When late in the afternoon of April fifteenth 2019 a sea of flames lit up the skies over Paris, and billows of smoke were seen over the Île de la Cité, many feared the worst. People lined the streets of the French capital to watch the impressive but tragic spectacle. Countless viewers followed the live images on television late into the evening. For a long time it was uncertain whether the structure of the venerable Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris could be salvaged at all. And even though it was possible to save the distinctive rose window, the church treasury, and many works of art and relics, the damage caused by the fire and extinguishing water was irreparable.

An interesting notion shows up clearly in the obligatory Twitter condolences from various heads of state that accompanied the event. From Angela Merkel to Giuseppe Conte, from Jens Stoltenberg to Mark Rutte to Pedro Sánchez: all of them speak of a catastrophe that endangered not only a symbol of France, but clearly one of Europe as well. Donald Tusk, then the president of the European Council, summarized this trend succinctly: “Notre-Dame de Paris est Notre-Dame de toute l’Europe”.[1] What went up in flames, then, is only superficially a Catholic house of worship. The general gist is that it is much more properly a symbol of the European spirit. Is it only the clichéd nature of such expressions of sympathy that explains the similarity of their wording, or does Notre-Dame de Paris actually present an immediate connection to the European collective that had been unconscious up to that point and could only be revealed by a catastrophic event like this?

To hazard an answer to this question, one must first clarify the specific function of the cathedral. It is a medieval Christian edifice which these tweets invoke as an emblem of a shared European cultural identity, and at first glance this does not seem amiss, seeing that the Gothic architecture that arose in the twelfth century soon spread to many cities outside of the Kingdom of France. It was the vision of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, often treated as the spiritual father of the Gothic, that overcame the hulking, dark church architecture of the Romanesque style in favour of naves that emphasized verticality. Large stained-glass windows were meant to permit divine light to stream in, bathing the church interior in heavenly colours, thus conveying at least an impression of godly grandeur. After its first embodiment in the abbey church of Saint-Denis near Paris, the new style quickly began its triumphal march across all of Europe. Structures like the Cologne and Milan cathedrals, Salisbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, or St. Stephen’s and St. Vitus in Vienna and Prague are unmistakeable, yet again and again they seem innovative. They have all witnessed a far-reaching cultural exchange that rapidly expanded the Gothic as a pan-European style. But it is not only the filigree design of these buildings that is telling; so is their original function at the heart of their respective cities: the church marks their centres. This highlights the fact that the European Middle Ages was a predominantly Christian era; and Gothic architecture itself is inseparably bound up with theological discourses of the times.

Religion as a criterion for Europeanness? A Christian foundation for a shared European culture is suggested, for instance, by Friedrich von Hardenberg, renowned under his pen name Novalis. In his speech of 1799, “Christianity or Europe”, this early Romantic extols an idealised Middle Ages, “the beautiful, brilliant time when Europe was a Christian land, where one Christendom inhabited this part of the world fashioned by human hands”.[2] He thought the shared Christian-Catholic religion, which linked every member of society, was alone capable of forging peace between the European states. But owing to their characteristic egoism, Novalis continued, the people of the Middle Ages were not yet ripe for this “genuinely Christian age”.[3] Neither the church schism unleashed by the Reformation nor the anti-religious sentiment of the Enlightenment ultimately contributed to the unification of the people of Europe. Quite the contrary: the eighteenth century, marked by numerous military conflicts, came to an end amidst the revolutionary turmoil in the birthplace of the Gothic. “Blood will flow across Europe,” Novalis admonishes, “until the nations realize their terrible madness, which drives them around in circles and, awed and appeased by holy music, approach former altars as a motley group undertaking works of peace, and a great love-feast, a festival of peace, will be celebrated with fervid tears on the smouldering battlefields”.[4] For him, the solution is obvious: “Only religion can reawaken Europe and safeguard its peoples, and install Christianity in its ancient peace-making ministry, visible upon earth in new glory”.[5]

It seems strange or even cynical to us today that a collective profession of Catholicism is treated as the only effective guarantee of peace. Instead of a religious unification, the wish to secure peace between the nations of Europe is currently being realized through purely political agreements, with apparent success: in 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because it and its predecessors had “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.[6] The sustained creation of peace beyond the national borders of Europe, which Novalis had hoped would come about through a return to Christianity, found a purely secular basis in the establishment of a European Union.

