Like a vessel in the shape of a cross set on the Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame Cathedral always makes a powerful impression. The sanctuary is considered as a leading example of French Gothic architecture for its monumental dimensions, its fine stained-glass windows, its audacious flying buttresses and rich sculptures and statues. Standing above the banks of River Seine, the cathedral played and still plays an integral part of the history of Paris and France, from its construction in the 12th century up to now.
Notre-Dame de Paris: a bit of History
The cathedral of Notre-Dame occupies the site where several sanctuaries have stood since the Gallo-Roman era: a temple dedicated to Jupiter, a large basilica from the 4th century, and a Carolingian cathedral in the 9th century.
In 1160, under the reign of King Louis VII, Paris bishop Maurice de Sully (1105/1120?-1196) decided the construction of a much larger sanctuary to accommodate the population growth of Paris. Notre-Dame was built in a new style at the time which would later be known as ‘Gothic architecture’. Already a few sanctuaries had been built (or where being built) in that style around Paris: the abbey church of Saint-Denis, and the cathedrals of Noyon, Laon and Sens.
In 1163, the foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexandre III in the presence of the King. Most of the work was executed under the direction of Maurice de Sully and its successor Odon de Sully:
- the choir and its two ambulatories (1163-1182)
- the four last spans of the nave, the side-aisles and the galleries (1190-1225)
- the western façade and its two towers (1225-1250)
By the reign of Saint-Louis in the mid-13th century, the cathedral was completed and operational. For the next couple of centuries, the cathedral underwent a few alterations as well as works of embellishment and maintenance, for instance:
- the main portals of the façade of Romanesque style were rebuilt between 1250 and 1268.
- the transept was extended to the north and the south with the addition of the great rose-windows.
- the rood-screen was added between the nave and the choir.
- the chapels of the chevet were built from 1296.
- the magnificent flying buttresses of the chevet were added in the first half of the 14th century.
- the choir screen was redesigned in the 14th century.
The interior decoration was first modified in the Renaissance era when Gothic architecture was considered as being barbaric and old-fashioned. The walls and arcades were covered by giant tapestries and wallpapers.
Under the reign of Louis XIV in 1699 the rood-screen was demolished and the choir re-organised. New stalls were designed and a wrought-iron choir screen added. In 1756 the cannon had a few stained-glass windows dating from the Middle-Ages removed in order to get more light inside.
During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame any symbols evoking the Old Regime were destroyed. The statues of the kings of Judah (mistaken for the kings of France) were beheaded and removed while the relics were vandalised. Most of the altars were destroyed and the furnishing sold. Notre-Dame was desecrated and became a Temple of Reason. An festival devoted to the goddess of Reason was celebrated inside on the 10 November 1793.
Then the sanctuary was transformed into a storehouse.
The cathedral was given back to the Catholics in 1802 and welcomed the coronation ceremony of Napoleon Bonaparte in December 1804 in the presence of Pope Pius VII.
In the 19th century, the campaign to protect Gothic architecture in France, instigated by Victor Hugo through his novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831, led to a vast programme of restoration, replacements and new creations. In 1864, the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc completed the restoration work of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which focused essentially on the statuary, the spire at the crossing of the transept, the stained-glass windows and the new sacristy. Viollet-le-Duc added chimeras on the Western façade which did not exist during the Middle-Ages.
In the 1860s the parvis of Notre-Dame was enlarged by Baron Haussmann with the clearing of many houses and buildings. A long period of renovation took place in the 1990s and 2000s to restore Notre-Dame to its former glory.
In 2013 Notre-Dame celebrated its 850th anniversary with the installation of 8 new bells inside the North Tower and the renovation of the great organ.
Main historic events which took place in Notre-Dame
- 1185: Heraclius of Caesarea calls for the Third Crusade from Notre-Dame cathedral.
- 1239: The Crown of Thorns is brought in the cathedral by King Saint-Louis to be kept during the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle.
- 1302: Philip the Fair opens the first States-General.
- 16 December 1431: Henry VI of England is crowned King of France.
- 24 April 1558: Mary, Queen of Scots is married to the Dauphin Francis (later Francis II of France), son of King Henry II of France.
- 18 August 1572: Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) marries Margaret of Valois. The marriage takes place in the cathedral for Margaret and on the parvis for Henry IV as he is Protestant. The wedding takes place six days before the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
- 10 November 1793: the Festival of Reason is hold inside the cathedral.
- 2 December 1804: the coronation ceremony of Napoleon I and his wife Joséphine, in the presence of Pope Pius VII.
- 1831: Victor Hugo publishes the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
- 30 January 1853: Napoleon III is married to Eugénie.
- 16 May 1920: Joan of Arc is canonised.
