Sometimes it’s the walls. It’s definitely sometimes the ceiling. Other times the iron, the glass, or the light that passes through it, completing its blistering 90 million-year journey by settling silently and softly along decorative curves and concaves. There are as many reasons to visit Notre Dame as there are footprints worn into its central nave, and on this day my reason and my footprints had clear intentions. Today was about stone, and though I’d planned a trip only to the twelfth century, the cathedral had a bit more in mind.
Amid the clamor of first-timers fulfilling their first-timer destinies by fixing gazes on the altar and dizzying vaulted arches above, there stood a more seasoned guest tending to his own responsibilities with his nose inches from a nondescript column, pacing slowly around its circumference as his neck craned up and down methodically like a sleuth searching for a trap door.
The hunt was on for an elusive medieval detail that I’ve only recently heard of: what the French call a marque de tâcheron, or a stonemason’s marker. It was usual practice in the Middle Ages for stone cutters to leave a distinct personalized logo on each building block they prepared, not out of vanity but necessity; a Gothic cathedral was an immense project requiring the expertise of countless artisans, sometimes with materials pre-fabricated off site and coming together just hours before assembly. You were paid by the stone, with invoices being settled against how many of yours had been provided. Hence the calling card etched into each one.
The literature on stonemason markers is scant to say the least, and I guess I don’t blame the historical literati for not bothering to document them; they’re a rather non-event when compared to the collective splendor of an ancient edifice. But just like onions and green ogres, history has as many layers as you care to peel away so when I’d gotten a tip that there were two marques de tâcheron still visible here I knew a pilgrimage was in order. Their exact location was only vaguely described, making them two awfully tiny needles in an imposing 800 year-old haystack.
Once inside, as each minute and curious tourist passed me by, I wondered if I had the right spot…or maybe the author failed to mention the marks were 150 feet above my head? False alarms were bountiful given the amount of random chips and dents a piece of “smooth” stone can have at this age, but in a building designed for prayers I knew my modest one had been answered when this appeared:
The proverbial trap door had been found, and as it always does it sprung open just long enough for the flame of times forgotten to flicker once or twice before being extinguished by the bustle of present day. But this is a game of split seconds and fleeting impressions, so I’m learning to take advantage of them as best I can when they happen. I slid two fingers across the worn grooves, imagining the tool that in the skilled medieval hands of its owner had once pounded and picked away one stony flake at a time in order to make this precise piece of one of the most dazzling puzzles the planet would ever see.
I wandered through his daily life, his good days and bad, in some ways so close to mine yet in others light years away. Did he have friends, family? Was he in love, was he happy? Did he find meaning and purpose in his life or was it merely an existence? Equally crafted puzzle pieces swirled up around me in staggering numbers as a reminder that his story is but one of thousands, making the cathedral not so much a construction of hewn stone but of human stories – the triumphs and let-downs of one family placed squarely on the shoulders of another, and another, slowly leaving the real world behind as they climb onward and upward.
And what if these marks themselves could talk? The tales they could tell, having had a front row seat to the comings and goings of kings and paupers alike, as transformations in clothing and language signaled the machines of change churning relentlessly outside the church’s doors. They would surely have something to say about all the close calls, about how the stained glass around them was temporarily removed to avoid the rattle of Hitler’s bombs, how the cathedral was put up for sale during the French Revolution and even had a buyer at one point, or how an 1871 revolt culminated in a mountain of wooden pews being doused with gasoline and touched off in an attempt to burn the entire place down, to be snuffed out only at the last minute by a few alerted doctors from a nearby hospital.
It was with artillery shells and Renaissance robes dancing in my head that I continued the search, curious to see if other hieroglyphs lay coyly in hidden recesses waiting to tell their own stories. I watched with delight as one by one other stonemasons materialized from dimly lit corners to introduce themselves:
Are all of these marks authentically medieval? It’s probably impossible to tell. But a layered fabric of historical graffiti only adds to the mystery and the fun of it. And speaking of layers, as I said at the beginning there was a surprise in store that day which took the original scope of my modest expedition and blew it wide open. I was hoping for a glimpse into the 1100’s and ended up going much, much further back in time:
Of course! The artisans of Notre Dame weren’t the first organisms to leave their mark on these rocks. Long before art, religion, or even modern man came into being, tiny prehistoric critters were unknowingly embedding themselves into a holy scheme, dying as martyrs to be immortalized and on display eons later for anyone taking the time to stop and pay their respects. This is architecture as historical record on a grand scale.
Four lethargic peals from the bell tower warned that the afternoon was swiftly passing. Was I there for an hour? Two? It was time to part ways with my fellow visitors, both living and otherwise, to solve other mysteries in other neighborhoods. But these moments spent in one of the most famous buildings in the world will remain a fond reminder not only of the secrets discovered, but of how lucky I am to be living in Paris and walking with its ghosts.