In his book Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, the contemporary Japanese-American painter Makoto Fujimura describes an experience of attending a Fra Angelico exhibit at the Met. Staggered by art from the 15th century, he posed to himself the "500 year question": What makes it possible for art to continue to have an impact five centuries after it was created. The related question for a contemporary artist is this — who is making art today with the ambition that it will last for 50 or 100 years, let alone 500? The response to the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, whose beginnings go back to the 12th century, sharpens that question for us.
In the art world, we have, as Fujimura notes, replaced the lasting ambitions of Angelico and the anonymous craftsmen of Notre Dame with something closer to Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame." We inhabit what Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, called a throwaway culture to which certain strains of the right, with its elevation of consumerist capitalism, and of the left, with its advocacy of progressive politics, contribute. In both cases, the past is the graveyard of error and vice, or at best passé. And yet the response to the catastrophe in Paris —- from horror and sorrow to solidarity in prayerful praise — indicates that there is an enduring hunger in the human soul for something permanent, for something that binds us to the past, to one another, to nature, and to the divine.
Part of what draws us to the cathedral is that it belongs right where it is. As is true of the architecture of most of Paris, Notre Dame has just the right scale in relation to its environment — the surrounding buildings and the Seine. The building invites us into a space where we recover harmony with others, with natural materials and the physical environment, and with the divine. The spire and buttresses effortlessly lifted the senses and the imagination toward eternity. The cathedral belongs where it is, and we belong in its sacred space.
Sustaining this sense of belonging will, however, require more than moments of well-intentioned solidarity. Notre Dame is, as Francis remarked on the day of the fire, "an architectural jewel of a collective memory." It binds us to the past even as it gives us images and vocabulary and a narrative that enable us to richly inhabit the present.
How odd is it that these stories — embedded in the façade, in statues throughout the church, and in the glorious rose windows — are now nearly lost to us? The lessons inscribed in the very stone of what was once considered the church of the poor and the illiterate are now largely illegible to those who visit. As access to the written word has accelerated exponentially, cultural literacy has declined. We suffer from an atrophying of the imagination. Absent catastrophic events that jar us out of our cultural amnesia, we have a hard time even naming what is missing.
For Francis, natural and human ecology are inseparable. The hope that Notre Dame nourishes in us is that, if there have been times when these two were marvelously united, perhaps they could be so again. Whether in the midst of our fractured culture and even more fractious politics, we can engage in what Fujimura calls culture care. Such care requires that we ask the "500 year question," that we aim to build a civilization or some part of our art not just for our time but for the ages, perhaps even for eternity.