Arts & Culture History

History of the Notre Dame Cathedral

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is the most famous of the gothic cathedrals of the middle ages. A solid 856 years has filled this historical landmark with memorable tales.

April 15, 2019: a tragedy that may never be forgotten. The beloved Notre Dame cathedral of Paris was engulfed in flames, destroying most of the roof, Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century spire, and some of the rib vaulting. Being the most significant religious building in the city made it immensely devastating. As said by French President Emmanuel Macron, “Notre Dame of Paris is our history.”

The Cathedral of Notre Dame (“Our Lady”) is found at the eastern end of île de la cité which is the center of Paris, connected to the rest of Paris by bridges including the famous Pont Neuf. It was believed to be a holy site before Catholicism, built on top of ruins of Gallo-Roman temples dedicated to Jupiter. This was presumed because of the discovery in 1710 of the Pillar of the Boatmen, a monumental Roman Column erected in the Roman city Lutetia in honour of the ancient sky god.

During the Middle-Ages, the Roman Palace was replaced by the Royal Palace – which later became the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie – and the altars were replaced by successive Catholic churches when Christianity was established. Four churches followed the Roman temple before Notre Dame was built, including a building dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which lasted from the fifth to the eighth century.

The innovative and brilliant Maurice de Sully was a bishop of Paris from 1160 until his death in 1196. He admired the work of the pioneering architects so he decided to construct a rival structure in the heart of Paris. In 1160 he made an immense decision to demolish the worn out Saint-Etienne cathedral to build this new cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Our Lady, which became his lifelong project.

The establishment of the Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163 with the foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III, “who won greater prestige for his office by his conduct.” In 1250, the nave, the western-facade, and the choir were completed, and porches, chapels and other embellishments were continuously added over the next 100 years. After being completed in 1345, the cathedral became a significant landmark in the city. Its design was exceptional. Jean de Chelles added the south end of the transept, an area set crosswise to the nave in a cruciform building within the Romanesque and Gothic church architectural traditions. Coloured rose windows were also added in the late 1240’s which boast a circular design with a centerpiece and symmetrical subsections branching off, often glazed with vibrant stained glass. These, along with one of the world’s largest organs and immense church bells–each with its own name, Marie, Emmanuel, etc.–created a naturalistic design making this a milestone for the medieval monument.
coloured rose window. Image: wikimedia/Julie Anne Workman

In the 13th century, the flying buttress was introduced. It’s a lateral-support system and part of the architectural design of Late Gothic buildings. It was a very important innovation because it took the weight of the roof off of the walls meaning the walls could be made thinner and higher making room for larger windows.

Flying Buttresses. Image: wikimedia/Matthias Zirngibl

Original beauty was compromised when Louis XIV (17th century) issued the replacement of stained glass with clear windows and the demolishing of a pillar in the main doorway to widen the opening.

The French revolution caused damage to the building which was later auctioned to a building-merchant. Mobs looted the gothic cathedral and more than two dozen statues were beheaded the same year as Marie-Antoinette. It was a dangerous time for the cathedral as the revolution attempted to strip the Catholic Church of its authority over French life and dechristianize the nation. In 1792, the new government declared that public worship was illegal. Churches were stripped of religious symbols. 28 statues of biblical kings of Judah and others were brought to the cathedral’s square and decapitated with the exception of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The material of the cathedral also came in handy when they took the lead from the roof to make bullets and the bronze bells to be melted for canons. After the Reign of Terror, Catholicism slowly regained acceptance in France and Notre Dame retained its powerful symbolism.

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Damage to the church of Notre Dame. Image: magnoliabox

Because of their significance, the cathedral’s bells were replaced in the 19th century, named and blessed just like the old ones. New bells are washed with holy water and then anointed inside and out with chrism oils. Emmanuel is the only bell that survived the revolution and is in charge of marking the hours of the day and special events. Marie, named in recognition of the Virgin, is inscribed with phrases in French and Latin and weighs six thousand kilos. To celebrate the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame in 2013, the bells were finally all replaced.

Mid 19th century the cathedral went under a lot of restorations by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect. He designed and replaced the spire, which was removed in the 18th century due to instability, as well as added the famous gargoyles situated on the building (which were believed to protect against evil spirits). It was said that the renovations were inspired by Victor Hugo’s favoured novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). In his novel, Hugo expresses his adoration for the cathedral where he describes its beauty and setting throughout two chapters. He emotionally expresses how “[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”

The restorations overtime have been key in the development of the cathedral. The clever/incredible rehabilitations featured reglazing of stained glass windows, resurfacing stonework, and restitution of the statues. To accessorize, new paintings, murals, and gargoyles were added to the cathedral.

A restoration project was in the middle of its construction when the fire began in April, destroying the spire and oak frame and lead roof. Just four days before the cathedral burst into flames, more than a dozen statues situated on the cathedral were removed by cranes and loaded into trucks to be sent away to southwestern France for restoration work. The statue representing St. Andrew located on top of the Notre Dame Cathedral descended to earth for the first time in over a century. This fortunate timing of the removal of these statues may have saved some of the cathedral’s precious treasures.
Notre Dame Cathedral on fire April 15th. Image: wikimedia/milliped

As the April fire burned the historic monument, Macron succinctly expressed its place in French identify: “I am sad to be watching this part of us burn tonight.” he tweeted.


image: PetiteLouve

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