Recently, on a warm Saturday evening, I sat out in the southern forecourt of the cathedral in Strasbourg to watch a crowd of kids hanging out. It had been what the French call an été indien, and local teenagers were taking advantage of the balmy weather to gather there in clusters around stone benches and memorials. Too young for bars and too old to spend a weekend evening with their parents, these Strasbourgeois were at home under the weak light of tall lampposts and the soft orange glow of the cathedral at night.
One clump listened to trap music and debated something only people of their generation could have understood, while others played guitars and sang songs that had been popular in prior decades. There were at least a hundred of them, and individuals drifted between the smaller groups. They appeared, for their age, canny and at ease. They were of the generation after the “millennials,” still waiting to be named, performing a reprise of the transition between childhood and adulthood that has been played out many times before in the forecourt of the Strasbourg cathedral.
This is the cathedral’s 1000th year, the first stone in its foundation having been laid in September of 1015 CE by Bishop Werner I, and as the city begins a year of celebrations, it seems appropriate to meditate on both permanence and transience. Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is sometimes cited as the oldest gothic cathedral in the world, and while that title is open to dispute, there is no mistaking that the current edifice rests on the same foundations originally laid by Werner. That lengthy tenure has seen world shaking events come and go.
The cathedral survived two world wars and even some of the ordinance exploded during them, but just as remarkable is that it survived the French revolution – with a bizarre public tribunal deciding in 1794 not to tear down the cathedral’s spire for its insult to l’égalité, but still to adorn it with a giant Phrygian cap, symbol of revolutionary zeal. Before that, it survived the Protestant reformation, and over 150 years of Protestant control, which in another universe might have scoured its façade of all ornament. These events, and so many more, have swept past like the river sweeps past the city center and its vestiges of long-departed industry. The longevity of the cathedral, with all it has outlasted, feels almost eternal when perceived alongside the liminal games of teenagers.
The cathedral too, however, is a testament to transience. Despite its imposing appearance, the cathedral is made of soft material, a rosy pink sandstone from nearby mountains that is vulnerable to erosion. For this reason, an entire team of architects, carpenters, masons, and others are permanently employed to mitigate the passage of time. Three years ago I went with members of the team up into the chambers above the nave and talked with them about their restoration work. We were passing through dark and rarely seen passages in the upper stories when they discussed the efforts they go to in order to maintain the structure and its character.
The preservation and restoration work often requires the replacement of blocks of stone before they give way to time. To do so, the workers choose a stone of the same hue, since the exact color varies depending on where it was removed from the quarry, cut it to size, and then reproduce any distinguishing marks. This last step fascinated me: individual stones might include a divot where giant pincers clasped to hoist them into place, or perhaps a stoneworker mindful of posterity had chiseled his initials into the rock, and today’s architects faithfully reproduce these idiosyncratic features to the tiniest detail. Even in corners nearly impossible to see, the restoration of these marks is made with fidelity, with a degree of faith.
I remember now, just now, that my private life was breaking apart at the very moment the architects were leading me above the cathedral nave, up into the spire, and around the belfry. Netting and chicken wire fencing had been of limited success in keeping the open platform of the belfry from being completely encrusted in pigeon shit and feathers. I looked out on the city square and thought banal thoughts about people looking like ants from so high, while the sky threatened rain. I took photographs and spoke bad French to my guides, trying to forget a personal crisis that would ultimately come to feel momentary in the scope of things. Just another painful breakup. An added proof that love was ephemeral, as understood while climbing the upper parts of a monument to an idea meant to be everlasting. Nothing more. And yet it was endless to the point of being excruciating, extending forever while I gazed out beyond the boundaries of Strasbourg. I tried not to think of another cathedral five hundred kilometers to the west. I wanted to stay present where I stood, 120 meters in the air.
The cathedral in Strasbourg only has one tower, though two were planned. Why the medieval builders of the current edifice never completed the second is only a subject of speculation; it may have been a lack of funds, the onset of war, or concerns about structural instability. Whatever the reason, the single spire – tallest in the Christian world until 1874 – has become part of the character of the cathedral and its city. It is the accent, the initials carved on the building by its founders. It sits like an index finger thrust up from a giant hand, pointing to the sky. A city ordinance forbids any building, now or in the future, to be built taller, and so the cathedral’s dominion seems assured, even if we know well that some day this too will come to an end, at least in material terms.
As always, it appears to be a question of scale. The cathedral gives the impression of always having been, but since the original Romanesque structure was completed in 1050 CE, it has been rebuilt in the Gothic style, and afterward its parts have been embellished, stripped, restored, and steadily replaced over time, like the cells of the human body are replaced until, despite all appearances, it is entirely new. Original elements of the cathedral may persist, but the building is consistently being remade.
Eventually, the sandstone will run out, or perhaps interest to maintain the work of preservation will dissipate. Then we will be faced with the ends of a very long life, but one that was still lived in time. Otherwise, there would be no need to celebrate a thousand years resting on the single stone that was laid first. The cathedral may give the impression of permanence, but only in the way in which a warm October night feels eternal to teenagers who play out their intricate dramas of desire and disappointment – in the midst of transience, nothing is less apparent than the flux itself.
While I watched, the night stretched out seemingly forever for the young Strasbourgeois, those teenagers for whom nothing was more natural than hanging out beneath the spire of a millennium-old temple. They all knew, but were unconcerned, that one of the cathedral’s principal attractions was an astrological clock built centuries ago, but which was still able to foretell a lunar eclipse in their lifetimes.
One of its figures is the image of Death.