Notre Dame, the cathedral of mysteries

What burned in Paris was not a cathedral, it was an entire Universe . This is how any twelfth-century Parisian would have seen it, who, even limited by his culture, would distinguish in the enormous building erected on the largest of the Seine islands a scale model of Creation.

In the days of the builders of Notre Dame, the cathedral was understood as the place where the presence of God could be felt . The invisible became present at the very moment in which the sunlight filtered through its stained glass windows and acquired a texture that could almost be touched. The echo of the prayers and songs -also invisible to the human eye-, altered the heart rate of the faithful and predisposed them to the sacred experience. And, finally, the aromas of incense imported from remote latitudes completed a sensory bombardment that awed and awed them in equal measure.

Such a masterful staging, in which the thousands of tourists who visit the Gothic temples of France still participate every day, still works. And it does so because -although we are reluctant to admit it- our generation is not too different from that of those who, without knowing how to read or write, were masters in the arts of feeling.

Like those, most of those who are intoxicated today by the sensory impacts of a Gothic cathedral, are unaware that its history and its symbology are pregnant with mysteries .

The first, without going any further, has to do with its construction. The figures produce dizziness. Between 1140 and 1270 Europe experienced a sacred real estate bubble without precedents since the times of megalithism. Only in France, and from the previous century, the construction of 1,108 abbeys began, which would be the prologue to the architectural fervor of the cathedrals.And in little more than three hundred years the most important temples of this new style would rise in Europe. The sources of its financing and, above all, the origin of the architects who designed and developed this art has become a challenge for scholars. Their builders rarely left us plans for posterity, let alone their names. Of Notre Dame of Paris we barely know that its promoter was the bishop Maurice de Sully , and that Pope Alexander III was at the laying ceremony of its first stone in 1163.

Louis Charpentier -one of the best-known exegetes of these mysteries- suggested in 1969 that the key to that creative explosion could have been in the Crusades. It was at that time when Europe strengthened its ties with the East, importing with the force of arms wise men and craftsmen capable of handling the pointed arch and the most advanced mathematics. Charpentier, of course, ended up pulling a thread that made him suspicious of the first Templars who, in 1118, settled in the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, taking its secrets from it.

Although interesting, Charpentier’s idea has more symbolic than historical value. In the absence of evidence of the Templar involvement in the implementation of Gothic art , the evidence rains down. That if Bernardo de Claraval, patron of the order, was the one who promoted the first great temple of that style on the great hill of Vezelay; that Solomon is never missing from the imagery of any cathedral, including Notre Dame, as a nod to his possessions in the Holy Land; or that only the economic privileges of the Temple, granted in 1163 by the bull Omne Datum Optimum, exempted them from paying any tax and, therefore, gave them the ability to finance that macro real estate operation.

Beyond these speculations, the only certainty is that, in effect, that new art -that art goth or slang- came pregnant with a disconcerting pagan and oriental symbology . Medievalists and writers as versed in Egypt as Christian Jacq, have argued for years that this Gothic owed much to Mesopotamia and the country of the Nile. From both cultures, for example, he took the idea of ​​placing gargoyles and ferocious creatures to drive away any threat to the faithful from sacred ground. The stories of Paradise, the Flood, unicorns or birds that seem to speak have their origin clearly in the iconography of the Middle East.Although the curious thing is that these similarities increase the more details are abounded. The central portico of the main façade of Notre Dame de Paris is good proof of this: on the lintel of the Door of Judgment -saved from the flames, but not from the smoke- an angel can be seen weighing in a balance the souls of the faithful. The weight plates are unbalanced, indicating the presence of sin, condemning those who have offended God to be devoured by a terrifying monster.Egyptian dead , common in the country in the pyramids around the year 1500 BC In it, Anubis was painted holding a scale in which he calibrated the soul of the pharaoh in search of sins while a monster with the head of a crocodile and the body of a lion -Ammit- awaited the operation to devour him or let him pass.

Jacq believes that this “plagiarism” shows how influential Egyptian ideas were in the builders of Notre Dame de Paris and its other “sisters” dedicated to the Ascension of the Virgin. An iconography, by the way, also repetitive in all of them, and that points to the final purpose of its designers: to prop up the belief that cathedrals were places where the faithful could ascend to the heavens . We are, then, before a real stairway to heaven.