Notre-Dame: secret Syrian origins of French medieval art

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Who would have thought that last year’s catastrophic Notre Dame fire would reveal so many secrets from its ashes?

A team of scientists has been assembled to conduct in-depth research on the fabric of the cathedral, in the hopes of understanding how the medieval masons and artisans made the building stand. Nothing has been written; no plan was used. The study will last approximately six years and will help guide the restoration work.

The fire also sparked my own desire to investigate the matter further. Last year, around the same time, I wrote on the architectural framework of the cathedral: like all medieval Gothic cathedrals, the origins of its twin towers flanking a monumental west entrance, its pointed arches, its rosettes and its vaults ribbed, can all be traced Middle East.

Now, after extensive research, I have discovered many other connections, all of them unexpected. I included them in my book “Flying the Saracens”.

Stained glass

Let’s start with the stained glass windows, fortunately still intact after the fire. Recent analyzes of stained glass in the main cathedrals of England and France between 1200 and 1400 all show the same high composition in vegetable ash, typical of Syrian raw materials.

The high quality Syrian vegetable soda ash, known as “Syrian ashes”, was considered superior to the pre-Islamic Egyptian Natron ash used by the Romans and Byzantines in their glass making; and all the Venetian glass analyzed from the 11th to the 16th century shows its consistent use.

Continental medieval Europe imported the raw materials for all of its glass, as there was no known local source.

The rosette is seen during works at Notre-Dame in July 2019 (AFP)
The rosette is seen during works at Notre-Dame in July 2019 (AFP)

Colored glass windows have been an integral and innovative element of Islamic architecture since the 7th century, starting with the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem, which had colored glass in its many tall windows.

They were known as shamsiyyat (from Arabic for the sun) and qamariyyat (from Arabic for the moon), showing how solar and lunar imagery of windows continued in European religious architecture.

The Templars adopted the Dome of the Rock as their main Christian sanctuary after the first crusade, confusing it with the Temple of Solomon, a mistake that has led many churches to take inspiration from a Muslim sanctuary.

The famous rosettes of Notre-Dame on its west and north facades date from 1225-1250 and are designed so that light radiates from the center, hence the so-called Radiant style.

Light was also at the heart of the design of the Gothic cathedral. It was in Saint-Denis, in the north of Paris, that the rich and powerful abbot Suger first used enlightenment thought as a guiding principle in his new basilica. But who was Denis?

Lily flower

The abbot and his contemporaries considered him a disciple of Paul, who later merged with the first bishop of Paris and patron of France, martyred in Montmartre. Centuries later, researchers realized that the influential work of Denis, The celestial hierarchy, was actually a hoax, written by a 5th century Syrian mystical monk calling himself Denis in order to point out his philosophy.

As a result, he is known in ecclesiastical circles as Pseudo-Denis, but his turn worked. Today, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is universally recognized as the first true example of “Gothic”, with large pointed arches allowing the elegant elegant choir. It was now used as a burial place for French kings.

The legacy of Notre Dame – less European than you think
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The very symbol of the French nation and French royalty is the fleur-de-lis. But where was it first seen as an emblem? In the plains of Syria, the crusaders copied the local sport of jerid, Knightly horse jousting tournaments where players try to disassemble with a blunt javelin.

Heraldry and the use of family or dynastic symbols were already used under the Ayyubids, and the fleur-de-lis appeared for the first time in its true heraldic form, the three separate leaves linked in the middle by a band, like the coat of arms from Nur. al-Din ibn Zanki in the 12th century, and on two of its monuments in Damascus.

Later, the Mamluk helmets often had nose guards ending in a fleur-de-lis. The boy king of England, Henry VI, was crowned king of France at the age of 10 inside Notre-Dame in 1431, against a background of fleur-de-lis.

An unlikely discovery

The central portal of Our Lady carries an allegory of alchemy carved in stone, a statue of a woman holding books with a ladder and a stick. The very word alchemy comes from Arabic al-kimyaAnd in medieval times, the Middle East was widely recognized as the cradle of advanced experimental science.

The use of vegetable ash in the glass was in itself a kind of alchemy, an experiment in which the addition of the alkaline plant called ushnaan Crushed pebble silica from the Euphrates produced the finest and most delicate glass in the world, based in Raqqa, the center of the Syrian glass industry from the 9th to the 14th century.

Adding other chemicals has colored the glass – cobalt for blue, copper oxide for turquoise, etc.

In the photo, 12th century stained glass with bubbles (Diana Darke / MEE)
In the photo, 12th century stained glass with bubbles (Diana Darke / MEE)

But the ashes of ushnaan also had other properties. They have been used since biblical times as a cleaning agent where there was no access to water, either for personal hygiene or for laundry.

To this day, it remains an essential natural ingredient in the Syrian soap industry, as the plant grows particularly well south of Aleppo around the salt lake of Jaboul. This is what gives Aleppo soap a wonderfully soft and silky feel on the skin; it even has bubbles trapped inside, just like Syrian glass.

Scientists at Notre Dame have made their own discovery of improbable cleaning: the best way to remove toxic yellow lead dust from stained glass, without endangering colors, is to use baby wipes from Monoprix. Commercial chemical wipes could be too abrasive; a mild Aleppo soap would probably be even better.

How appropriate it would be to clean the cathedral using the same vegetable ash that is already inside its stained glass windows.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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