But what role does religion play in this European peace project? The defence of a “Christian Occident” is quite naturally a high priority for most right-wing parties. This seems to be a reaction to a certain social concern: the fear of a cultural trade-off, of the loss of one’s own identity. Perhaps the target group of the right-wing populists sees its attitude confirmed by the broadly areligious attitude of the EU itself. The preamble of the draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe refers very generally, even formulaically, to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe“.[7] The Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel did attempt several times to enshrine a reference to the Christian roots of Europe in the Reform Treaty of Lisbon, but was thwarted by the decidedly laicist orientation of other member states.[8] The European Union remains reticent in the matter of religion. Perhaps too reticent?

Indeed, this crucial question seems to be an issue close to the hearts of many, even if they are part of a society that more and more is dropping away from faith. In 2010, only 51% of Europeans still indicated that they believe in a god, while 26% of the people in the European Union believed in some form of higher power, and 20% had no kind of spiritual belief. [9] Regular church attendance and church weddings are on the decline,[10] while the number of children born out of wedlock is growing steadily.[11] Nowadays being religious is no longer fashionable, especially in educated circles. In an “enlightened” era that elevates positivism to the sine qua non of all knowledge and negates the cognitive mode of faith from the outset, religion has no right to exist. “The scholar is instinctively the enemy of spirituality”,[12] as Novalis diagnoses. Even Notre-Dame de Paris itself can bear witness to this circumstance: the postrevolutionary reign of terror summarily rededicated the church as a ‘temple of Reason’. Reason, as a godlike idea, was to inherit the status of the church as the centre of society. This itself produced a sort of cult that turned decisively against those who are ‘faithful for lack of knowledge’, and Novalis too remarks that this change was nothing more than “letters making room for letters”.[13] He calls this mindset “secular Protestantism” and its representatives “secular Jesuits”.[14] Nor is it a great surprise that precisely in France, the “seat of this new faith […] pasted together from nothing but knowledge”,[15] as Novalis puts it, about 40% of the population today (as of 2015) regard themselves as atheistic or agnostic.[16]

Hence it is surprising that, of all things, a burning church is stylized into a symbol of European cohesion—and it is an irony of history that the church in question is this very cathedral on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Yet the state of shock shows that even in a rapidly approaching post-religious age, Notre Dame de Paris still occupies a special status for many people of France and all of Europe. The historical shift in significance of this edifice speaks volumes: long considered a megalomaniacal expression of the glory of God, it was ‘rededicated’ by the Jacobins as a temple de la Raison, and eventually degraded into a storehouse for wine. Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo chose the church as the setting for his epochal novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A new appreciation for medieval architecture in the mid-nineteenth century ultimately led to the costly restoration work led by the renowned architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who adorned the roof of the church with that ridge turret which collapsed among flickering flames on the evening of April 15. In the nearly 800 years of its existence, the cathedral became more and more detached from its religious purpose, and perhaps the widespread dismay can be explained by just this circumstance: many people saw their own historically developed identity burn down with the cathedral. The old church, which had ‘always been there’, was threatening to collapse, and with it the centuries of history that it observed and experienced as a silent witness. The religion in whose spirit the building was erected receded into the background in favour of this impression.

Only the appreciation of culture across national borders is capable of converting Novalis’s hopes for religion as a guarantor of European cohesion into a secular foundation. Only awareness of its historical and art-historical significance, its potential for forging identity beyond religious denominations, is capable of making “Notre-Dame de toute l’Europe” comprehensible. In current political debates, the national borders of individual EU member countries are emphasized far too much; it is often forgotten that many of these dividing lines are fairly recent products of the European history of ideas. The history of the arts, which goes back much farther, is able to demonstrate impressively that cultural developments are not oriented towards lines of division, but thrive on mutual exchange.

