“Its underlying concept – that repeated rebuilding renders sanctuaries eternal – is unique in the world.” – on the festival of Sikinen Sengo ceremony
At the request of a friend I began reading Symbols and Allegories in Art by Matilde Battistini. Behind the introductory pages, the first symbol is easily recognizable but a curious one. At first glance it seems contradictory, if not absolutely futile, it is the symbol of Ouroboros — the snake that eats its own tail. In a time following tragedy, the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, the allegory of Ouroboros reminds us of the importance of regenerating architecture that was beset by chaos.
The self-eating serpent originated in Egyptian mythology and represented the yearly cycle – or a ring of time that runs its reverse once it had been completed – including the cycle of existence itself, however this theological concept was superseded by Christianity’s dogma of a linear timeline.
In hermetic alchemy, it symbolized the refining of materials or transition of one thing to another through nature’s underlying magical principles of exchange. During the Italian Renaissance, it became a prominent icon for nobility to engrave on the back of medallions in support of neo-paganism. For our purposes, it represents the cycle of progress and decline.
Architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi illustrates the relationship between Ouroboros and architecture in his vignette titled, Work conquers all. Virgil, First Georgic. Here, Ouroboros rests on a wreath of feathers tied together by a ribbon at the bottom most point. Interweaving around him to create a sense of depth and frame are the tools of architects; the quill pen, charcoal pencil, paint brush, and protractor.
With his tools assembled, Piranesi speaks to virtue of hope within artists; with work all things are conquered. The cyclic nature of Ouroboros is set within the architect’s tools signifying the architect’s labor in respect to time. It seems to say, no good can be done nor harm undone but through steady labor.
To elect the labors of ‘regenerating’ architecture to preserve is exemplified by the traditional Japanese ceremony that takes place at the Ise Jingu Shrine. For nearly 2,000 years the local community of Mie Prefecture gathers every 20 years to both remove one shrine and rebuild another at the complex. The community performs this act out of a respect for the sacred site and communal camaraderie.
It takes nearly eight years to prepare construction materials for the shrine, four for the timber alone. As one shrine is ceremoniously removed its location remains designated as a holy place and the cycle’s previously deconstructed shrine is rebuilt. It is a community effort with local citizens both crafting and carrying the materials to set them in place together.
Earlier this week, the world received the horrible news of a fire that had consumed a majority of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. However, Europe is no stranger to reconstructing masterpieces after tragedy.
In 1666, the bakery of Thomas Farynor caught on fire and grew into the Great Fire of London. It swept through the old Roman city wall, ignited the heart of the city, and cut off any escape from the Thames riverfront. Due to London’s narrow streets, the city’s panicked denizens, and the inefficient fire fighting techniques at the time, the fire destroyed a majority of the old city. In the fire’s aftermath, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to redesign and reconstruct the city.
The city of Dresden, Germany was once renowned for its architecture earning it the title “Florence on the Elbe.” The city also lost many of its historical masterpieces and much of its urban fabric during World War II. Several monuments in the city center, including the Zwinger Palace; the Semperoper, the opera house; and the Frauenkirche, the city’s cathedral, were left in ruins but have since been rebuilt.
The city of Berlin is in the process of rebuilding one of its oldest and most distinctive buildings. Originally from the 1400s, the Stadtschloss (or Berlin City Palace) was the home to Prussia’s kings long before the modern nation of Germany was formed. Damaged during World War II, it survived into the 1950s, before the communist East German regime destroyed it.
In 2010, the city began rebuilding the original palace from the 1400s, and construction will be completed this year. This new version of that historical building will remind Berlin of its history and reintroduce a beautiful and long-admired example of great civic architecture to the city.
Notre Dame’s sister Cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims, is built on the site of the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks, and is one of the world’s first efforts at systemic historical preservation. Notre Dame de Reims was the church where French kings were crowned and is considered a crown jewel of gothic Architecture.It is imbued with both historical and allegorical meaning.
Soon after the First World War broke out, during the ebb and flow of exchanging land between world forces, the Germans fired over two dozen mortar shells, all hitting the Cathedral. These explosives quickly ignited the wooden scaffolding which in turn consumed the cathedral’s wooden roof. As melting metals dripped from the ceiling they transferred the fire to the interior below, thus the church became a ‘martyr’ of sorts for the Allied efforts. During the remainder of the war, it would receive several hundred more shells, leaving it in ruins.
To hear of Notre Dame’s fire is a horrific shock, but we know that from tragedy can come miracles. Just as ouroboros labors in his cycle of regrowth, it is our hope to see the cathedral rebuilt with a spirit of renewal and vigor that has been seen worldwide in reconstructing our architectural masterpieces.
However, it is our belief that the Cathedral should be rebuilt into its original glory. There is a temptation to break the cycle but it is of the utmost importance that we attempt to preserve art and humanity, despite tragedy. To rise above the chaos around us, through regenerative work.