Standing majestically on the banks of the River Seine, Notre Dame de Paris has been a focal point of Parisian life for centuries. It is one of the most iconic churches and well-known cathedrals in France. In addition, it was home to many artworks and other treasures, and has been visited by millions of people from all over the world.
So it was quite a shock when the building caught fire and was almost destroyed in April 2019. There are few buildings in Paris that mean as much to the locals as this one. It has stood witness to some of the most significant events in French history, with its two towers and front facade ingrained in our memory.
Which is not to say that that has always been the case. Notre Dame has also been a target for violence throughout its long history. It has also experienced long periods of neglect, often coming to the point of complete dilapidation. So let’s explore the history of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and get a few facts, shall we? Allons-y!
1. The idea for its construction came from Maurice de Sully.
The man most responsible for coming up with the idea of constructing Notre Dame de Paris and then overseeing its beginning construction was Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris.
Sully oversaw the construction, which began in 1163 AD and the high altar was consecrated on 19 May 1182. Bishop Maurice de Sully died in 1196, but work continued on different portions of the Cathedral under his successors for centuries.
The majority of the work was completed in 1345, but ongoing improvements have continued ever since.
2. It was built on the site of an earlier church on Ile de la Cité.
The Cathedral is located on an island in the center of Paris, called Ile de la Cité, chosen for its strategic position and defensive location. It is believed that the earliest religious building on that location was a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. This is the historical center of Paris.
After the temple to Jupiter, came a Romanesque church from the 4th century named Cathedral of Saint Étienne, until it was demolished to make way for the new cathedral.
3. It is a few meters away from the former royal residence, Palais de la Cité.
By the time construction of the Notre Dame de Paris was proposed, Ile de la Cité was the stronghold of French royalty. The descendants of King Clovis (considered the first French King) had stopped referring to themselves as the “King of the Franks“, and became the “Kings of France”.
Paris was now the capital, and their main residence, the Palais de la Cité was just steps away. Bishop Maurice de Sully convinced King Louis VII to pay the commission of the Cathedral to show France’s power. A majestic new cathedral near the palace for easy access, was meant to show the King’s power as well as his piety to God.
King Louis had previously been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, although they had no children. Eleanor and Louis had annulled their marriage a few years earlier, and she went on to marry Louis, grand rival, the English King Henry II.
4. It is named after the Virgin Mary.
The name “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady” in French, and is named after the Virgin Mary.
“That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars.”French philosopher John of Jandun, 1323 Treatise on the Praises of Paris
5. It was one of the tallest structures in Europe when it was built.
One of the first thing that strikes visitors when they see the exterior of Notre Dame is its size. The two towers at the front are 226 ft (69 metres), making it one of the tallest churches in Europe at the time.
Inside, the central part of the church towards the alter, called “the nave”, is 115 ft (35 metres) tall. However, the tallest nave in the world is the “Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais” in the nearby town of Oise, which was built 400 years later.
6. It is built in a Gothic style.
The exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most iconic and recognizable facades in all of Paris. Built in the Gothic style, the architecture is highlighted by many gargoyles and rose windows, which were added during different periods in the cathedral’s history.
It is also incredibly ornate, with intricate sculptures and mouldings covering every inch of the facade.
Inside the cathedral, the 3 levels including the nave, choir, and transept, were all built combining rib vaulting, buttresses, and pointed arches that became emblematic of the gothic style.
7. It inspired other churches around France and Europe.
Inspired by the construction of Notre Dame de Paris, several nearby cities like Reims, Chartres, Bayeux, Rouen, Amiens, Sens, Senlis, Saint-Denis, etc. also started construction on their own “Notre Dame Cathedrals”.
At the time, the towns of Bayeux and Rouen were part of the Duchy of Normandy, which was inherited by William the Conqueror‘s descendants in England. They too were inspired by Notre Dame de Paris.
When Canterbury Cathedral in England was engulfed by fire in 1174, the French master-builder who had worked on Sens Cathedral in France, was hired to reconstruct Canterbury Cathedral in the same gothic style.
8. The front of the Cathedral used to be painted.
When it was first constructed, the front of the Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris was brightly painted. Each individual statue was colored, as was much of the intricate moulding. Over time, the colors faded and were covered with pollution from the city.
9. The largest bell is named Emmanuel.
There are 5 large bells inside the towers of Notre Dame de Paris. The largest and oldest of the bells is known as the “Bourdon Emmanuel” and is located in the South tower. It was cast in 1681 and weighs 13 tonnes, producing the lowest tone.
The other four bells are located in the North Tower. Several of the other bells were out of tune and replaced in 2013, in the name of musical harmony. They chime on all sorts of special occasions and important French and Catholic holidays.
10. The Cathedral’s innovative flying buttresses have helped preserve the building.
Notre Dame cathedral is famous for its flying buttresses that jut out on either side of the building. Built in the 13th century, they are are a form of structural support that became popular in Gothic architecture.
Before the buttresses, all of the weight of the roof pressed outward and down to the walls. With the flying buttress, the weight was distributed by the ribs of the vault, meaning that the walls could be higher and thinner, and could have much larger windows.
