, were they sophisticated!”

Windows ‘paint’ interior

Weldon said he admires his favorite interior features – the cathedral’s stained-glass windows – for much more than their exquisite design and construction. He said Notre Dame’s stained-glass artisans deliberately intended for their windows to cast an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of color onto the cathedral’s buff-colored walls and to add vibrant hues to even its neutral-toned flooring.

“What inspired me the most were all the colors the stained-glass created – you would be looking at a spectrum of color on gray-and-white stone. The stained glass emblazoned the whole space on the inside,” Weldon said. “It’s (an effect) that becomes almost electrifying. It becomes transformative.”

Modern viewers of Notre Dame’s stained-glass windows also could crawl into the brains of their medieval creators by noticing the main colors used: multiple shades of blue, representing Mary, dominate the color scheme, while red tones symbolize Jesus and yellow suggests the Holy Spirit, Weldon points out.

“All of these things coalesced together and became an amazing amalgam of color that transformed you,” he said.

Earthly journey toward Jesus

Another juxtaposition at Notre Dame is its ethereal fusion of the vertical and the horizontal – something that went on to be copied by Gothic churches in Italy, Germany and elsewhere in France, Weldon said.

“The thing about Gothic architecture is that it’s soaring; it’s high; it’s vertical. It implores you to think about heaven,” Weldon said. “It takes you to another place of what you’re living through now. There’s something ‘bigger,’ and it’s about faith and about Jesus and about Our Mother – ‘Notre Dame.’”

But in addition to Notre Dame’s verticality is a horizontal dimension created through architecture: The cathedral is designed as a cruciform. Its long nave, representing Christ’s walk to Cavalry and suggestive of the upright beam of Jesus’ cross, is intersected by transepts (suggesting a crucifix’s cross beam), just short of the sanctuary. Weldon said Gothic design’s horizontal focus also was achieved by deliberately leaving the ceiling unadorned, a choice that stands in sharp contrast to the highly decorated ceilings of Renaissance churches, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, built centuries later.

“Renaissance churches always put stuff on the ceiling to draw your eye up to heaven,” Weldon explained. “In Gothic churches, the focus was on the horizontal, which is where the people were. (Cathedral architects) wanted you to know your pathway. You don’t have to look up – yet. As you’re walking down that long nave, you have nothing but the spectrum of light (to guide you). I’m walking to Communion, and everything is coming at me from the side, as if to say, ‘Keep going! Keep going.’”

Hails ‘hero-priest’

A slew of miracles were lifting Weldon’s spirits in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Holy Monday fire. Reports from French officials indicated that the cathedral’s main structure had survived, its towers and rose windows had escaped relatively unscathed, and that pledges of hundreds of millions – and possibly billions – of euros to rebuild the cathedral already were pouring in.

Weldon said another miracle was how Notre Dame’s spire, which contained a small segment of Jesus’ crown of thorns, collapsed into the sanctuary, but narrowly missed hitting the altar cross.

But the architect contends the most inspirational story is that of the French priest who courageously entered the burning cathedral to save the Blessed Sacrament and the main reliquary holding the crown of thorns. Weldon called him a “hero-priest.”

“In an era of people questioning their faith and their priests, look at somebody like this,” Weldon said. “He went into a blaze of fire, went into the sanctuary and saved what he could. And he did it on his own; no one asked him to do it.”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

 

CONTRIBUTE TO REBUILDING EFFORTS FOR LOUISIANA CHURCHES, PARIS CATHEDRAL

The Archdiocese of New Orleans already has made contributions to help rebuild the three historic churches in St. Landry Parish that were burned recently by arsonists.

The archdiocese is continuing to collect funds for that purpose, as well as to contribute to the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which sustained heavy damage in an April 15 fire.

Anyone wishing to make a gift to help the rebuilding efforts either in Louisiana or in Paris may send checks to: Archdiocese of New Orleans, Attn: Fire Relief Funds, 7887 Walmsley Ave., New Orleans, LA 70125. Please note where you would like contributions to be sent, and Archbishop Aymond will forward the funds accordingly.

 

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