As the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris, Notre-Dame contains the cathedra of the Archbishop of Paris, currently Cardinal André Vingt-Trois. The cathedral treasury contains a reliquary which houses some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.
Notre-Dame de Paris (French: [nɔtʁə dam də paʁi]; meaning “Our Lady of Paris“), also known as Notre-Dame Cathedral or simply Notre-Dame, is a medieval Catholic cathedral on the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, France. The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and is among the largest and most well-known church buildings in the world. The naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture.
In the 1790s, Notre-Dame suffered desecration in the radical phase of the French Revolution when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. An extensive restoration supervised by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc began in 1845. A project of further restoration and maintenance began in 1991.
The Notre-Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. The building was not originally designed to include the flying buttresses around the choir and nave but after the construction began, the thinner walls grew ever higher and 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. The total surface area is 5,500 m² (interior surface 4,800 m²).
Many small individually crafted statues were placed around the outside to serve as column supports and water spouts. Among these are the famous gargoyles, designed for water run-off, and chimeras. The statues were originally colored as was most of the exterior. The paint has worn off. The cathedral was essentially complete by 1345. The cathedral has a narrow climb of 387 steps at the top of several spiral staircases; along the climb it is possible to view its most famous bell and its gargoyles in close quarters, as well as having a spectacular view across Paris when reaching the top.
Contemporary critical reception.
John of Jandun recognized the cathedral as one of Paris’s three most important buildings [prominent structures] in his 1323 “Treatise on the Praises of Paris”:
|“||That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels?
Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circlets, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.
|— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius|
In 1160, because the church in Paris had become the “Parish church of the kings of Europe”, Bishop Maurice de Sully deemed the previous Paris cathedral, Saint-Étienne (St Stephen’s), which had been founded in the 4th century, unworthy of its lofty role, and had it demolished shortly after he assumed the title of Bishop of Paris. As with most foundation myths, this account needs to be taken with a grain of salt; archeological excavations in the 20th century suggested that the Merovingian cathedral replaced by Sully was itself a massive structure, with a five-aisled nave and a facade some 36m across. It is possible therefore that the faults with the previous structure were exaggerated by the Bishop to help justify the rebuilding in a newer style. According to legend, Sully had a vision of a glorious new cathedral for Paris, and sketched it on the ground outside the original church.
To begin the construction, the bishop had several houses demolished and had a new road built 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 Sully or Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone of the cathedral. However, both were at the ceremony. 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 (it was normal practice for the eastern end of a new church to be completed first, so that a temporary wall could be erected at the west of the choir, allowing the chapter to use it without interruption while the rest of the building slowly took shape). 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.
Numerous architects worked on the site over the period of construction, which is evident from the differing styles at different heights of the west front and towers. Between 1210 and 1220, the fourth architect oversaw the construction of the level with the rose window and the great halls beneath the towers.
The most significant change in design came in the mid 13th century, when the transepts were remodeled 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 southern transept. Both these transept portals were richly embellished with sculpture; the south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and of various local saints, while the north portal featured the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus in the tympanum, with a highly influential statue of the Virgin and Child in the trumeau.
Timeline of construction.
- 1160 Maurice de Sully (named Bishop of Paris) orders the original cathedral demolished.
- 1163 Cornerstone laid for Notre-Dame de Paris; construction begins.
- 1182 Apse and choir completed.
- 1196 Bishop Maurice de Sully dies.
- c.1200 Work begins on western facade.
- 1208 Bishop Eudes de Sully dies. Nave vaults nearing completion.
- 1225 Western facade completed.
- 1250 Western towers and north rose window completed.
- c.1245–1260s Transepts remodelled in the Rayonnant style by Jean de Chelles then Pierre de Montreuil
- 1250–1345 Remaining elements completed.
The Archaeological Crypt of the Paris Notre-Dame (La crypte archéologique du Parvis de Notre-Dame) was created in 1965 to protect a range of historical ruins, discovered during construction work and spanning from the earliest settlement in Paris to the modern day. The crypts are managed by the Musée Carnavalet and contain a large exhibit, detailed models of the architecture of different time periods, and how they can be viewed within the ruins. The main feature still visible is the under-floor heating installed during the Roman occupation.
Alterations, vandalism, and restorations.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots damaged features of Notre-Dame, considering them idolatrous. During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the cathedral underwent major alterations as part of an ongoing attempt to modernize 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 destroyed. The north and south rose windows were spared this fate, however.
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 this time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The 13th century spire was torn down and the statues of the 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, Lady Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral’s great bells managed to avoid being melted down. The cathedral came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food.
A controversial restoration program was initiated in 1845, overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet Le Duc was responsible for the restorations of several dozen castles, palaces and cathedrals across France. The restoration lasted twenty five years and included a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the flèche (a type of spire), as well as the addition of the chimeras on the Galerie des Chimères. Viollet le Duc always signed his work with a bat, the wing structure of which most resembles the Gothic vault (see Château de Roquetaillade).
The Second World War 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 1991, a major program of maintenance and restoration was initiated, which was intended to last ten years, but was still in progress as of 2010, the cleaning and restoration of old sculptures being an exceedingly delicate matter. Circa 2014, much of the lighting was upgraded to LED lighting.
Organ and organists.
Though numerous organs have been installed in the cathedral over time, the earliest models were inadequate for the building. The first more noted organ was finished in the 18th century by the noted 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; French: titulaires des grands orgues) 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, Cavaillé-Coll’s largest instrument.
