Walking With Ghosts at Notre Dame

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.

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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.

20 comments

  • Wow, wow, wow! What a wonderful discovery, Corey. I’m fortunate to have visited Notre Dame many times, but you’ve helped me see it through fresh eyes. Thank you.

  • Love the pictures Corey. I hope you went around and touched all the stones and markings. That’s what I do. I love to touch every bit of history I can. I always walk up to markings on the walls of old ruins or stones that have fallen down and caress them and close my eyes. My kid says I’m weird, but it brings me closer to the time period and I can see the time period better. I’m strange like that. So if you see a lady walking around town caressing the walls, just yell for me:)

    • Thanks Ashley. Yes I always touch stone that I’m next to. But you bring up an interesting question that I think about often: am I doing damage by touching?

      As an art student in college I learned how oils and dirt from your hands can totally obliterate a painting or piece of fabric, especially after a hundred years or so of tourists taking a swipe. So that’s a no-touch rule I always follow out of respect for the artist and future viewers. But nobody mentioned stone, and even online there isn’t much info about what repeated touching does to it, if anything. I’ve seen enough un-renovated churches to see that years of rain & salt can eat away at anything, but on the other hand a human hand’s effect might be so negligible it doesn’t matter. Anyway that’s my own little tangent; for now my official opinion is that a bit of rock caressing isn’t doing the art world any considerable harm.

      • Hi Corey-Definitely agree with you on the no touchy the arty thing so I make sure I keep it to stone walls and ancient, falling down ruins. My daughter is an artist so she has the same opinion as you and made sure she lectured me on it before coming here since she knows how I am!
        Although, one time when I was visiting Versailles, I did run my index finger down the wall in one of the rooms, I couldn’t help myself. I think that’s why I’m not allowed back to visit :)
        Ashley

  • “Sarum,” by Edward Rutherfurd, is subtitled “The Novel of England,” but the thing I remember about it is its story of a Cathedral, the stones and the stonemasons (and their marks). If you haven’t read it, I think you might enjoy it.

    My father, who was a stained glass artist for at least 70 years, avidly read this book, and two others of Rutherfurd’s, in the final months of his life, completely captivated by the history.

    • Thanks Lee. That’s very touching that your dad was reading right up till the end about something he was passionate about. I hope I’ll be able to do the same. A stained glass artist? What a cool job! Thanks for the book recommendation.

  • Corey, This is beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your art historian’s eye with us. I learned something that I had not known before. I remember being totally transported by a book called Mont St Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams. Your piece took me right back to that place, where every little detail in these architectural masterpieces screams out to us directly from the individuals who created them, and the times in which they lived. When your feet wear out from doing guided tours, I hope you will move on to writing about the Paris that we all love. You have the knowledge and the gift with language. Meanwhile, let us all anticipate the resurrection of Notre Dame de Paris.

    • What a lovely comment to read – thank you so much. I would really like to write more; perhaps when the kids get out of the baby/toddler stage. I’m already spread pretty thin with other projects! I’m glad you enjoyed this and I really appreciate your support.

  • For me, it is the doors. The first time I saw them, I immediately reported back to my dad, who was an amateur woodworker, and that conversation is a treasured memory for many reasons. When I stand before those doors, I imagine the same sorts of things you described – people, famous or not, tourists or Parisians, living or long-ago – entering and exiting for a myriad of reasons. I also imagine the majestic trees themselves, and what they must have seen: weary travellers resting in the shade, hunters providing for families, critters taking refuge in the branches. I had just done a lesson on Notre Dame with my middle school students, and always spent time going on about my fondness for the doors. The day after the fire, most of them came rushing in, exclaiming, ” Madame, did you see?!? But are the doors okay?”
    My heart is full knowing that I have succeeded in passing g along even a tiny bit of respect for such an awe- inspiring place.
    Thank you for your work and your words.

    • That’s incredible! What a great gift you’ve given those kids. I think they pay attention to more than we sometimes give them credit for. :-) Thanks for this great comment Cindy.

  • Corey, you are such a beautiful writer. I found this interesting and moving.

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