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"Each face, each stone of this venerable monument is not only a page of
the history of the country, but also of the history of knowledge and art....
Time is the architect, the people are the builder."
– Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris.

History of Notre-Dame de Paris

{noh'-truh dahm duh pah-ree'}

The Gothic loftiness of Notre-Dame dominates the Seine and the Ile-de-la-Cité as well as the history of Paris. On the spot where this majestic cathedral now stands, the Romans had built a temple to Jupiter, which was followed by a Christian basilica and then a Romanesque church (the Cathedral of St. Etienne, founded by Childebert in 528).

Notre-Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris
seen from quai de Montebello

Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, decided to build a new cathedral for the expanding population, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Although construction started in 1163, it was not completed until roughly 180 years later in about 1345. Built in an age of illiteracy, the cathedral retells the stories of the Bible in its portals, paintings, and stained glass.

On completion of the choir in 1183, work was begun on the nave and completed c.1208, followed by the west front and towers c.1225-1250. A series of chapels were added to the nave during the period 1235-50, and to the apse during 1296-1330 (Pierre de Chelles and Jean Ravy). Transept crossings were built in 1250-67 by Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil (also the architect of the Sainte-Chapelle). The six-part rib vaults and the thin elements articulating the wall are typically Early Gothic.

The appearance of the interior was radically transformed in the mid-13th century when the small clerestory windows typical of the Early Gothic style were enlarged downward and filled with High Gothic tracery. The enlargement caused the removal of the unusual triforium. Originally the interior had the four-story elevation common to many Early Gothic churches, and the triforium had large round openings instead of the normal arcades.

  Frontal view of Notre-Dame
Frontal view
seen from the
place du Parvis.
© Archive Photos

Seen from the exterior, the building appears to be High Gothic. Notable features include the profusion of colonnettes and tracery screens, the horizontal and vertical ordering of the facades, the imposing size of the rose windows, and the delicacy of the flying buttresses.

Notre-Dame has had an eventful history over the centuries. Crusaders prayed here before leaving on their holy wars, and polyphonic music developed in the cathedral. Notre-Dame was pillaged during the French revolution, as were a number of other cathedrals throughout France (witness the beheaded saints at the Cathédrale St-Etienne in Bourges, for example): Citizens mistook statues of saints above the portals on the west front for representations of their kings, and, in the midst of their revolutionary fervor, took them down. (Some of these statues were found in the 1970s, almost two hundred years later, in the Latin Quarter.) Many of the cathedral's other treasures were either destroyed or plundered – only the great bells avoided being melted down. Revolutionaries dedicated the cathedral first to the cult of Reason, and then to the cult of the Supreme being. The church interior was used as a warehouse for the storage of food.

It was also here that Napoléon, wishing to emphasize the primacy of the state over the church, crowned himself emperor, and then crowned Joséphine, his Martinique-born wife, as his empress. (The job would normally have been done by an archbishop. Pope Pius VII, there for the occasion, raised no objections.)

During the 19th century, writer Victor Hugo and artists such as Ingres called attention to the dangerous state of disrepair into which the Cathedral had fallen, thus raising a new awareness of its artistic value. Whereas 18th-century neoclassicists had virtually ignored the creations of the Middle Ages – and had even replaced the stained glass at Notre-Dame with normal glass – the 19th-century romantics saw that remote period with new eyes and greater appreciation.

Nighttime view of Notre-Dame
Nighttime view,
with bateaux-mouches
plying the Seine.
© 1997 Index Stock Photography

In his restoration of the cathedral (begun in 1844 and lasting 23 years), Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc reinstated the triforium and small clerestory windows in the eastern bay of the nave. The sculpture on the west facade, badly damaged during the French Revolution, was also restored during this period.

Besides bringing new life to the rose windows and the statues, Viollet-le-Duc combined scientific research with his own very personal creative ideas and designed Notre-Dame's spire, a new feature of the building, and the sacristy. Also in the 19th century, Baron Haussmann (Napoléon III's urban planner) evicted those Parisians whose houses cluttered the Cathedral's vicinity. The houses were torn down to permit better views of the edifice.

During the Commune of 1871, the Cathedral was nearly burned by the Communards – and some accounts suggest that indeed a huge mound of chairs was set on fire in its interior. Whatever happened, Notre-Dame survived the Commune essentially unscathed.

Yet it is the art of Notre-Dame, rather than its history, that still awes. The west front contains 28 statues representing the monarchs of Judea and Israel. The three portals depict, from left to right, the Last Judgment; the Madonna and Child; St. Anne, the Virgin's mother; and Mary's youth until the birth of Jesus. The interior, with its slender, graceful columns, is impressive – there is room for as many as 6,000 worshipers. The three rose windows – to the west, north, and south – are masterful, their colors a glory to behold on a sunny day.

  Painstaking restoration of Notre-Dame
restoration work
in progress.
© 1998 Reuters Limited
All Rights Reserved.

In 1768, geographers decided that all distances in France would be measured from Notre-Dame. One hundred and seventy-six years later, when Paris was liberated during World War II, General de Gaulle rushed to the cathedral after his return, to pray in thanksgiving. In many ways, Notre-Dame was and still is the center of France.

Excavations under the parvis have revealed traces of Notre-Dame's history from Gallo-Roman times to the 19th century. Vestiges of Roman ramparts, rooms heated by hypocaust (an ancient system with underground furnaces and tile flues), medieval cellars, and the foundations of a foundling hospital are displayed, as are several fascinating photographs of the surrounding neighborhood before Baron Haussmann's renovations.

