Bringing Landmarks Like Notre-Dame Back to Life

Careful and sensitive restoration of sacred monuments is critical, says Tufts art historian
Notre-Dame Cathedral, with scaffolding for repairs to the roof. Art and architecture historian Christina Maranci talks about the restoration of Notre-Dame and other beloved cathedrals in need of attention.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. “These churches have seen catastrophe, they have seen war, they have seen invasions,” said Christina Maranci. “At the least, we should do everything in our power to help them in their time of need.” Photo: Christina Maranci
July 16, 2019

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When the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was severely damaged by a fire in April, it caught the world’s attention. Constructed more than 800 years ago, it is a national landmark in France, and its restoration became a topic of intense national and international debate. The fire and subsequent controversies highlighted the role that religious buildings play in the culture of many countries, and how they are maintained—or not.  

Christina Maranci, the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture and chair of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, knows all about the value of religious structures. She has devoted her career to studying and restoring Armenian cathedrals in Asia Minor, such as the one in Ani, constructed in approximately 1000 AD.

“Humans have a duty to preserve the deep past, as much as we can,” said Maranci. “Notre-Dame, like Ani Cathedral, has been here a lot longer than we have. These churches have seen catastrophe, they have seen war, they have seen invasions. They have witnessed centuries of human foolishness. At the least, we should do everything in our power to help them in their time of need.” 

It’s a subject that is of academic interest as well. The Department of the History of Art and Architecture is offering a new minor this fall in museums, memory, and heritage, which explores the cultural significance of memory and how it shapes the response to museums and monuments like cathedrals.

Tufts Now talked with Maranci shortly after she returned from a trip to Paris, where she viewed the damage to Cathedral Notre-Dame.

Tufts Now: The French government has required that Notre-Dame be restored to its state before the fire. Is that the norm for restoration of historic and religious buildings?  

Christina Maranci: Attitudes toward restoration vary greatly across the world, as do the relationship between governments and cultural monuments. The oft-cited ideals of historical restoration are that the restored zones are clearly identifiable as interventions, the interventions are thoroughly documented, and the materials and techniques for restoration should be reversible.

There had been calls for a new look for the cathedral: a greenhouse roof, for example, and even a swimming pool. As an art historian, what was your reaction to that?

Having seen the damage, I would say that the most important thing, beyond the appearance, is first to protect and stabilize the monument and its decoration, and to protect the people working on and around it. As for the aesthetic of the final intervention, I don’t think there is much to be gained by doing something drastically different from what was there before.

Pitched roofs such as that on Notre-Dame are splendid devices that serve the very important function of protecting what is below them. As for any innovations: my personal position is that the new superstructure ought to be sensitive to the monument in all its dimensions, not only as a tourist site and cultural symbol, but also as a house of worship. 

A bit farther afield, you’ve urged the restoration of the ancient Armenian cathedral in Mren in eastern Turkey. How do you restore a church with little photographic or other evidence of its original state?

Mren is a difficult case. It is an Armenian church in an isolated military zone in what is now the Republic of Turkey. Until the internet, one couldn’t find too many photographs of the site. But now there is good crowdsourced photographic documentation, and when one combines that material with satellite information, and rarely-used but precious nineteenth- and early twentieth-century traveler’s accounts, one can build a rich picture of the church.

Nevertheless, the problem of restoration at Mren—and at the many other Armenian churches in the region—is that it falls under the remit of the Turkish government’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as well as other ministries, depending on the sites. If one manages to get approval from these offices, you have the problem of working with a complicated and often inscrutable bureaucracy, obtaining funding for such a project, and transporting people and equipment to remote sites with no roads.

The Cathedral at Mren, built in the seventh century. Photo: Christina MaranciThe designs of the monuments, too, are intensely complex, and involve not only architecture but inscriptions on stone, relief sculpture, and wall paintings. And hanging above all this is the specter of the official Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1922, which annihilated the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire who used these monuments, and which renders their preservation a fraught issue, at best.

The fact that at Mren we managed, despite these difficulties, to document the monument and site with laser scanning is remarkable. It was possible only with the help of World Monuments Fund and a grant from the U.S. State Department and the goodwill of many individuals from all parts of the world, including Turkey, and drawing from many areas of expertise.

The buildings you work with have stood for centuries. What has allowed these buildings to stand for so long? 

The building designs were extremely careful, and the mortar was exceptionally strong. There was also an established tradition of master building. We know from medieval Armenian historical sources that architects studied failed buildings to construct more stable ones. That the regions of historical Armenia were actively seismic meant that building techniques and materials really had to stand up to the test of time. And by and large they have, to a remarkable degree, when one remembers that many were constructed in the seventh century.

Will using modern construction techniques to repair Notre-Dame somehow alter the structure itself?

I am sure that they will, and sometimes one doesn’t know quite how until much later. But I should hope that the restorers will take great pains to make an intervention that does not cause any additional problems to the structure.

Notre-Dame has received a lot of attention and funding because, being in the middle of a major city, it is one of the world’s most famous cathedrals. What role do geography and history play in people’s relationship to medieval architecture?

Geography and history are hugely important. As we know, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was also damaged on the same day as Notre-Dame, with much less fanfare. The monuments I work on are even lesser known, so one has to work hard to make a case for them to funding agencies and nongovernmental organizations, which often have the power to make a restoration happen.

Nevertheless, with the “global turn” in art history, and the increasing public awareness of cultural heritage and cultural destruction, there is more hope for Mren and monuments like it. The only problem is time. Mren and many of its neighboring monuments are in dire condition, and located in an actively seismic zone. This combination is deadly.

The repairs to Notre-Dame will cost many millions, and there are some who question spending that amount of money for it. Can you talk about what such a longstanding national symbol brings to a country and why it’s so important to restore it to its original grandeur? 

I wouldn’t presume to preach on this subject; there are enough opinions out there. But among the first reasons to protect a monument is to protect the people in its midst. Notre-Dame is a massive stone monument in a densely packed urban area. To leave it in a destabilized state seems to be asking for trouble.

It’s also important to ask what the monument means in a wider sense. In the case of Notre-Dame, those concerned are not only the citizens of France, but anyone who loves culture, as well as those who hold the monument sacred.

In the case of the Armenian monuments in Turkey, there are hundreds of “Notre-Dames”—that is, medieval monuments in damaged condition—and we must devise a means of ranking them in terms of importance. This is a similarly difficult project, and needs to take into account historical significance, feasibility of restoration, and the level of damage.

What is an example of that in Armenia?

One of the most famous Armenian monuments, the Cathedral of Ani, is in critical condition, for example. Built in 989-1001, it is a magnificent domed basilica, with profiled piers and arches that anticipate, in their linear elegance, the Gothic styles of buildings like Notre-Dame.

If this monument collapses, many will be heartbroken. It is more than a monument—it is a testament to a people, their survival, their ingenuity, their culture. In this sense, one cannot rank monuments with any clarity. They are woven together with people.

I think people have a duty to preserve the deep past, as much as we can. Notre-Dame, like Ani Cathedral, has been here a lot longer than we have. These churches have seen catastrophe, they have seen war, they have seen invasions. They have witnessed centuries of human foolishness. At the least, we should do everything in our power to help them in their time of need. 

Robin Smyton can be reached at robin.smyton@tufts.edu.

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