Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 9, 2020
Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon Notre Dame Cathedral: Nine Centuries of History Trans. Andrew Tallon and Lindsay Cook. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 192 pp.; 170 color ills. Paper $34.95 (9780271086224)

Reading any book of art history inevitably involves looking back into at least two different periods of history: the one that produced the art discussed in the book and the one that produced the book itself. In reading a newly published book, one often assumes that it was written in something like the present. In reading the book under consideration here, however, I found that even the recent past seemed very distant. When the original French edition of this book appeared in 2013, Notre-Dame in Paris was being visited by vast crowds every day, and authors Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon were bringing together a powerful mix of traditional and innovative research methods to shed new light on its history. Two years later Tallon, who helped to pioneer and popularize the laser scanning of Gothic cathedrals, would be diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer, which cut short his career before claiming his life late in 2018. Less than six months later, on April 15, 2019, the roof and central spire of Notre-Dame burned away, badly damaging the vaults beneath and forcing the cathedral’s closure. Tallon never saw this grievous wounding of the building he loved, but Sandron remains deeply engaged in debates about its restoration, which involved significant technical, financial, and political challenges even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020. For these overlapping reasons, it is hard to read Lindsay Cook’s admirable translation of their work without the poignant sense that it was written in a different and brighter moment than our own, even though this new edition includes several brief mentions of the fire at appropriate places in the text.

To understand the purpose and the value of this book, it helps to briefly consider its historiographical context. Notre-Dame in Paris has, of course, generated a vast literature. It has inspired best-selling authors from Victor Hugo to Ken Follett, and it has been the subject of numerous guidebooks and coffee-table books. On a more scholarly level, many historians of Gothic architecture from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc onward have contributed to better understanding the cathedral. Strangely, however, a modern synthetic study of Notre-Dame has been lacking. Marcel Aubert’s pioneering monograph, first published in 1920, is now badly out of date, but the book most naturally positioned as its successor, written by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg and first published in 1991, received mixed reviews. In a widely cited 1998 article, for instance, Stephen Murray criticized Erlande-Brandenburg’s suggestion that Notre-Dame originally lacked flying buttresses while providing strong evidence that flyers comparable to the present ones were already foreseen when work first got underway on the cathedral in 1163. Murray also became Tallon’s doctoral mentor, encouraging his application of laser scanning to Notre-Dame and other major Gothic churches in northern France. Sandron, meanwhile, emerged as a leading figure in the study of French Gothic architecture in general and of Notre-Dame in particular. Indeed, Sandron played a prominent role in organizing a major collaborative monograph on Notre-Dame, published on the occasion of the cathedral’s 850th anniversary in 2013, a project to which Tallon also contributed.

The book under review here, although originally written at the same time, fills a rather different niche. Smaller, more concise, and more streamlined than a traditional monograph, it emphasizes a series of graphics developed from Tallon’s 3D-scan data, which together purport to show the development of Notre-Dame over the nine centuries of its history. In this way it helps to make the fruits of recent research on the cathedral’s history readily accessible to nonspecialist readers. The new translation undertaken by Lindsay Cook, who studied with both Murray and Tallon and whose own research considers parish churches constructed in the orbit of Notre-Dame, now effectively expands that mission to anglophone audiences.

Sandron and Tallon organized their book into fourteen short chapters, each corresponding to a particular phase in the history of Notre-Dame. By devoting the first four to the twelfth century and the next five to the thirteenth, they concentrate on the period when most of the cathedral was constructed, while still leaving space for five more chapters on its late medieval and postmedieval history.

Each chapter opens with a double-page illustration of the cathedral at that point in time, realistic in itself but set against a minimalist background that underscores the artificiality of the image. Instead of looking like scenes from a movie, therefore, these images look more like models, or more precisely like small dioramas, since temporary structures such as cranes, scaffolding, and formwork are generally depicted; a simple tan surface represents the ground in a generic way, rather than showing topographical details of the cathedral’s site on the Île de la Cité. Despite this slightly uncanny mixture of precision and streamlining, these images are both charismatic and easily legible, providing a visual narrative of their own that can be accessed even by readers who do not engage carefully with the text of each chapter. The images thus serve to reify a certain vision of how the construction of Notre-Dame unfolded. Since Sandron and Tallon understood the building as well as anyone, their vision certainly deserves to be enshrined in this way as much as any other. However, because this short book does not incorporate a scholarly apparatus of footnotes or even detailed discussion of the evidence that led to hypothetical reconstructions of building components that have since been modified, many readers may be tempted to take these images on faith. Those who seek to understand the logic behind the reconstructions, such as the choice to model the original rose window of the north transept on that of the abbey church at Vaux-de-Cernay, would have to consult the more scholarly sources listed in the book’s bibliography, including the many relevant essays written by Sandron and Tallon themselves.

The texts of the chapters are less standardized than the images that open them, offering a variety of complementary perspectives on the nature of the building enterprise. The first chapter, for instance, sketches the role of bishop Maurice de Sully in launching the construction of Notre-Dame in 1163, describing the contributions of the bishop, the chapter of canons, and the lay public in funding the project. The second chapter, ostensibly centered on the year 1170, shifts focus to the more strictly architectural sphere, exploring the organization of the building workshop, the role of the master mason, and the character of the cathedral’s original design. An illustration based on Tallon’s laser data, for example, clearly shows that the cathedral’s cross-section was based on an equilateral triangle. The third chapter, focused on 1177, maintains the architectural emphasis by discussing the construction of the choir vaults and their associated flying buttresses, while the fourth, centered on 1182, instead considers the choir’s liturgical functioning. These chapters thus seem to reflect the complementary contributions of Tallon, emphasizing archaeology, and Sandron, emphasizing social history.

The fifth chapter opens with an illustration of Notre-Dame in 1208, with the original transept completed and the nave under construction, while its text considers the form and meaning of the cathedral more broadly, with attention to the subtle formal distinctions between these main zones. Sculpture rather than architecture has pride of place in the sixth chapter, concerning developments around 1220, which discusses the portals and the arcade of kings on the lower portions of the west facade. The seventh chapter considers the dramatic enlargement of the cathedral’s clerestory, launched around 1225, and structural problems with the settling of the facade block that occurred around this time. The eighth chapter covers the construction of the western towers, completed around 1245, with thoughtful consideration of the social role of their bells in marking civic time. Chapter nine notes the reconstruction of the transepts and installation of the cathedral’s first timber crossing spire, while also emphasizing the importance of its relic collections and their public display in processions. Chapters ten and eleven nominally consider the years 1300 and 1350, respectively, but both actually deal with broader phenomena: the former with pious foundations, tombs, and the lateral chapels that were added along the flanks of the cathedral starting in the early thirteenth century, and the latter with the architects responsible for the remodeling of the transept facades and choir buttressing, whose work is better documented than that of their twelfth-century predecessors.

The final chapters of the book go on to consider three phases in the postmedieval history of Notre-Dame: the period from the Renaissance to the dawn of the French Revolution, which witnessed mostly small-scale alterations to the fabric and its furnishings; the period around 1860 that witnessed the massive restoration campaigns led by Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus; and the present day, now including reference to the 2019 fire. The end of the book also includes a short conclusion, a glossary, a bibliography, and a reliable plan based on Tallon’s survey data. Despite the book’s small scale and lack of footnotes, therefore, it can serve as a genuinely useful tool for scholars and students while also providing an overview of Notre-Dame’s developmental history that can be understood and appreciated even by nonspecialist readers.

Robert Bork
University of Iowa

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