Starting in 1991, a 10 year program of general maintenance and restoration was initiated. While work continues, sections of the structure are likely to be shrouded by scaffolds.

For a look at the upper parts of the church, the river, and much of Paris, climb the 387 steps to the top of one of the towers. The south tower holds Notre-Dame's 13-ton bell, which is rung on special occasions.

Chronological History of Notre-Dame

1239: The Crown of Thorns placed in the Cathedral by St. Louis during the construction of Sainte-Chapelle.
1302: Philip the Fair opens the first States General.
1430: Henri VI of England is crowned. Mary Stuart becomes Queen of France after her marriage to François II, and is crowned.
1572: Marguerite de Valois is married to the Huguenot Henri de Navarre.
Dec. 2, 1804: After the anointing by Pius VII, Napoléon seizes the crown from the pontiff and crowns first himself, then Josephine.
Aug. 26, 1944: The Te Deum Mass celebrates the liberation of Paris. (According to some accounts the Mass was interrupted by snipping from both the internal and external galleries.)
Nov. 12, 1970: The Requiem Mass of General de Gaulle is held.
May 31, 1980: After the Magnificat of this day, Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the parvis in front of the Cathedral.

The Crypt of Notre-Dame

At the front of Notre-Dame lies a plaza. Until the mid 60s, this site was a warren of buildings dating back to the middle ages, making it difficult to view the Cathedral in all of its glory. When the buildings were finally demolished, archeologists discovered many remains of life from Gallo-Roman days to the 19th century.

In 1965 an excavation was begun, overseen by the "Direction des Antiquités Historiques de I'Île de France" (M. Fleury, director) and the "Commission du Vieux Paris". A museum, the Archeological Crypt of the Parvis of Notre-Dame, was erected by the city of Paris in order to house these vestiges of earlier civilization. It is the largest structure of its type in the world (total length 118 m, beam length 12 m).

Brass strips have been imbedded in the surface of the plaza to mark the location where the streets and buildings were removed.

Location: 6, place du Parvis Notre Dame, Île de la Cité, 75004 Paris. (see map)
Phone: 01-42-34-56-10. Fax: 01-40-51-70-98. E-mail:
Web site:
See also: Notre-Dame de Paris 2013, celebrating the cathedral's 850th anniversary.
Admission: • Cathedral – free (although charges may apply to attend certain special events).
  • Crypt – €5.00 adults, €3.50 reduced rate (ages 60+, teachers, unemployed), €2.50/youth (ages 14-26), children free (ages 0-13); note: the Crypt has no disabled access; see web site.
  • Tower – €10.00 adults, €8.00 reduced rate, €8.00/person group rate (20+), free under age 18; note: the Tower has no disabled access, no toilets or elevator (there are 422 steps to climb); tower entrance is at 1, rue du Cloître; see web site.
Hours: • Cathedral open daily 8:00 a.m. - 6:45 p.m. (Sat. - Sun. until 7:15 p.m.).
  • Crypt, Tues. - Sun. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., closed on Mondays & public holidays.
  • Tower, 1 Apr. - 30 Sept. daily 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. (until 11 p.m. Sat. - Sun., June - Aug.); 1 Oct. - 31 Mar., 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.; closed Jan. 1, May 1, Dec. 25.
  • Museum, Wed. & Sat. - Sun. 2:30 - 6 p.m.; • Treasury, Mon. - Sat. 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Services: Six masses are celebrated on Sunday, four on weekdays and one on Saturday. Morning prayer is held on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. Evensong takes place Mon. - Fri., 5:45 - 6:10 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m.
Calendar: Consult web site for schedule of daily services, concerts, organ recitals, films, and guided visits in various languages.
Métro: Cité (line 4). RER-B,C: Saint-Michel - Notre-Dame. Buses: 21, 24, 27, 38, 47, 85, 96.

Edited by Ian C. Mills, © 1999- – All Rights Reserved.

Bibliography: Ronald E. Malmstrom, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v9.0.1., 1997, Grolier Interactive Inc., Danbury, CT). French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Jean Bony, 1985, Univ. of California Press. An Architect's Paris, Thomas Carlson-Reddig, 1993, Bulfinch Architecture/Travel Series (out-of-print). Notre Dame of Paris, Allan Temko, 1955 - repr. 1990, (out-of-print). The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, Otto von Simpson, 1988, Princeton Univ. Press. The Guide to the Architecture of Paris, Norval White, 1992, Charles Scribner's Sons/Macmillan Publishing Co., New York (out-of-print). The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church 1130-1530, Christopher Wilson, 1992, Thames & Hudson. Paris From $70 A Day, Jeanne Oliver, 1998, Macmillan Travel, A Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company, New York. Fodor's 99 Paris, Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc., published in the U.S. by Random House, Inc., New York. The Paris Pages (web site).

Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the English title of Notre Dame de Paris (1831; Eng. trans., 1831), Victor Hugo's greatest historical romance, which set the fashion for fictional explorations of the past that characterized French romanticism. The story revolves around a beauty-and-the-beast theme, in which the selfless love of the misshapen bell ringer Quasimodo is contrasted with the corrupt lust of the cathedral's archdeacon, Claude Frollo, for the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda. Although the style is realistic, especially in the descriptions of medieval Paris and its underworld, the plot is melodramatic, with many ironic twists. Anticlerical and anti-aristocratic, the novel shows the romanticist's love for medieval grotesquerie.

Bibliography: Jane Colville Betts, Assistant Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v9.0.1., 1997, Grolier Interactive Inc., Danbury, CT).


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