Andrew Sullivan: Can We Build Something As Beautiful As Notre Dame Cathedral?

Andrew Sullivan:

“Could We Still Build Something as Beautiful as Notre-Dame?

Along with so many others, I found the images of the destruction of Notre-Dame close to unbearable. For some, it represented a simply appalling loss for global culture. For others, a kind of torment for the idea of France, its history, its soul — even in thoroughly post-Christian times. I could not stop myself from seeing it as a metaphor — for the near-extinction of Christianity, the metaphysics that underpins so much of the West’s distinctiveness and coherence: its defense of the individual soul as inviolate, for example. It remains an open question whether liberalism, broadly understood, can survive the loss of its metaphysical foundations. And as we see liberal democracy struggle to articulate its truth against the ocean of nihilism, the lure of tribalism, the cult of the strongman, and the left’s contempt for the Enlightenment and religion — the burning of this symbol of Christian devotion cut me to the quick.

But it also reminded me of the question of beauty in modernity. By which I mean: Can our civilization ever create anything of comparable beauty to Notre-Dame, or indeed the archipelago of cathedrals across Europe, stemming from the middle ages? I can’t see it. The core criteria for creating modern architecture — even if it is not brutally ugly or mediocre — are usefulness and cost. Beauty — even if it is formally considered in architecture — is usually subordinate. Even if you survey modern cathedrals, there is a lack of detail, and an absence of the kind of skill that enabled the twelfth century to construct marvels beyond our capacity. We have technique in abundance; we have technology that would have appeared as magic to the designers of Notre-Dame; we have wealth beyond measure in comparison. But even the architectural baubles of our new religion — think of Apple’s new headquarters, for example — contain nothing as complex or as overwhelming or as awe-inspiring as the rose stained glass window of an eleventh century masterpiece.

I’m not saying I want to go back to the Middle Ages. We have gained a staggering amount of peace, security, freedom, health and knowledge. Theocracy is no longer an option. But they had something we don’t, didn’t they? A unifying vision of the whole of life and death, a common, metaphysically rooted faith, and an enchantment modernity has banished. I think of these cathedrals as they must have appeared at the time to peasants on a pilgrimage, looming on the horizon like a spaceship compared to the misery and brutality of life in that era, overwhelming the senses, commanding awe and devotion, reifying faith in an almost unanswerable way. When we see Notre-Dame burn, we see the reality of our time: that this exquisite kind of architectural beauty is never going to be summoned up again, nor the souls who imagined it, nor the human beings who crafted every inch of it with love. …”

The short answer … NO.

The long answer requires a great deal of thinking about what made the Middle Ages the Middle Ages and what has made the Modern World the Modern World.

Note: Actual Christianity is obviously a large part of the answer. The other large part of the answer is capitalism in the form of chattel slavery and wage slavery.

joking/not joking something to think about on Easter what happened to Aristotle and Augustine’s influence around the 17th century? 🙂

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. Most of the great historical buildings of the world were inspired by religion it seems. Pyramids, cathedrals etc. Man needs to believe in something bigger than himself in order to create beautiful and amazing things.

  2. Gothic cathedrals suddenly appeared after 1100. Before then the post-Roman architecture of Europe for hundreds of years was the crude “Romanesque ” style. What occasioned the abrupt change? Was it the Norman conquest? The start of the Crusades?

    • I would not describe Romanesque as crude. It has its own special charm and many beautiful churches have been so constructed. It often suits dry hot climates as well.

  3. It would seem the West is descending into another 5th century style Dark Age. And Christianity is going down with it.

    • Rome died because its religion died. Christianity couldn’t save Rome because Jesus didn’t prepare his followers to run an empire. They eventually got it right, but only after losing the Holy Land and most of the Mediterranean basin to the Mohammedan hordes.

      “Sola Scriptura” won’t save you; those Christians were conquered and converted to Islam at sword-point. You need to consider the whole 2000-year history of Christianity, keeping the good parts and discarding the bad, or invent an entirely new religion. That will happen during the next Dark Age, as fire, steel, and birth rates decide which doctrine is the One True Faith.

  4. The Miracle of resurrection suffuses the entirety of this weekend for the West, and next for the Orthodox.
    And Resurrection means that we are NOT “descending into another 5th Century style Dark Age.”

    Contrary to the voice of Hell.

    Alleluia- Christ is arisen.

  5. From a CI site:

    “To mock Christianity today is to mock a hundred generations of our ancestors. People who mock Christianity think they know something better about our past than their own ancestors, the people who actually lived in those times many centuries ago. The truth is that the people who mock Christianity know little-to-nothing about the world of the past and the circumstances under which their ancestors ultimately accepted Christianity.

    There are many incongruities in the perception of the people who mock Christianity today. On one hand they claim that it is a “cuck” religion, and on the other they complain that their ancestors were forced into Christianity by Christians. So they admit that their own ancestors were weaker than the “cucks” they despise. On one hand they claim that Christianity is an effeminate religion, and a Jewish religion, but then they complain that their ancestors were forced into it by Christians. So they admit that their ancestors were weaker than effeminates and Jews. All the while, they proclaim the “might is right” mantra of their own neo-paganism, while professing that their weak ancestors, forced to subject to Christianity, were somehow treated unfairly! Those who mock Christianity are simply too stupid to realize all of these cognitive disconnects, and there are many more that we won’t get into here.”

    I can think of no better MODERN rebuttal of the ignorance and Christophobia of those who hate Christians, and their own European Christian heritage, than these opening paragraphs. Does that mean that these are orthodox? Far from it. But at least he catches the hypocrisy of the modern apostate…

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