The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris always makes a powerful impression to me. Well, doesn’t it look like a vessel in the shape of a cross set on the Île de la Cité? The sanctuary is considered as a leading example of French Gothic architecture. There’s so much to say about its monumental dimensions. Its fine stained-glass windows. The audacious flying buttresses. The 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.
Please note: this article was written before the great 2019 fire of the cathedral. We hope it will serve as a beautiful testimony of the lost splendour of Notre-Dame… As I’m updating this article with these lines, we can only wish the historic sanctuary will be restored in the state it was before the fire, and yes with the restauration of Viollet-le-Duc’s iconic spire!
Notre-Dame de Paris: a bit of history
The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris 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.
One of the first Gothic cathedrals
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. It had 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, Pope Alexandre III laid the foundation stone 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),
- and the western façade and its two towers (1225-1250)
In the 13th century
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.
- a rood-screen was added between the nave and the choir.
- the chapels in the ambulatory were built from 1296.
- 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.
From the Renaissance to Louis XIV
The interior decoration was first modified in the Renaissance era. At that time, many considered Gothic architecture as being barbaric and old-fashioned. Giant tapestries and wallpapers covered the walls and arcades of the church.
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 canon had a few stained-glass windows dating from the Middle-Ages removed in order to get more light inside.
Notre-Dame during the French Revolution
During the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries destroyed many symbols evoking the Old Regime. They beheaded and removed the statues of the kings of Judah (mistaken for the kings of France) while the relics were vandalised. Most of the altars were destroyed and the furnishing sold. Desecrated, Notre-Dame 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.
Notre-Dame during the 19th century
The Catholics got their cathedral back in 1802. In December 1804, Notre-Dame welcomed the coronation ceremony of Napoleon Bonaparte 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.
By 1864, the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc completed the restoration work of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which focused essentially on:
- the statuary,
- rebuilding a 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 the 20th century
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.
On April 15. 2019 a fire broke out on the roofs and spread rapidly across the building (see below). Within a few hours the spire and roofs sadly collapsed. Fortunately the overall structure of the church didn’t disintegrate but the restoration task is immense and will take years.
View this post on Instagram
Thousands of Parisians are watching in horror as a ferocious blaze devastates the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral. Firefighters battled to contain the fire, which began at 5.50pm local time. Police say it began accidentally and may be linked to building work at the cathedral. The 850-year-old gothic masterpiece had been undergoing restoration work to help it better withstand the tests of time. “There’s a feeling of total sadness and also anger", Camille, a history student who was at the scene, said. "It’s our heritage. Whether you’re Christian or not, part of our history is going up in smoke.”
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.
From the French Revolution to the 21st Century
- 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.
- 15 April 2019: great fire and partial destruction of Notre-Dame.
The Great Fire of Notre-Dame cathedral
The great fire of Notre-Dame occurred on the 15th April 2019.
Just before 6.20pm (Paris time), a fire alarm was triggered in the roof. The official report related that a guard went to the wrong place of the attic where there was no fire. About fifteen minutes later, the guards discovered the fire beneath the roof of the cathedral and firefighters arrived around 7pm.
The whole island of Ile de la Cité was evacuated by the police while white smoke rose from the roof.
The firefighters’ fight to save Notre-Dame
More than 400 firefighters worked to keep the fire under control unsuccessfully.
Just after a human chain formed to remove precious objects to safety, the spire collapsed, creating such a draft that it spread the fire to the whole attic.
In its fall, the spire broke the vaults at the crossing of the transept.
The cathedral narrowly escaped complete destruction. Indeed if the vaulting had collapsed during the fire, the walls of the nave wouldn’t have been able to stand. In turn they would have collapsed into the nave.
However the fire also reached the north tower which supported eight very heavy bells.
Had they fallen, it would have probably led to the collapse of the towers, and consequently of the entire edifice.
Therefore firefighters successfully managed to extinct the fire by 9.45pm.
What about the cathedral’s relics?
Notre-Dame cathedral is famous for its relics. They include the crown of thorns said to be the one Jesus wore on the day of his crucifixion, a purported piece of Jesus’ cross, the Tunic of St. Louis, as well as a great number of religious artwork.
Where the stunning medieval stained-glass windows destroyed?
Good news! They were not! Although lead joints in some of the 19th century windows melted, the three major rose windows from the 13th century were spared.
When when Notre-Dame Cathedral rebuilt?
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to restore the cathedral by 2024 although with the 2020 pandemic outbreak, the deadline looks extremely tight. A fundraising was organised in the aftermath of the fire with over €1 billion pledges.
There is a debate on how the restoration will be conducted. Especially if the destroyed spire will be rebuilt exactly as it was before.
It is also uncertain that the timber roof framing which dated from the Middle Ages will be restored identically or including other materials.
