Notre Dame is a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. It’s the cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris (the church containing the official chair of the Archbishop of Paris). The cathedral treasury houses a reliquary with the alleged Crown of Thorns.
The cathedral is renowned for its Lent sermons started by the famous Dominican Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire in the 1860s. In recent years, however, an increasing number of them have been given by leading public figures and state-employed academics.
Because of its beauty, history and global fame, Notre-Dame has featured prominently in the arts across multiple genres.
• Victor Hugo used it as the primary setting of his legendary novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. All films based on the book are made there.
• The American film “Sergeant York” mentions the cathedral in narration by the eponymous, derived from the real Alvin York’s letters home to his family during WWI, in one of which he mentions, ‘They have a church here you could plant a crop of corn in.’
• The 2008 action film “Taken”, starring Liam Neeson, features Neeson’s character standing atop one of the bell towers while he makes a phone call.
• Featured in the Ray Bradbury’s novel, “The Halloween Tree”.
There are five bells at Notre Dame. The great bourdon bell, Emmanuel, is located in the South Tower, weighs just over 13 tonnes, and tolls to mark the hours of the day and for various occasions and services, ringing in a resounding E♭. This bell is always rung first, at least 5 seconds before the rest. There are four additional bells on wheels in the North Tower, which are swing chimed. These bells are rung for various services and festivals. The bells were once rung manually, but are currently moved by electric motors. When it was discovered that the size of the bells could cause the entire building to vibrate, threatening its structural integrity, they were taken out of use. The bells also have external hammers for tune playing from a small clavier.
Notre Dame is considered as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. During the construction, a number of architects worked on it, hence the differing styles at different heights of the west front and towers. The construction of the level with the rose window and the halls beneath the towers was overseen by four successive architects.
To begin the construction, the bishop had several houses demolished and a new road built in order to transport materials for the rest of the cathedral. Construction began in 1163, during the reign of Louis VII, and opinion differs as to whether Bishop Sully or Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone of the cathedral. However, both were present at the ceremony in question. Bishop de Sully went on to devote most of his life and wealth to the cathedral’s construction. Construction of the choir took from 1163 until around 1177 and the new High Altar was consecrated in 1182. After Bishop Maurice de Sully’s death in 1196, his successor, Eudes de Sully (no relation) oversaw the completion of the transepts and pressed ahead with the nave, which was nearing completion at the time of his own death in 1208. By this stage, the western facade had also been laid out, though it was not completed until around the mid-1240s.
The most significant change in design came in the middle of the 13th century, when the transepts were remodelled in the latest Rayonnant style; in the late 1240s Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept, topped off by a spectacular rose window. Shortly afterwards (from 1258) Pierre de Montreuil executed a similar scheme on the south transept. Both these transept portals were richly embellished with sculptures; the south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and of various local saints, while the north portal features the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus in the tympanum, with a highly influential statue of the Virgin and the Child in the trumeau.
Notre Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttresses (arched exterior supports). The building was not originally designed to include them around the choir and nave. After the construction began and the thinner walls, popularized in the Gothic style, grew higher, stress fractures began to occur as the walls pushed outward. In response, the cathedral’s architects built supports around the outside walls, and later additions continued the pattern with many small statues placed around outside. Among these are the famous gargoyles. These were originally coloured, as was most of the exterior. The paint has worn off, but the grey stone was once covered with vivid colours. The cathedral was essentially completed in 1345.
A controversial restoration program was initiated in 1845, overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The restoration lasted twenty five years and included the construction of a flèche (a type of spire) as well as the addition of the chimeras on the Galerie des Chimères.
In 1991, a major program of maintenance and restoration was initiated, including the cleaning and restoration of old sculptures. It was supposed to end in 2001, but the works took much longer.
The construction started in the second half of the 12th century. Its aim was to replace the former cathedral of Saint-Étienne, which was demolished by order of Bishop Maurice de Sully. When the Notre Dame cathedral was completed, it became the place of royal weddings, coronations and requiem masses of the good and the great.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots damaged the elements of the cathedral, considering them idolatrous. During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the cathedral underwent major alterations as part of an ongoing attempt to modernise cathedrals throughout Europe. A colossal statue of St Christopher, standing against a pillar near the western entrance and dating from 1413, was destroyed in 1786. Tombs and stained glass windows were spared this fate, as were the north and south rose windows.
The cathedral suffered desecration during the radical phase of the French Revolution in the 1790s, when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. Fifty years later, an extensive restoration supervised by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc removed remaining decoration, returning the cathedral to an ‘original’ Gothic state.
In 1793, during the French Revolution, the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. During that time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The statues of biblical kings of Judah (erroneously thought to be kings of France), located on a ledge on the facade of the cathedral, were beheaded. Many of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby and are on display at the Musée de Cluny. For a time, Virgin Mary was replaced by the Lady Liberty on several altars. The cathedral’s great bells managed to avoid being melted down. The cathedral itself came to be used for storing food.
World War II caused more damage. Several of the stained glass windows on the lower tier were hit by stray bullets. These were remade after the war, but now sport a modern geometrical pattern, not the old scenes of the Bible.
In the night of 24 August 1944, as the Île de la Cité was taken by an advance column of French and Allied armoured troops and elements of the Resistance, it was the tolling of the Emmanuel that announced to the city that its liberation was underway.
The organ has 7,800 pipes (900 classified as historical), 111 stops, five 56-key manuals and a 32-key pedalboard. In December 1992, a two year restoration ended with a full computerisation of the organ, as well as a number of additions, such as two further horizontal en chamade reed stops.
Though several organs were installed in the cathedral over time, the earliest ones were inadequate for the building. The first noteworthy organ was finished in the 18th century by the famous builder François-Henri Clicquot. Some of Clicquot’s original pipework in the pedal division continues to sound from the organ today. The organ was almost completely rebuilt and expanded in the 19th century by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
The position of titular organist (‘head’ or ‘chief’ organist) at Notre-Dame is considered one of the most prestigious organist posts in France, along with the post of titular organist of Saint Sulpice in Paris, which houses Cavaillé-Coll’s largest instrument.
Among the best-known organists at Notre Dame was Louis Vierne, who held this position from 1900 to 1937. Under his tenure, the Cavaillé-Coll organ was modified in its tonal character, notably in 1902 and thirty years later. Pierre Cochereau, who held the post between 1955 and 1984, initiated further alterations (many of which had already been planned by Louis Vierne), including the electrification of the action. The original Cavaillé-Coll console, which is now located near the organ loft, was replaced by a new console in the Anglo-American style.
After Cochereau’s sudden death in 1984, four new titular organists were appointed at Notre Dame in 1985: Jean-Pierre Leguay, Olivier Latry, Yves Devernay (who died in 1990), and Philippe Lefebvre This was reminiscent of the 18th-century practice of the cathedral having four titular organists, each one playing for three months of the year. Since 2010 the organ has also been played by Thijs Sandman, a former student of Olivier Latry.
Arguably the most beautiful monument dedicated to God by the human kind. The enormous statues, strained glass-windows, the jewelry and reliquary, all carry me in a holy place while eager to see the Hunched sneaking to admire his mesmerizing gypsy-girl…