West Facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

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April 15. 2019 – A fire broke out at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and spread rapidly across the building. Within a few hours the spire and roofs sadly collapsed. Fortunately the West Facade of Notre-Dame was spared. While travelling in Lorraine, we watched the entire tragedy on TV and were just speechless!

As you can imagine, 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 we’re writing 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!


The West facade of Notre-Dame cathedral is a remarkable Gothic masterpiece of simplicity and harmony. Architect Le Corbusier described the Notre-Dame’s facade as a ‘pure creation of the spirit’. More than 13 million visitors come each year to the parvis to admire the famous honey-toned facade with its stone architecture and sculpture.


Description of the West Facade of Notre-Dame

The West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The facade is 41 metre wide and includes four powerful buttresses and three portals. The West Facade of Notre-Dame cathedral took less a century to be built. Construction started in 1200 under the direction of Paris’ bishop Eudes de Sully.

The imposing western facade of the cathedral is a harmonious ensemble based on an play between vertical and horizontal lines:

  • four powerful buttresses rise to the towers as an attempt to reach towards heaven whilst
  • two wide horizontal strips seem to bring the sanctuary made by men down to earth.

The height between the ground to the base of the towers is of 43 metres and includes many stages that carry a symbolic meaning.

The facade is governed by a series of squares and circles, bearing symbolic significance.

The square refers to limited created space whilst the circle is about the boundless, that is the perfect figure without beginning or end – the image of God.


The West Portals of Notre-Dame

The portals, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The portals, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The three portals of the Facade of Notre-Dame are not identical but all are decorated with a multitude of characters.

  • The larger one is the Portal of the Last Judgment at the centre.
  • To the left (North) is the Portal of the Virgin .
  • To the right (South) is the Portal of St. Anne.

Four buttresses support the facade, two for each tower, and frame the three portals. On them are niches housing large statues restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. They are from left (North) to right (South):

  • St. Stephen,
  • St. Denis,
  • the allegories of the Synagogue and the Church.

Portal of the Last Judgment (centre)

The central portal was built in the 1220s-1230s and was the last of the portals to be completed. It underwent two alterations in the 18th century and a complete restoration by Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century.

The door-jamb

The door-jamb statues represent:

  • on the left St. Bartholomew, St. Simon, St. James the Less, St. Andrew, St. John and St. Peter, and
  • on the right St. Paul, St. James the Greater, St. Thomas, St. Philip, St. Jude and St. Matthew.
The trumeau

The trumeau houses a statue of a ‘Beau Dieu’ (a Christ teaching).

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The doors and lintels

The beautiful doors with their wrought-iron strap hinges and arabesques were restored in the 19th century.

Under the tympanum are two lintels with two friezes.

The lower lintel shows the resurrection of the dead and on the upper lintel archangel Michael is weighing their souls. The good souls are led to the left (towards Heaven, that is Christ’s right) and the condemned are directed to the right by a devil (to hell).

The Upper Frieze, Tympanum Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

The Upper Frieze, Tympanum Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

The tympanum

The sculptures on the tympanum depict the Last Judgment from the Gospel of Matthew and reveals Christ seating on the throne of glory. The wounds on his side and on his hands and feet are a reminder of the Passion.

An angel on his right holds the spear and the nails of the Cross. Another angel on Christ’s left is seen holding the Cross. On either side of Jesus, Mary and John are praying for the lost souls.

The tympanum of the Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

The tympanum of the Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

The archivolts

The archivolts include a multitude of saints (angels, patriarchs, prophets, doctors of the church, martyrs and virgins) that represent the Heavenly Court. Hell is present but takes up a very small space at the bottom of the four last arches. The fifth arch shows a crowned and chubby devil crushing three damned souls: a rich man, a bishop and a king.

The tympanum of the Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

The tympanum of the Portal of Last Judgment Notre-Dame © French Moments

Archivolts of the Last Judgment Portal © French Moments

Archivolts of the Last Judgment Portal © French Moments


Portal of the Virgin (left)

Tympanum Portal of the Virgin, Notre-Dame © French Moments

Tympanum Portal of the Virgin, Notre-Dame © French Moments

The left portal (North) of the Facade of Notre-Dame was built in the 1210s-1220s and is the only one to be topped by a triangular gable. It shows the death of Mary, her assumption to heaven and her glorious coronation.

The door-jamb

The door-jamb features full-size statues.

  • On the left: Emperor Constantine, an angel, Saint Denis holding his head, and another angel.
  • On the right: St. John the Baptist, St. Stephen, St. Genevieve and Pope St. Sylvester.

Destroyed in 1793 during the French Revolution, they were replaced by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

The Statues of the Portal of the Virgin, Notre Dame de Paris © French Moments

The Statues of the Portal of the Virgin, Notre Dame de Paris © French Moments

The trumeau

The trumeau between the two doors has a statue of a Virgin with Child. The group is crowned by a canopy that represents the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Ark of Covenant.

Underneath the trumeau is a beautiful bas-relief depicting the Original Sin with Adam, Eve and Lilith the serpent.

The lintels

The lower lintel of the tympanum shows three prophets on the left and three Old Testament kings on the right, holding phylacteries.

The upper lintel depicts Mary lying on her death bed, surrounded by Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. Two angels at Mary’s head and feet are about to lift her to heaven.

The tympanum

The centre of the tympanum shows Mary in Heaven, seated with her Son on the throne. Jesus is seen blessing her and giving her a sceptre. At the same time she is being crowned by an angel.

