The rose window, symbolising her receptivity to God, survived the fire
Almost without exception, the response to the Notre Dame fire has overlooked something of immense importance. Or rather someone: Notre Dame, Our Lady, the Mother of God, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. Even Catholics have understated the Marian character of the building. Bishop Robert Barron, for instance, rightly praised the beauty of the North Rose window, its colour and mathematical design. He described it as “a foretaste of heaven in its beauty.” But the rose window also depicts the relationship between heaven and earth made possible through Mary. She sits at the centre of the rose with her Son in her lap, making for him a throne on earth even as by containing him in her womb she became heaven. It matters that Mary is depicted in glass: the sunlight streaming through the window symbolises the light of God entering into the world through her and taking on flesh.
St Bernard of Clairvaux put it beautifully: “As a pure ray enters a glass window and emerges unspoiled, but has acquired the colour of the glass … the Son of God who entered the most chaste womb of the Virgin, emerged pure, but took on the colour of the Virgin, that is, the nature of a man and a comeliness of human form, and he clothed himself in it.”
It is highly symbolic that the North Rose window should be among the treasures which survived the blaze. In the Middle Ages, such a survival would have been taken as a miracle. The cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres caught fire (not for the first time) in 1194. At first the townspeople were devastated, wondering if it was worth rebuilding at all, given that it seemed the Virgin had abandoned her shrine thanks to the sins of the people. But then it was discovered that the great relic of the cathedral, the Virgin’s chemise, had survived the fire, and the people vowed to rebuild the cathedral even more magnificently than before.
Notre Dame in Paris has played an important role in the history of France, but it is not just a building. It is a throne for Mary, the Queen. As Bishop Barron observed, the cathedral sits at the centre of Paris: since it was built in the 12th century, it has been at the centre of the civilisation that radiated out from the University of Paris. As the medieval Christians who studied at Paris saw her, Mary was the Mother of the Word, and therefore the magistra of all the liberal arts. She was also looked to as the Mother of Wisdom, through whom students could learn the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Under Mary’s patronage, modern philosophy and science were born.
It will be a great tragedy if France rebuilds the cathedral as if it were only a beautiful building or an example of human creativity. It is, in reality, an example of what human beings can make when inspired by the Incarnation of the Word through the womb of the Virgin. That faith is the source of its beauty. Without faith, it is simply a shell of glass and stone.