- 26 August 1944: a mass takes place in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris in the presence of General De Gaulle and General Leclerc.
- 12 November 1970: funeral service of General Charles de Gaulle.
- 1974: funeral service of Georges Pompidou.
- 31 May 1980: Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the parvis of the cathedral.
- January 1996: funeral service of François Mitterrand.
- 1997: second visit of Pope John-Paul II.
- 2013: The 850th anniversary of Notre-Dame.
Dimensions of Notre-Dame
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Floor Map of Notre-Dame
Place du Parvis and Notre-Dame’s Façade
The impressive Place du Parvis is located near the entrance of Notre-Dame. The square was extended by Baron Haussmann in order to make the cathedral’s presence even greater.
Today we can see traces of the old road that led to the entrance of Notre-Dame, with its borders marked in different coloured stone. The Place du Parvis leads to the Saint Anne Portal, as well as to the cathedral’s other two portals, which are (from left to right): Portal of the Last Judgement, Portal of the Virgin and Portal of Saint Anne.
All three portals are decorated with statues which evoke various images of Heaven and Hell. The most famous of these is the decapitated St. Denis holding his head in his hands, which is located on the Portal of the Virgin.
Above the portals is the Gallery of Kings. Situated 20 metres above the ground, the 28 kings represent the kings of Judah who preceded Christ. All of these statues were decapitated by Revolutionaries in 1793 in response to their rejection of the monarchy, wrongly believing that the statues represented the kings of France. The statues were all later restored by the famous French architect, Viollet-le-Duc.
Looking even higher, above the Gallery of Kings is the balcony of the Virgin and the West rose window. This rose window forms a sort of halo behind the statue of the Virgin with Child and the two angels.
Find out more about the West Façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Climbing the Towers of Notre-Dame
We recommend starting your visit of Notre-Dame by climbing the cathedral’s towers. The entrance to the staircase is located to the left of the North Tower on Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. During the climb, you will come across a Gothic room that houses a souvenir shop, and after several steps you will reach the famous Grande Galerie.
Not to be missed, this spot is the best viewpoint from which to observe the frightening chimeras that keep constant watch over the cathedral, as well as the remarkable neo-Gothic spire that was requested by Viollet-le-Duc during the cathedral’s restoration in 1845. The gargoyles at the ends of Notre-Dame have the important function of draining rainwater off the roof of the cathedral.
The peculiar length of the gargoyles allows them to direct the rainwater away from the façade to avoid damaging the building. All of the current gargoyles are originals from the Middle Ages. As for the chimeras, they are decorative statues of fantastical animals and monsters created by Viollet-le-Duc, who wanted to recreate the mystical atmosphere of the Middle Ages in Notre-Dame. The chimeras are located all along the Grande Galerie.
The story of hunchback Quasimodo attracted a lot of attention from the people at the time that Victor Hugo’s novel was published in 1831. As such, the success of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris‘ was such that the cathedral was able to be saved from ruin thanks to the enthusiasm of the people. Notre-Dame’s fame is thus in part thanks to Victor Hugo.
The tour group then crosses the Grande Galerie between the two towers to visit Emmanuel, the bell in the South Tower. In order to see Emmanuel, you have to climb the wooden stairs which are reminiscent of the world of Quasimodo. Legend has it that when Emmanuel was created in 1631, the Parisians threw their jewels and gold in the molten metal and it is thanks to these jewels that Emmanuel sounds a pure F. Fortunately, Emmanuel was saved during the Revolution and the bell still tolls today on important historical dates in France and on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Emmanuel weighs 13 tonnes in total, with its single clapper weighing 500 kilograms alone!
In order to take the stairs leading to the top of the South Tower, you must return to the Grande Galerie. At 69 metres high, you should stay as long as the guards will let you in order to fully appreciate the magnificent view over West Paris (from the Eiffel Tower to Sacré Coeur). This extraordinary view also provides a different perspective of the cathedral’s greenish roof, as well as the clocks and the gargoyles.
Find out more about the Towers of Notre-Dame.
Interior of Notre-Dame
The cathedral’s interior is as grand as the exterior. Notre-Dame cathedral reveals itself through the discovery of its nave, side-aisles, transept, choir and ambulatory.
Visitors are struck by the sheer majesty of the immense nave which accommodates 6,500 people. The nave is reaching a height of 35 metres. The ceilings are supported by ridged vaults, with multiple arches that come together at various points across the length of the building, covering more than 130 metres altogether.
We recommend touring the cathedral in a clockwise direction. The chapels surrounding the cathedral are all unique, and their walls are covered in frescos depicting biblical stories, most of which date from the 17th century. These paintings have a lavishly detailed style, with vibrant and gilded colours, glorifying Saints and religious characters. There are 27 chapels in total, all of which were ordered by families of the nobility and powerful corporations. When you reach the transept, we recommend you stand at its crossing so that you can see both the North and South rose windows.