The organ has 7,374 pipes, with ca 900 classified as historical. It has 110 real stops, five 56-key manuals and a 32-key pedalboard. In December 1992, a two-year restoration of the organ was completed that fully computerized the organ under three LANs (Local Area Networks). The restoration also included a number of additions, notably two further horizontal reed stops en chamade in the Cavaille-Coll style. The Notre-Dame organ is therefore unique in France in having five fully independent reed stops en chamade.
Among the best-known organists at Notre-Dame de Paris 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 1932. Léonce de Saint-Martin held the post between 1932 and 1954. Pierre Cochereau initiated further alterations (many of which were already planned by Louis Vierne), including the electrification of the action between 1959 and 1963. The original Cavaillé-Coll console, (which is now located near the organ loft), was replaced by a new console in Anglo-American style and the addition of further stops between 1965 and 1972, notably in the pedal division, the recomposition of the mixture stops, a 32′ plenum in the Neo-Baroque style on the Solo manual, and finally the adding of three horizontal reed stops “en chamade” in the Iberian 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.
The cathedral has 10 bells. The largest, Emmanuel, original to 1681, is located in the south tower and weighs just over 13 tons and is tolled to mark the hours of the day and for various occasions and services. This bell is always rung first, at least 5 seconds before the rest. Until recently, there were four additional 19th-century bells on wheels in the north tower, which were swing chimed. These bells were meant to replace nine which were removed from the cathedral during the Revolution and were rung for various services and festivals. The bells were once rung by hand before electric motors allowed them to be rung without manual labor. 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 had external hammers for tune playing from a small clavier.
On 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 under way.
In early 2012, as part of a €2 million project, the four old bells in the north tower were deemed unsatisfactory and removed. The plan originally was to melt them down and recast new bells from the material. However, a legal challenge resulted in the bells being saved in extremis at the foundry. As of early 2013, they are still merely set aside until their fate is decided. A set of 8 new bells was cast by the same foundry, Cornille-Havard, in Normandy that had cast the four in 1856. At the same time, a much larger bell called Marie was cast in the Netherlands—it now hangs with Emmanuel in the south tower. The 9 new bells, which were delivered to the cathedral at the same time (31 January 2013), are designed to replicate the quality and tone of the cathedral’s original bells.
Under a 1905 law, Notre Dame de Paris is among seventy churches in Paris built before that year that are owned by the French State. While the building itself is owned by the state, the Catholic Church is the designated beneficiary, having the exclusive right to use it for religious purpose in perpetuity. The archdiocese is responsible for paying the employees, security, heating and cleaning, and assuring that the cathedral is open for free to visitors. The archdiocese does not receive subsidies from the French State.
- 1185: Heraclius of Caesarea calls for the Third Crusade from the still-incomplete cathedral.
- 1239: The Crown of Thorns is placed in the cathedral by St. Louis during the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle.
- 1302: Philip the Fair opens the first States-General.
- 16 December 1431: Henry VI of England is crowned King of France.
- 1450: Wolves of Paris are trapped and killed on the parvis of the cathedral.
- 7 November 1455: Isabelle Romée, the mother of Joan of Arc, petitions a papal delegation to overturn her daughter’s conviction for heresy.
- 1 January 1537: James V of Scotland is married to Madeleine of France
- 24 April 1558: Mary, Queen of Scots is married to the Dauphin Francis (later Francis II of France), son of Henry II of France.
- 18 August 1572: Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) marries Margaret of Valois. The marriage takes place not in the cathedral but on the parvis of the cathedral, as Henry IV is Protestant.
- 10 September 1573: The Cathedral was the site of a vow made by Henry of Valois following the interregnum of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth that he would both respect traditional liberties and the recently passed religious freedom law.
- 10 November 1793: the Festival of Reason.
- 2 December 1804: the coronation ceremony of Napoleon I and his wife Joséphine, with Pope Pius VII officiating.
- 1831: The novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published by French author Victor Hugo.
- 18 April 1909: Joan of Arc is beatified.
- 16 May 1920: Joan of Arc is canonized.
- 1900: Louis Vierne is appointed organist of Notre-Dame de Paris after a heavy competition (with judges including Charles-Marie Widor) against the 500 most talented organ players of the era. On 2 June 1937 Louis Vierne dies at the cathedral organ (as was his lifelong wish) near the end of his 1750th concert.
- 11 February 1931: Antonieta Rivas Mercado shot herself at the altar with a pistol property of her lover Jose Vasconcelos. She died instantly.
- 26 August 1944: The Te Deum Mass takes place in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris. (According to some accounts the Mass was interrupted by sniper fire from both the internal and external galleries.)
- 12 November 1970: The Requiem Mass of General Charles de Gaulle is held.
- 6 June 1971: Philippe Petit surreptitiously strings a wire between the two towers of Notre-Dame and tight-rope walks across it. Petit later performed a similar act between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
- 31 May 1980: After the Magnificat of this day, Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the parvis of the cathedral.
- January 1996: The Requiem Mass of François Mitterrand is held.
- 10 August 2007: The Requiem Mass of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, former Archbishop of Paris and famous Jewish convert to Catholicism, is held.
- 12 December 2012:The Notre-Dame Cathedral begins a year long celebration of the 850th anniversary of the laying of the first building block for the cathedral.
- 21 May 2013: Around 1,500 visitors were evacuated from Notre-Dame Cathedral after Dominique Venner, a historian, placed a letter on the Church altar and shot himself. He died immediately.
The cathedral is renowned for its Lent sermons founded by the famous Dominican Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire in the 1860s. In recent years, however, an increasing number have been given by leading public figures and state employed academics.