Notre Dame

The cathedral of Notre Dame stands on the site of a Christian basilica which had in turn been built on the site of a temple from the Roman era. Its construction was begun in 1163, under Bishop Maurice de Sully: first, the chancel was built, followed over the years by the nave and aisles and the facade, completed by Bishop Eudes de Sully in about 1200, the towers being finished in 1245. The architects Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil then constructed the chapels in the aisles and in the chancel.

Towards 1250 the facade of the north arm of the transept was also completed; the other, that of the south arm, was not begun until eight years later. The church could be said to be completed in 1345. In 1793 it ran the risk of being demolished; at this time, during the French Revolution, it was dedicated to the Goddess of Reason. Reconsecrated in 1802, it was the scene two years later of the coronation of Napoleon I by Pope Pius VII. It was restored by Viollet-le-Duc between 1844 and 1864.


It is divided vertically into three parts by pilasters and horizontally into three areas by its two galleries; in the lowest zone are the three portals. Above the portals runs the Gallery of the Kings, with its 28 statues representing the kings of Israel and Judea. In 1793 the people, seeing them as the hated French kings, knocked them down, but they were later put back in place. The central zone of the facade contains two great mullioned windows, on either side of a rose window measuring more than 30 feet in diameter ( 1220-1225 ).

In the center are the statues of the Virgin and Child with angels, on either side Adam and Eve. Above this part is a gallery of tightly carved arches that link the two towers at the sides; though never completed, the towers contain splendid, extremely high two-light windows. Viollet-le-Duc filled this uppermost zone with gargoyles, grotesque figures with strange and fantastic forms, projecting from pinnacles, spires, and extensions of the walls.


On this is depicted the Last Judgment: on the pier which divides it in two is the statue of Christ, while in the embrasures there are panels with the personifications of the vices and virtues and statues of the apostles. Around the curve of the arch are the Heavenly Court, Paradise, and Hell. The lunette containing the Last Judgment is divided into three parts, dominated by the figure of Christ, flanked by the Virgin, St John, and angels with symbols of the Passion. Below are the Blessed on one side and the Damned on the other. In the lower part, the Resurrection.

Right portal. Also called the Portal of St Anne, it dates from 1160-1170, with reliefs from the 12th and 13th centuries. On the dividing pier, a statue of St Marcel. In the lunette, the Virgin between two angels and at the sides Bishop Maurice de Sully and King Louis XII.
Left portal. Also called the Portal of the Virgin, it is the finest of the three. On the dividing pier, the Virgin and Child, a modern work. In the lunette above, the Death, Glorification, and Assumption of the Virgin. On the door-posts are depicted the Months of the year, in the embrasures figures of saints and angels.

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On this side of the church is the Portal of St Stephen, begun by Jean de Chelles in 1258 and completed by Pierre de Montreuil, with its splendid large rose window and another smaller one in the cusp. Here can be seen the spire, soaring above the center of the cathedral 295 feet high: it was rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc, who depicted himself among the Apostles and  Evangelists who decorate it.


Its dimensions are impressive: 427 feet long, 164 feet wide, and 115 feet high, it can contain no less than 9000 persons. The interior is divided into a nave and four aisles by cylindrical piers 16 feet in diameter, with a double ambulatory around the transept and chancel. The rose window in the facade, above the 18th-century organ, depicts the Signs of the Zodiac, the Months and the Vices and Virtues. Above the arcades runs a gallery with double openings, surmounted in turn by ample windows. The chapels following one after the other up to the transept have a wealth of works of art from the 17th and 18th centuries: outstanding are two paintings by Le Brun, the Martyrdom of St Stephen and the Martyrdom of St Andrew, in the first and second chapels on the right respectively. The two ends of the transept have splendid stained-glass windows from the 13th century.

The one in the north transept ( about 1250 ) depicts subjects from the Old Testament with the Virgin and Child in the center; the one in the south transept, restored in the 18th century, represents Christ in the act of blessing in the center, surrounded by Apostles and Martyrs, with the Wise and Foolish Virgins. After the transept comes the chancel: on the pier to the right as one enters is the celebrated statue of Notre-Dame-de-Paris ( Our Lady of Paris ), a 14th-century work once in the St-Aignan Chapel. Around the chancel are carved wooden choir stalls ( 18th century ); on the high altar, a statue of the Pieta, by Nicolas Coustou, in the center, with Louis XIII, by Guillaume Coustou, and Louis XIV, by Coysevox, at the sides.

An uncompleted marble chancel screen, decorated with reliefs ( works by Jean Ravy and Jean le Bouteiller ), separates the chancel from the ambulatory, and in the radial chapels around it are numerous tombs. On the right, between the Chapelle St-Denis and the Chapelle St-Madeleine, is the entrance to the Treasury: it contains much-sacred silverware and important relics, among them a fragment of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and the Holy Nail.


This is one of the most daring apses of the Middle Ages, with flying buttresses 50 feet long, built by Jean Ravy ( 14th century ). Next to the apse of Notre-Dame is the Square Jean XXIII: its present appearance arche and its Neo-Gothic fountain date from a reorganization project in 1844.

We now walk along the Quai aux Fleurs and Quai de Corse, where there is a picturesque and typical flower market every day, substituted on Sundays by an equally colorful bird market. Beyond the Bridge of Notre-Dame, we reach the headquarters of the Tribunal de Commerce and then the bridge called the Pont au Change, the name of which derives from the many money changers shops concentrated here in the Middle Ages.

1 thought on “Notre Dame”

  1. This Cathedral almost instantly gets me back in time when I was little, and when seeing cartoon ”Hunchback of Notre Dame”. What a great time in my life time to remember! This article have some great facts, but when it comes to Notre Dame, first thing that pops into my mind is that cartoon.

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