Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Notre Dame, the Master of Glass, and the Disappearing Priest
Two years ago, I was showing visitors from Montreal around Notre Dame. As is my wont, I’d been talking non-stop for a couple of hours, and their eyes were starting to glaze over, so I figured I’d take a break and give them time to explore the interior at their own pace while I chatted with Amynah.
As we stood there, and old man came up to us.
“Can you guess how old I am?” he asked us in French.
“Errr, seventy?” hazarded Amynah, kindly.
His face lit up: “Eighty five! I’m eighty five!” he said.
“You look very young,” said Amynah.
“Yes, thank you. You know, I used to be the Maitre de vitrines here, after the war,” he said.
“Really? What was that?” asked Amynah.
Well, he explained, during the Second World War, the Germans occupied Alsace, and annexed the territory to the Reich. As a result, they saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame as their German cultural heritage and thus made sure to protect its treasures as best they could. So they removed all of the beautiful stained glass windows – most dating from the 12th and 13th centuries – and hid them in a salt mine on the other side of the Rhine.
This way, the irreplaceable glass was spared the Allied bombs that fell on the city in 1944. After the war, our new friend was in charge of returning each piece to its original place.
“See the Rosette?” he said, lifting a trembling arm to point to the enormous circular window on the western face. “I put each piece of that glass back in myself. They suspended my from a chair from the ceiling – more than 100 feet off the floor!”
I tried to imagine assembling a jigsaw puzzle of 800-year-old glass at those fatal heights. Best not to think about it.
“Do you see those yellow squares there?” continued our friend, pointing to the windows on the southern wall. There, I noticed that there were large patches of the original glass missing – they had been replaced with modern glass, clumsily painted over.
“Most people think those were broken. But they weren’t! We gave them to a Chapel in Paris, as a gift as they rebuilt it after the war. It’s near the Eiffel Tower.”
Prior to this discussion, all that I knew about the glass in the Cathedral was that it was old. I also had been tickled to learn that the glass on the northern face was strictly Old Testament scenes, as well as depictions of the various Holy Roman Emperors. On the south face was the New Testament – the reason being that it got more sun, and therefore enjoyed the Light of Jesus.
Our friend wasn’t done though: “A long time ago, it was possible to visit the crypt. I’ve been there! But it is closed now. There is a river that runs under this Cathedral – it’s true! But after the war, a young couple was married here. After the ceremony, the priest went into the crypt to store the documents. He was never seen again – he fell into the river, and was swept away, underground. So they sealed it off.”
This could well be true. The Church had been built on the former Roman Temple, which had apparently been built on a Pagan site that included a small pond. The church had been built right on top of it. Though I can’t imagine it made construction easy, I have from several good sources that it is true – and it’s led to some fascinating legends of subterranean creatures living under the crypt.
By now our friends were coming back, and our storyteller was getting visibly tired. Amynah and I began to make noises that we had to go, with an eye to ending the conversation.
“Ah yes,” our friend said, his eyes distracted. Then he brightened up: “Can you guess how old I am? Eighty-five!”
I’m not sure why this old man selected us, of all the people in the church that day, to share his stories. I think he realized his memory was going. As he walked through the Cathedral, enjoying the magnificence to which his contribution was so important, I think he heard me giving my tour to our friends. I like to think that he felt that he had found someone that would appreciate his story, and remember it, and share it with others.