For example, the 1836 restoration of the roof framing of Chartres Cathedral included wrought iron trusses and copper sheeting instead of wood.
What are other consequences of Notre-Dame fire?
As a direct consequence from the fire, there was no Christmas service host in Notre-Dame cathedral. Masses had not been discontinued since the French Revolution.
The great fire of Notre-Dame: a blessing in disguise?
The catastrophe has opened a window of opportunity to a better understanding of the cathedral.
Notre-Dame has a lot of things to tell and has already started to deliver its secrets.
A very solid edifice
First, the church enjoys an incredible solidity. The medieval vaults have perfectly played their roles of firewall protection. With the collapse of the spire into the crossing, only 15% of the ceiling has been touched.
In fact, because of the big holes in the vaults, the cathedral unveils itself like never before.
We now know the thickness of the vaults – one thing we did not before.
We’ve learnt how the stones have been cut and put together during the construction of the cathedral in the Middle Ages.
All today’s survey is leading to a better understanding of the vault’s behaviour. And this will benefit to many other buildings, including bridges, tunnels, and supporting walls.
To get an idea, some historic buildings have been closed to the public because of the risk of falling stones. No surprise, the knowledge gained in studying Notre-Dame today will help restore other monuments.
It’s going to be a luminous cathedral
With the restoration work to come, the general curator of relics predicts that Notre-Dame is going to “change colour”. For until the fire, the cathedral was dusty and filthy. The work will be the opportunity to render it to its former glory, just like the spectacular restoration of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Près. For instance, the cleaning of the stained-glass windows will bring much more light than before.
I just can’t wait to visit the interior again in 4-5 years.
Prior to the installation of the 75 m tall crane, survey excavations have been done on the site. It led to the discovery of the medieval quay. The river bank was raised in the 12th century with a wall to help unloading the materials used to built Notre-Dame.
There is more to come!
This is just a snapshot of what Notre-Dame has been revealing since the great fire of April 2019. And it’s only the beginning.
One thing is certain: when restoration works will be completed, Notre-Dame will be even more glorious as it has even been before…
Let’s just hope the ‘contemporary’ touches won’t have too much visible effects as to alienate the cathedral to our memories.
Dimensions of Notre-Dame cathedral
|Height under the vault:|
|Height under the roof:|
|Height of the side aisles:|
|Height of the towers:|
|Steps up to the towers:|
|Height of the spire at the crossing:|
|Length of the nave:|
|Length of the transept:|
|Length of the choir:|
|Total length of exterior:|
|Length of West façade:|
|Width of the nave:|
|Width of the choir:|
|Width of the transept:|
|Width of the side aisles:|
|Number of columns and pillars:|
|Diameter of the north and south rose windows:|
|Diameter of the west rose window:|
Floor Map of Notre-Dame
My book recommendation!
Its name? Simply:
Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman, Publisher: Ullmann
This book has been for me a great resource that helped me better understand the Gothic movement in art from the 12th century to the Renaissance. An architectural style that first originated from France and spread all over Europe.
Over 500 pages it focuses on the development of Gothic architecture with many illustrations and photographs, but not only. I’ve also found interesting the in-depth discussion of the most diverse art forms, including painting, sculpture, metalwork and even book illumination! It also includes specific coverage of the Cathars’ Heresy and the Papal Palace in Avignon. And, of course, it mentions the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris!
This is definitely the book I recommend if – like me – you love everything about Gothic such as churches, gargoyles, stained glass, flying buttresses and so much more.
Place du Parvis and the façade of Notre-Dame
The impressive Place du Parvis is located near the entrance of Notre-Dame. In the second half of the 19th century, Baron Haussmann extended the square 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 cathedral’s 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. In 1793 the Revolutionaries decapitated all of these statues in response to their rejection of the monarchy. They wrongly believed that the statues represented the kings of France. Famous French architect Viollet-le-Duc had the statues restored.
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 Viollet-le-Duc edified 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. They are an addition of Viollet-le-Duc who wanted to recreate the mystical atmosphere of the Middle Ages in Notre-Dame. You’ll find the chimeras all along the Grande Galerie.
Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame
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!
The South Tower
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 de Paris
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.
Ridged vaults support the ceilings, 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 frescos cover their walls 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 magnificent 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.
Behind the transept is the choir. A double ambulatory surrounds it with 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. The two world wars destroyed some of the windows that date back to 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. Known as “Crowns of Light” during the Middle Ages they were of great significance in churches and cathedrals.
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 of Notre-Dame, it is the largest organ in France.
The Buttresses and the Chevet of Notre-Dame de Paris
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.
Square Jean XXIII
By the chevet of Notre-Dame extends the Square Jean XXIII. This peaceful park features a neo-Gothic fountain and remarkable trees.
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 Haussmann era until 1914!) 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 de Paris
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.
Check out the official website of Notre-Dame for more practical info (opening times, masses…).