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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Notre-Dame de Paris

What is the Notre-Dame de Paris?

Notre-Dame de Paris is a grand medieval gothic cathedral in Paris whose construction began in the 12th century, and which famously caught fire in April 2019.

Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris History

‘She is tossed by the waves but does not sink’; so goes the 14th-century motto of Paris. Notre-Dame, cathedral to the city, historic symbol of the capital and nation, bears out the truth of this phrase. Construction began in the mid-12th century and continued for the next 180 years. The result stands without doubt as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and medieval engineering; Notre Dame remains one of the world’s most astounding landmarks. Yet this didn’t prevent an iconoclastic mob targeting the building during the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The cathedral later endured the violence of the Paris Commune in 1871, and has been battered by bullets, pollution, and destructive ‘renovations’ since. At the beginning of the 19th century, the cathedral languished in such a perilous state that it inspired Victor Hugo to write a literary love-letter, giving voice to his plaintive dream that medieval architecture would be rescued from the heavy-handedness of modernity. This took the form of a novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which helped rejuvenate a love of Gothic architecture and made the Lady of Paris a living part of the city again.

When a fire broke out on 15th April 2019 and soon engulfed the entire roof, the world held its breath. The blaze swallowed the 19th-century neo-Gothic replacement of the 13th-century spire at 7:50pm and could only be brought under control after more than two hours, by a team of 500 firefighters and volunteers. Many feared the worst – the loss of something truly beautiful constructed and maintained by collective genius and will – but the cathedral’s Gothic design in fact saved it from further damage, since it was built with more load-bearing walls than we might consider necessary today. The cathedral’s buttresses (the exterior supports) were designed to be strong enough to prevent the walls being pushed outwards by the force of the ceiling above them. ‘In the course of our history, we’ve built cities, ports, [and] churches’, declared the French President Emmanuel Macron, ‘Many have burned or were destroyed in wars, revolutions or by man’s mistakes. Each time, each time, we’ve rebuilt them’. Notre Dame, defying initial expectation, will be rebuilt, but not from square one. So, Paris is tossed yet does not sink.

Although Notre-Dame emblematises state power, it is first and foremost a holy place. In the 13th century, King Louis IX walked barefoot through Paris with some of the most sacred objects in Christendom, which he had acquired from Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. Among the Holy Relics of the Passion, he carried a nail from the Crucifixion, a piece of the True Cross, and, most holy of all, Christ’s Crown of Thorns. The relics are shown in Notre-Dame on the first Friday of each month.

Notre-Dame de Paris side view in Summer

Inspired by the new Gothic style in Saint-Denis, construction began in 1163 under Bishop Maurice de Sully. It had mostly finished by the mid-13th century, though work continued until 1345 and much was restored in the 19th century. By contemporary standards the building manifested stunning ambition: its 33-metre-high nave was a feat of medieval architecture; its celebrated flying buttresses, reminiscent of a delicate ribcage, allowed weight to be dispersed outside the building and for its vast stone vaulting to seemingly float high above. Perhaps most memorably of all, the cathedral’s use of stained glass to overwhelming effect floods the church with light. On the west façade, you’ll see the oldest of the cathedral’s iconic rose windows, which lights this end of the nave and, as a circle inscribed within a square, symbolises the relationship between heaven and earth.

From the beginning, the building’s soaring beauty did not go unnoticed. In the 15th century, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France here at the age of ten; in 1804 Pope Pius VII declared Napoleon Emperor. Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People depicted a bare-breasted, tricolore-wielding personification of Liberty at the vanguard of the 1830 July Revolution – in the distance is Notre-Dame topped with a red, white, and blue republican standard fluttering in the smoke. Our Lady of Paris has been revered by each generation, and refashioned by several of them. Its provision of indomitable sanctuary will continue for generations to come.

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