Recently I visited Orléans cathedral. It is one of the largest cathedrals in a country of huge ones, a magnificent late Gothic construction whose interior soars more dramatically than the heavier interiors of Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris. Orléans is also one of the most dramatic towns in French history, the site of the greatest battle of the Hundred Years War when Joan of Arc, “the Maid of Orléans”, defeated the English and thereby ensured the liberation of her country from the foreign invader.Share
I have had few sadder disappointments than when I entered the cathedral. Not the architecture, to be sure, which is magnificent, but the ambience. It was like entering a morgue. There was not a soul to be seen. No clerics bustled about; no women arranged flowers; no one came and went to choir practice. There was certainly no Mass in progress or even, it seemed, in prospect. The side-altars had evidently not been used for decades. The magnificent Gothic revival confessionals gathered dust silently in the cold. The only sounds came from the rainwater which leaked copiously through the roof to form an enormous puddle by one of the columns, and the ridiculous sound of a CD playing, round and round, Verdi’s requiem. It was like a scene from a cheap movie in which frightened travellers stumble across a recently abandoned house, but it was frighteningly easy to imagine the cathedral, a few decades hence, completely ruined as so many cathedrals and former abbeys are elsewhere in Europe.
The choice of the requiem was, of course, sinisterly apt. The cathedral is its present state is nothing but a magnificent mausoleum to a dead Christian culture – with the only difference that, in modern mausoleum’s like that of Lenin and Atatürk, the dead man inside is venerated for his political action to this day. By contrast, the Christian culture of Europe has died not with a bang but a whimper.