In sharp contrast to the Russian patriarch Kyrill I, who called the catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame a “horrible and menacing sign to our entire European civilization”,[17] we can perhaps accept this fateful event in a productive way as well. Notre-Dame exemplifies an understanding of culture that transcends borders, and does so in three ways. First, it is a manifestation of the Catholicism that Novalis understood in its unifying function, and whose traces cannot be denied even in the now mostly secular culture of Europe. Second, the architectural movement of the Gothic is a prime example of intercultural exchange, of the reciprocal influence of art across national borders, in short, of a style that can we can confidently call pan-European. And third, the image of destruction that was omnipresent in the media in the days after the fire seems to remind the people of Europe—religious or not—of their shared cultural heritage. The idea of Europe depends solely on such a collective attitude in its population. Even in a time of reawakening nationalism, awareness of a borderless culture gives hope for a shared European future.

Postscript: When I wrote this essay in the first weeks of 2020, nobody would have imagined how the world and our perception of it could change so radically within such a short timespan. While the Cathedral of Notre Dame has lately been stabilised to such an extent that the danger of its immediate collapse seems to have been averted, the current pandemic unveiled the bitter notion that, in times of uncertainty, the European spirit may be a fragile idea. In a time which focusses far too much on national borders and conflicts, the awareness of a cultural continuum that shapes our continent is more crucial than ever.

Translated from German by Geoffrey C. Howes


[1] “’Ein Stich ins Herz’: Die Reaktionen nach dem Brand von Notre Dame”, Luzerner Zeitung Online, 16 April 2019, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: https://www.luzernerzeitung.ch/international/ein-stich-ins-herz-das-sind-die-reaktionen-nach-dem-brand-von-notre-dame-ld.1111499.

[2] Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg): “Die Christenheit oder Europa. Ein Fragment (Geschrieben im Jahre 1799.)”, in Novalis, Fragmente und Studien. Die Christenheit oder Europa, ed. Carl Paschek, Stuttgart: Reclam 1984, p. 67. Translations by GCH.

[3] Novalis, p. 70.

[4] Novalis, p. 86-87.

[5] Novalis, p. 87.

[6] “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2012”. Press release on the Nobel Prize website, 12 October 2012, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2012/press-release/.

[7] “Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe”, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union 2005; URL: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/about-parliament/en/in-the-past/the-parliament-and-the-treaties/draft-treaty-establishing-a-constitution-for-europe.

[8] See “Merkel will Gott in EU-Verfassung verankern”, Spiegel Online, 27 May 2003, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/nach-papst-audienz-merkel-will-gott-in-eu-verfassung-verankern-a-250533.html; and “EU-Verfassung: Hat Gott doch noch eine Chance?”. Interview with Ingo Friedrich (CSU), Die Tagespost Online, 2 September 2006, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: https://www.die-tagespost.de/politik/aktuell/EU-Verfassung-Hat-Gott-doch-noch-eine-Chance;art315,63926.

[9] See “Eurobarometer 73.1: Biotechnology. Conducted by TNS Opinion & Social on request of European Commission. Survey co-ordinated by Directorate General Research”, Brussels: TNS Opinion & Social 2010, p. 204; URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_341_en.pdf.

[10] For example in Austria; compare the statistics on the website of the Catholic Church in Austria (as of 2019), URL: https://www.katholisch.at/statistik.

[11] See “Are more babies born inside or outside marriage?”, Eurostat, 16 April 2018, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/DDN-20180416-1.

[12] Novalis, “Die Christenheit oder Europa”, p. 77.

[13] Novalis, p. 81.

[14] Novalis, p. 80.

[15] Novalis, p. 78.

[16] See “Eurobarometer 83.4: Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Discrimination of Minority Groups”, GESIS 2015; URL: http://zacat.gesis.org/webview/index.jsp?headers=http%3A%2F%2F193.175.238.79%3A80%2Fobj%2FfVariable%2FZA6595_V355&V355slice=1&stubs=http%3A%2F%2F193.175.238.79%3A80%2Fobj%2FfVariable%2FZA6595_V10&previousmode=table&weights=http%3A%2F%2F193.175.238.79%3A80%2Fobj%2FfVariable%2FZA6595_V42&analysismode=table&study=http%3A%2F%2F193.175.238.79%3A80%2Fobj%2FfStudy%2FZA6595&gs=362&tabcontenttype=row&V10slice=1&mode=table&top=yes.

[17] “Notre Dame fire is menacing sign to all Europe, including Russia - Patriarch Kirill's press secretary”, Interfax Religion Online, 19 April 2019, accessed 14 January 2020; URL: http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=15064.