The buttresses also have channels along the top, to act as pipes carrying rain water away from the main body of the church.
11. The Gargoyles on Notre Dame are actually rain spouts.
The exteriors of the cathedral is decorated with sculptures of a variety of creatures including the gargoyle and the chimera. While some are decorative, the gargoyles added around 1240 were the original rain spouts of the cathedral.
The rainwater runs from the roof into lead gutters, then down channels on the flying buttresses, then along a channel cut in the back of the gargoyle and out of the mouth away from the cathedral. The idea is to project the water outwards as far as possible from the buttresses, walls, and windows where it might erode the mortar binding the stone.
There were originally around 102 gargoyles, but now only 39 remain. They became popular in gothic architecture for this purpose and are seen on many other buildings of that period. The term “gargoyle” likely derives from the French word “gargouille,” which translates to “throat”, referring to the fact that they are used to divert water away from the roof.
12. The 3 Rose windows were added in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Once the flying buttresses went in, the cathedral’s three impressive stained-glass circular rose windows could be constructed to let light into the formerly dark Cathedral.
The oldest is the West rose window on the front of Notre-Dame Cathedral which was originally completed around 1225. It is the smallest and oldest of the cathedral’s three rose windows, although none of the original glass remains today.
The South rose window and North Rose windows were built in 1260. the North Rose window is the only rose window to retain its original glass, with much of the 13th century glasswork still intact.
Each window features prophets, saints, angels, kings and various holy figures. The three rosettes are considered among the greatest masterpieces of Christianity.
13. Crown of thorns went to Saint Chapelle.
By the 13th century however, Notre Dame de Paris was falling out of favor. King Louis IX, later known as Saint Louis, had for brought back the Crown of Thorns and other holy relics from the Crucifixion of Christ to France from Constantinople (today known as Turkey).
He had paid dearly for the prized artefacts, and wanted a new light and airy showpiece to show off his treasures. He commissioned the Sainte Chapelle inside the Palais de la Cité to hold the holy relics, making that his main place of worship.
With its stunning stained glass windows filling the Sainte Chapelle with light, Notre Dame de Paris seemed rather dark and gloomy.
14. The first King crowned here was a King of England.
Historically, the Kings of France were not crowned at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but a King of England was. Traditionally, the monarchs of France were crowned in the city of Reims in the Champagne region of France, since that is where Clovis was baptized into Christianity.
However, in 1431, it would be King Henry VI of England at 10 years-old who was crowned King of France at the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. It was the 100-year-war, with both the closely related French and English royalty fighting for the French crown.
Reims was in the hands of the French, while Paris had ceded to the English. Hence, it was the Notre Dame Cathedral that was used to crown young King Henry.
15. Joan of Arc was beatified here.
The English would not last long in Paris however, as a young Joan of Arc would lead the charge against the English. She died centuries earlier at the stake in Rouen, and was beatified as a Saint at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris by Pope Pius X in 1909.
A statue of Joan praying and holding a French flag continues to stand inside the Cathedral de Paris.
16. During the French Revolution, it became the “Cult of Reason”.
During the French revolution in 1789, the Catholic church was believed to be aligned with the monarchy and thus the Cathedral was ransacked. Many of its treasures and artworks were looted during this period.
Metal for making weapons was in short supply during this period, and the bells only just managed to avoid being melted down.
The cathedral began to be used as a warehouse to store food for the poor, as opposed to a “church for the rich”. Several attempts were made to “de-christianize” it by the Revolutionaries. In 1793, it was rededicated to the “Cult of Reason”, and later the “Cult of the Supreme Being”.
17. The Statues in front of Notre Dame are replicas.
Above the entrance of the Notre Dame de Paris is a series of 28 stone figures from the Old Testament and Kings of France. These are not original as they suffered greatly during the revolution. Some of these were taken from the cathedral during the French Revolution and beheaded with a guillotine.
Years later, the statues of the Kings were found buried in the courtyard of a hotel particulier (private mansion) for safekeeping, still with their heads cut off. The original heads are now kept in Musée de Cluny, about a 7 minute walk away from the cathedral.
When you see the heads at Musée Cluny, you will notice that the heads seem proportionately bigger than the bodies. This is because the statues were not built to scale since they were meant to be high up on the front of Notre Dame Cathedral, and seen from the ground.
The heads were made bigger so that from the angle on the ground, they would seem proportionate and impress all those who came to pray.
18. Napoleon Bonaparte chose to be crowned Emperor here.
A few years after the French revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. In 1804, he chose to crown himself Emperor of France inside the Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris.
While previous monarchs under the ancien régime were historically crowned in Reims, Napoleon wanted to show that this was a new era and hence decided on Notre Dame de Paris.
The Cathedral at the time was in a decrepit state. To accommodate Napoleon’s coronation, a portico was hastily built in wood, cardboard and stucco. The walls were also whitewashed and the most damaged parts hidden under silk and velvet draperies.
The coronation was conducted in the presence of Pope Pius VII, with a combination of customs and traditions from the Carolingian age and the ancien régime.
