Michael T. Davis is professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College where he founded the architectural studies program and taught courses on the art of the Middle Ages, the arts of Islam, and modern architecture from 1982 to 2022. He also taught at Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Michigan, and Yale University. His research centers on French Gothic architecture and he has published studies on Notre-Dame de Paris, the Palais de la Cité in Paris, Saint-Urbain, Troyes, and the cathedrals of Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges. He served as a co-editor, with Pari Riahi and Laure Katsaros, of Exactitude: On Precision and Play in Contemporary Architecture (University of Massachsuetts Press, 2022). Currently, he is collaborating with Stefaan Van Liefferinge of Columbia University in a study of the full-scale architectural drawings of Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral and is engaged in the digital reconstruction of lost buildings of medieval Paris including the convent of the Cordeliers, the Collège de Cluny, and the Collège de Navarre.
What inspired you to get involved with Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris?
I knew Andrew Tallon through graduate school at Columbia University and was a member of his 2007 dissertation committee along with my mentor, Stephen Murray. As he settled into teaching at Vassar and developed ground-breaking investigation of medieval structure using laser scanning, our friendship continued, linked by a mutual focus on Gothic architecture and, in particular, a passionate interest in Notre-Dame de Paris. Andrew shared his enthusiastic vision of creating a Friends of Notre-Dame nonprofit organization, that would take an active role in pursuing the study and advocating for thoughtful maintenance of the cathedral. When Stephen Murray called to ask if I would consider joining the Friends of Notre-Dame as his successor, I could not say yes fast enough! Andrew, Stephen, and I compose something of a scholarly family and I am honored to have the opportunity to continue their work.
What drives you as a board member?
I have been working on Parisian Gothic architecture since 1986 when a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship supported a year’s residence in Paris. My aim at that time was to dig into the city’s architectural environment after the death of Louis IX in 1270 for insight into the cathedral projects at Clermont-Ferrand, the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation, and Limoges. But, of course, Paris wove its magic spell and I have devoted much of my research to its architecture ever since that includes studies of Notre-Dame between 1290 and 1350, the reliefs on the exterior of the cathedral’s choir, the Palais de la Cité, the Franciscan church of Ste-Marie-Madeleine, the Cistercian church and college of St-Bernard, and the Collège de Navarre. I hope to bring to the Board a sense of the range and complexity of Parisian medieval architecture that reveals the special character of Notre-Dame and the creative brilliance of its architects. I also look forward to lending my voice and knowledge to the Board in effective support of the restoration of the cathedral.
What’s your favorite memory of Notre-Dame de Paris?
If I can share two…In the mid-1990s during my study of construction at Notre-Dame around 1300, I requested permission to measure piers before the arrival of tourists. I was told to meet the guardian at the front door at 7 a.m. and we entered an empty interior, one that I had never experienced. In that hour before the tour busses arrived, the silent cathedral seemed even larger, impossibly majestic. As visitors streamed in at 8 a.m., they were quickly lost in its vast spaces. My second memory is playing in the sandbox in the park along the south side of cathedral with my 4-year old daughter, Lauren. Although my attention was claimed by sand castles, the cathedral, its transept rose window, those arcing flying buttresses never failed to inspire our own building efforts.