Tympanum Portal of the Virgin, Notre-Dame © French Moments

Tympanum Portal of the Virgin, Notre-Dame © French Moments

The archivolts

The four successive archivolts are populated with characters of the Heavenly court witnessing the coronation: angels, patriarchs, kings and prophets.


Portal of St. Anne (right)

Tympanum Portal of St. Anne, Notre-Dame © French Moments

Tympanum Portal of St. Anne, Notre-Dame © French Moments

The right portal (South) dates from around 1200.

The portal shows scenes from the childhood of Jesus from the Annunciation of Mary to the Adoration of the Magi.

The trumeau

The trumeau between the two doors has a statue of St. Marcel, a bishop of Paris in the 5th century. He is depicted with his crosier into a dragon’s head.

The door-jamb

The door-jamb houses full-size statues. On the left: a king, the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and St. Peter. On the right: St. Paul, King David, Bathsheba and a king. Destroyed in 1793 during the French Revolution, they were replaced by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

The doors

The two fine wrought-iron doors dates back the 13th century.

The tympanum

The tympanum has a magnificent Virgin with Child in the middle. It seems that these very old statues of Romanesque style came from the church of St. Mary which was dismantled when the choir was expanded. Mary is seen seated on a throne under a canopy wearing a crown and a sceptre. On her knee, Jesus holds the books of the Law. To the left of the throne stand an angel, the bishop of Paris and maybe his treasurer. To the right is another angel and a king of France.

Tympanum Portal of St. Anne, Notre-Dame © French Moments

Tympanum Portal of St. Anne, Notre-Dame © French Moments

The lintels

Under the tympanum are two lintels with two friezes. The lower frieze tells the story of the marriage of Joachim and Anne and the marriage of Mary and Joseph. The upper frieze shows scenes from the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Epiphany.

The archivolts

Above the tympanum, the archivolts depict the heavenly court (angels, kings, prophets and elders of the church) singing praise to God.


The Gallery of Kings of the Facade of Notre-Dame

The Kings' gallery, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The Kings’ gallery, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The central part of the Facade of Notre-Dame includes the Gallery of Kings, the Rose Window and the Gallery of Chimeras.


The Gallery of Kings

The gallery of kings is a row of 28 statues representing each one of the kings of Judah, descendants of Abraham and human ancestors of Mary and Jesus. The original statues were painted and added to the facade in the 13th century. They were mistaken for representing the kings of France which led them to be beheaded and taken away from the facade at the French Revolution.

In the mid-19th century, architect Viollet-le-Duc restored the empty gallery and added new statues sculpted by Geoffroi-Dechaume.

In 1977, 143 remains of the statues were discovered during work in the Chaussée d’Autin. They can be seen at the Middle-Ages Museum (Hôtel de Cluny).

The Gallery of Kings, Notre-Dame © French Moments

The Gallery of Kings, Notre-Dame © French Moments


The Virgin’s Balcony

The rose window, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The rose window, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The statue dedicates the whole West facade to the Virgin. It is a copy of the original Virgin with Child ordered by Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century.

Virgin with Child, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

Virgin with Child, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments


The West rose window

The rose window of the West Facade of Notre-Dame is 9.60 metres in diameter. This is the oldest rose window installed in the cathedral. The window dates from 1225 and forms a halo above the Virgin with Child statue placed in front of it.

It has retained from the Middle-Ages its original glass and tracery. The rose window depicts symbolic scenes from the Zodiacs and the Labors of the Months.

Since 1730, the interior view has been blocked by the great organ case.

The West Rose Window, Notre Dame de Paris © French Moments

The West Rose Window, Notre Dame de Paris © French Moments

On the balustrade to the left and right of the rose window stand the statues of Adam and Eve which were added by Viollet-le-Duc.


The Colonnade

The colonnade, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The colonnade, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

Between the West rose window and the Galerie des Chimères is a colonnade linking the two towers.

The colonnade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The colonnade of Notre-Dame © French Moments


Galerie des Chimères

The chimères, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The chimères, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The Grand Gallery, also known as the Chimeras Gallery (Galerie des Chimères) connects the South and North towers. In the mid-19th century, Viollet-le-Duc placed there a group of chimeras which did not exist in the Middle-Ages.


The Towers of Notre-Dame

The towers, West Façade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The towers, West Facade of Notre-Dame © French Moments

The towers are not exactly identical. The North tower is slightly stronger and larger than the South Tower.

It seems that from medieval documents it was planned to crown the towers by spires. During its restoration of Notre-Dame in the mid-19th century, architect Viollet-le-Duc did not follow the initial project and Notre-Dame was left without spires. Both towers reach a height of 69 metres.


Notre-Dame’s South Tower

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The South Tower houses the enormous bell ‘Emmanuel’ accessible via wooden stairs. Notre-Dame’s biggest and oldest bell was cast in 1631.

Legend has it that Parisians threw their jewels and gold in the molten metal to cast the bell and it is thanks to these 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 was accessible to the public before the great fire of April 2019.


Notre-Dame’s North Tower

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The North Tower was completed in 1240 and its counterpart, the South Tower in 1250. Unlike the South Tower, it was not open to the public before the Great Fire of April 2019.


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For more info about Notre-Dame cathedral, check out the official website.

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

5 Comments

  1. The photos of the left tympanum and the right tympanum of the west facade of Notre Dame are switched, and should be corrected. For everything else, THANK YOU! This web site was very helpful for me to figure out what all my photos are!

  2. It’s not proper to call it “her ascension to Heaven” in reference to Virgin Mary, it’s called assumption, not ascension.

  3. June DUMANHUG on

    Hello. May i know if there exist a sculpture in Notre Dame Paris about two men kissing? I can’t find it in the last judgment.

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