However, Napoleon did not want to show himself as subservient to the Pope (who was there under duress) and so chose to crown himself. He then turned around and crowned his wife Josephine as Empress.
19. The Royal relics were moved from Sainte Chapelle to Notre-Dame de Paris in 1804.
After Napoleon’s coronation, the holy relics were moved in 1804 to the cathedral treasury of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, to be cared for by the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.
Sainte Chapelle had been secularized by the French government by this point, so a new religious sanctuary was required. The relics were exposed for veneration by the faithful before the high alter in Notre Dame every Good Friday.
20. Victor Hugo’s book the Hunchback of Notre Dame saved the Cathedral.
By the mid-19th century, the Notre Dame Cathedral was in dire straits. The revolution and subsequent upheavals had taken its toll. During the revolution of 1830, the cathedral had suffered new attacks, with rioters destroyinng the stained glass windows and setting fires nearby.
Victor Hugo, a famous French writer as well as politician, decided to raise awareness and used the ancient Cathedral as the backdrop for his latest novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ that was released 1831.
The book became an instant classic, and fans from around the world came flocking to walk in the footsteps of the fictional Esmeralda and Quasimodo.
21. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc would conduct a massive reconstruction.
With its newfound fame, the ancient Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris got a new lease on life. Famed architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) to revitalize the Cathedral during his project to reconstruct much of Paris.
At just 30 years-old, he and fellow architect Jean-Baptiste Lassus undertook a massive renovation of the Cathedral, cleaning much of the old soot, rebuilding and restoring as much as possible.
Lassus would die a few years into the build, with Viollet-le-Duc continuing the project by himself. The face of Lassus was carved into one of the statues on Notre Dame, in tribute by Viollet-le-Duc.
Viollet-le-Duc would go on to become famous restoring the Basilica of Saint Denis, Mont Saint-Michel, Sainte-Chapelle, and the medieval fortress of Carcassonne, along with managing in the physical construction of the new gift to the Americas, the Statue of Liberty.
22. During construction, a new spire tower was added.
In addition to restoring, Viollet-le-Duc would also add decorations that he considered to be in the spirit of the original style. One of the many changes Viollet-le-Duc made was adding a taller and more ornate spire (flèche), to replace the original 13th century spire which had been removed in 1786.
A complicated structure, the new spire was completed in just 18 months. At 96 meters tall, it was taller and more strongly built to withstand the weather. It was decorated with statues of the 12 apostles, and the face of Saint Thomas bore a strong resemblance to Viollet-le-Duc, himself.
23. The Great organ has over 8000 pipes.
The Great Organ of Notre Dame de Paris has over 8,000 pipes and was built in the 18th century. The original organ was built in 1403 and was rebuilt many times with 12 pipes and some wood survive from this ancient instrument.
At the end of its most recent restoration in 2014, the air compressor was updated, the organ’s computer system was updated, 21 new stops were added, along with a new console. It now consists of approximately 8,000 pipes, five keyboards and pedals, and 109 stops and is one of the largest instruments in France.
24. The bells rung out after Paris’s liberation in 1944.
The Cathedral was under constant threat during the German occupation in WWII. When it was rumored that the German soldiers might destroy the stained glass, much of it was removed for safekeeping and then reinstalled after the war.
As the local church of Parisians, the bells of Notre Dame cathedral rang out to announce the liberation of Paris in 1944, much to the delight of the locals.
25. There is a forest attic is hidden beneath the roof.
One area that most visitors to the Cathedral don’t get to see is the forest attic underneath the roof, above the nave. It consists of a lattice of ancient beams that were added to the structure in 1220.
There are about 13,000 beams here, interlaced together to make a frame holding up the roof. Each beam comes from a single 800-year-old oak tree. It is here that the 2019 fire started, with the old wood catching fire quickly.
26. The Cathedral was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2019.
On April 15, 2019, during an ongoing restoration a fire broke out in the cathedral’s attic and forest roof. The fire destroyed most of the roof and the 19th-century spire, with debris falling onto and damaging much of the vaulting inside the Cathedral. The Collin clock installed in 1867 was also destroyed in the fire.
The two towers and its bells however did manage to survive the fire, along with many of the windows, the statutes, and the gargoyles. The Great Organ was also saved but sustained water damage during efforts to put out the blaze.
Some of the sacred objects, including the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross, and the tunic believed to have been worn by King Saint Louis all made it out of the church unscathed.
In honor of its, survival, the bells rung out again on the 1-year anniversary of the blaze. The French government has set a 5 year deadline to complete the reconstruction works, in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
27. The center of Paris is marked from here.
Today, this magnificent structure has been recognized for standing strong over the centuries as a testament to the power of human engineering and design.
Right in front of the Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris, a tiny plate engraved with a compass is marked on the ground. It is known as ‘point zéro des routes de France’ and it is from this point distances to and from Paris are measured.
So while the restoration has not yet been completed, the work is well on its way. This monument to history and religion that is, in fact, a monument to those who came before and those who will come after.
And a monument that will soon be ready to welcome visitors and the faithful again. A bientôt.