Famed Notre Dame cathedral ‘a model of calm and majesty’

Rowers pass Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. (CNS photo/Reuters)

At a used book sale at a Bethesda, Md., high school not too long ago, I spied a book by a writer named Allan Temko titled “Notre-Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral,” published by Viking in 1955. It looked like an intriguing book and besides it was going for a quarter. After I heard that the famed cathedral is celebrating its 850th anniversary, I decided to take a look at the book — and I didn’t realize what I  had. Temko, who died in 2006, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic and writer and his 1955 book is considered by many to be a “landmark” work about the Paris cathedral. So, why not celebrate this landmark anniversary, by reading Temko’s book? The 25-cent “book sale” price tag belies the wealth of information in it and the sparkling writing.

“Notre-Dame was built by a superb common effort in which the entire community took part, the manual laborer as well as the master artist, the serf and villein as well as the merchant and prince,” he writes. “From their collective energy and enthusiasm the cathedral emerged as the crowning structure of the walled city of the Middle Age. Paris then crowded around the church with inexpressible love.”

Temko opens the book with an introductory section titled “The Idea of a Cathedral.” Subsequent chapters cover Notre Dame’s origins; Bishop Maurice de Sully of Paris, who served from 1160 until his death Sept. 11, 1196, and the 12th-century “flowering,” as the author calls it; the classic phase of construction; and the completion of the structure. The book includes numerous illustrations — photos and architectural drawings.

Here’s hoping you might find this treasure in your public library — or maybe even at a local book sale.

One Response

  1. “The Biography of a Cathedral” is what turned me on to Gothic architecture when I first read it as a high school student, to say nothing of the wonders it did for bolstering one’s faith in those critical years marked by a questioning of everything. Yes, even as a seminary student.

    All that was more than a half-century ago. Just a couple years or so ago I managed to locate a copy of this book again, this time through the inter-library service participated in by my community.

    My regret: not having had the opportunity while in Paris to have a close-up look at all of Notre Dame’s many charms, and likewise those of the first of the Gothics, Sully’s cathedral at St. Denis in the Paris suburbs.

    Did enjoy a more personalized tour of Chartres.

    All that almost as many years ago as that first encounter with the Biography.

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