The transept is flanked by a statue of Saint Denis and also of the Virgin with Child from the 14th century. A commemorative plaque in memory of the English soldiers killed during the First World War is located to the south-west. Notre-Dame’s transept and its crossing give the cathedral the shape of a Latin cross, which itself is oriented to the southeast, towards Jerusalem. Beneath the north and south rose windows are enormous stained glass windows which allow a natural, warm light to permeate the crossing of the transept.
The transept offers the best views to the South and North rose windows.
The Rose Windows of the Transept
The North rose window:
Unlike the South rose window, the North one has maintained nearly all of its original stained glass windows from the 13th century. The centre features the Virgin Mary surrounded by the judges, kings, great priests and the prophets of the Old Testament.
The South rose window:
The South rose window endured the Revolution, various fires and wars. Its original stained glass windows no longer exist but were replaced by Viollet-le-Duc from 1845 onwards. They depict Jesus in the centre of the window, surrounded by saints, apostles and angels.
The choir is located behind the transept, is surrounded by a double ambulatory and is shielded from the rest of the building by a Gothic rood screen. This jube served as a separation between the sanctified area reserved for the clergy on one side and the area used by the non-religious on the other. In the Middle Ages, the nave of some Gothic cathedrals often housed a kind of covered market for merchants and their clientele, and sometimes housed the rather unusual smells of animals, urine or faeces – remembering that prostitutes used to offer their services in the corners of the nave!
Several Bishops and Archbishops are buried in the choir’s chapels, which are much more lavishly decorated than those found in the nave. Most of the frescos depict Jesus’ life. The choir features gilded stalls designed for the church choirs who sing hymns at services and religious celebrations.
The Stained-Glass Windows
Notre Dame’s stained glass windows depict religious stories. Some of the windows were destroyed during the World Wars, but most of them are the originals from the Middle Ages. These windows are a testament to the remarkable elegance and finesse of Gothic art.
The chandeliers surrounding the cathedral’s ambulatory are located at the entrance to the chapels and are an important religious symbol, as they represent the light of God. They were known as “Crowns of Light” during the Middle Ages and were of great significance in churches and cathedrals. Restorations are currently being undertaken on the Great Chandelier which normally hangs at the crossing of the transept.
The Great Organ
Notre-Dame’s great organ – which is still there today – is located in front of the large rose window of the facade and was extended in 1992. The original organ was installed in Notre Dame during the Middle Ages (12th century), but its musical capacity was no longer enough for the cathedral. The contemporary organ features five keyboards, one hundred and nine stops, and almost eight thousand pipes. According to the website for Notre-Dame, it is the largest organ in France.
The Buttresses and the Chevet of Notre-Dame
After a long and informative exploration of Notre-Dame, we recommend finishing your visit with a tour of the area outside the building, passing through the gardens that line the Seine.
Notre-Dame’s impressive buttresses are clearly visible on the outside of the Eastern facade. The view from Jean XXIII Square allows visitors to appreciate the way in which the buttresses, stained glass windows and the spire complement each other beneath the shape of the dome. These masonry arches take the lateral thrust of the archways of the groined vaults and transport them towards the abutment pillar. The pillars’ pinnacles are extraordinary and often very extravagant. Even though they appear to play a purely decorative role with their beautiful flowers, these pieces of stone or lead have the very important and practical function of stabilisation, through giving extra weight to the buttresses. Until the construction of cathedral Saint-Etienne de Bourges, the buttresses were made up of only one giant piece. It was in Bourges that the buttress became one of the main characteristics of Gothic architecture, and it is this aspect of the architecture and construction which gives the impression that the cathedral is suspended from Heaven.
Jean XXII Square
Jean XXII Square is a peaceful park that is crowned by a neo-Gothic fountain and is located at the chevet of Notre Dame.
With any luck, you will be able to listen to a jazz group while you explore. Heading towards Ile St Louis, the jazz music will greet you once again at the junction of the Square de Ile-de-France (which was used as a morgue and a walking area from the Napoleonic era until 1910!) and the pedestrian-only Pont St Louis (St Louis Bridge). Your next step will undoubtedly be a well-earned rest at the Berthillon ice creamery on Ile St Louis!
Christmas at Notre-Dame
One of the most famous Nativity Scenes in Paris is found inside the Notre-Dame cathedral and attracts thousands of visitors from the first Sunday of Advent to Candlemas. Find out more about the Nativity Scene at Notre-Dame cathedral.
Another simple Nativity Scene is set under the main portal of Notre-Dame:
Tradition has it that a great Christmas tree stands in front of Notre-Dame every year.