I’ve done several Notre Dame blog posts but I wanted to share this specific entry from 2012. It was during the second year of my Paris life, and it best expresses my appreciation for a structure that would spark a love for Paris and a desire to share it with others.
Sometimes it’s the walls. It’s definitely sometimes the ceiling. Other times the iron, the glass, or the sunlight that passes through as it completes a 90 million year cosmic journey by settling softly along decorative curves and concaves.
There are as many reasons to visit Notre Dame as there are footprints worn into its central nave, and on this day my reason and my footprints had clear intentions. This day was about stone, and though I’d planned a trip only back to the 12th century the cathedral had more in mind.
Amid the clamor of first-timers fulfilling their first-timer destinies by fixing gazes on the vaulted ceilings above, I was tending to my own responsibilities – my nose inches from a nondescript column pacing around its circumference as my neck craned up and down methodically like a sleuth searching for a trap door.
The hunt was on for an elusive medieval detail that I’d only recently heard of: what the French call a marque de tâcheron, or stonemason’s marker. It was usual practice in the Middle Ages for stone cutters to leave a distinct personal logo on each building block they prepared, not out of vanity but necessity. A Gothic cathedral was an immense project requiring the expertise of countless artisans, sometimes with materials pre-fabricated off site and coming together just hours before assembly. A worker was paid by the stone, with invoices being settled against how many of yours had been provided. Hence the calling card etched into each one.
The available literature on stonemason markers is scant, and I guess I don’t blame the historical literati for not bothering to document them – they’re a relative non-event when compared to the collective splendor of an ancient edifice. But history has as many luscious layers as you care to peel away, so when I’d gotten a tip that there were two marques de tâcheron still visible in Notre Dame I knew a pilgrimage was in order. The trouble was that their location was only vaguely described and there were no photos available, which made them two awfully tiny needles in an imposing 800 year-old haystack.
As each minute and curious tourist passed me by, I wondered if I had the right spot. Maybe that tip failed to mention the marks were located 150 feet above my head? False alarms were bountiful given the amount of random chips and dents a piece of “smooth” stone can have at this age, but in a building designed for prayers I knew my modest one had been answered when this appeared:
The proverbial trap door had been found, and it sprung open just long enough for a transporting flame of the past to flicker once or twice before being stifled by the bustle of present day. This is a game of split seconds and fleeting impressions, so I’ve learned to take advantage of them when they happen.
I slid two fingers across the worn grooves as I imagined the tool in the skilled medieval hands of its owner. That same hand had pounded and picked away one stony flake at a time in order to fashion this precise piece of such a dazzling Gothic puzzle.
I wandered through the man’s daily life – his good days and bad – in some ways so close to mine and in others a million light years away. Did he have friends, family? Was he in love, was he happy? Did he find meaning and purpose in life or was it merely an existence?
Equally perfected puzzle pieces swirled up around me in staggering numbers as a reminder that his story is but one of thousands, making the cathedral not so much a construction of hewn stone but of human stories – the triumphs and let-downs of one lifetime placed squarely on the shoulders of another, and another, slowly leaving the real world behind as they climb up to the heavens.
And what if these marks themselves could talk? The tales they could tell, having had a front row seat to the comings and goings of kings and paupers alike as transformations in clothing and language reflected the machines of change that churned relentlessly outside the church’s doors.
They would surely have something to say about all the close calls. About how the stained glass around them was removed to avoid the rattle of Hitler’s bombs, how the building was put up for sale during the French Revolution and even had a buyer at one point, or how an 1871 revolt culminated in a mountain of the cathedral’s pews being doused with gasoline in an attempt to burn the entire place down (to be snuffed out at the last minute by a few alerted doctors from a nearby hospital).
It was with artillery shells and Renaissance robes dancing through my head that I continued my search, curious to see if other hieroglyphs lay coyly in hidden recesses waiting to tell their own stories. I watched with delight as one by one other stonemason spirits materialized from dimly lit corners to introduce themselves:
Are all of these marks authentically medieval? Probably impossible to tell. But a layered fabric of historical graffiti only adds to the mystery and the fun of it.
Speaking of layers, as I said earlier there was a surprise in store that day which took the original scope of my time traveling expedition and blew it wide open. I was hoping for a glimpse into the 1100’s and ended up going much, much further back in time:
Of course! The artisans of Notre Dame weren’t the first organisms to leave their mark on this limestone. Long before art, religion or even modern man came into being, tiny prehistoric critters were unwittingly embedding themselves into a holy scheme, dying as martyrs to be immortalized and displayed eons later for anyone taking the time to stop and pay their respects. This is architecture as historical record on a grand scale.
Four lethargic peals from the bell tower warned that the afternoon was swiftly passing. Had I been there for an hour? Two? It was time to part ways with my fellow visitors, both living and otherwise, to solve other mysteries in other neighborhoods. But these moments spent in one of the most famous buildings in the world will remain a fond reminder not only of the secrets discovered, but of how lucky I am to be living in Paris and walking with its ghosts.