History of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris

The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,ca. 1452–1460 (Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/459207)

In light of what happened on April 15, 2019, I thought I would write a history of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris.  The fire that engulfed this magnificent building at first appeared to be devastating.  While the church did sustain a great deal of damage, there is enough of the edifice remaining for restoration to take place.  And best of all, most of the precious items and works of art were saved, as well as the majority of the stained glass.

Evidence was found in the eighteenth century indicating there was a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter located on the Île de la Cité in Paris, known at the time as Lutecia.  Paris was evangelized from the third century onwards and the existing ancient temple was replaced by a Christian church dedicated to Saint Stephen with five naves, similar to the basilicas of Rome or Ravenna.  It’s unclear if the new cathedral was erected in the fourth century and then redeveloped later or if it was started in the seventh century using older elements.

Interior of Notre Dame 1670
Interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral. c. 1670 (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6949012z?rk=42918;4)

This new building was enormous, having a long nave, columns and walls covered with mosaics.  There were renovations done during the Merovingian era and it was converted to a cathedral in the Carolingian era with Romanesque architectural elements.  During the reign of King Louis VII, the existing church was deemed inadequate and in 1160, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully decided to demolish the Romanesque structure and build a Gothic cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The cornerstone was laid in the spring of 1163 and construction was marked by four major phases.  From 1163-1182, the Choir and its double ambulatory were built.  The master altar of the Choir was dedicated on May 19, 1182.  From 1182-1190, the last three spans of the Nave, Aisles and Stands were completed.  Building of the foundations of the Facade and first two spans of the Nave and the connection of the two spans to the high façade to the Gallery of Kings was completed from 1190-1225.  Then, from 1225-1250, the High Gallery and both Towers on the Façade were built.  Modification and expansion of the high windows were made along with development of the side chapels of the nave between the abutting of the buttresses.

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, enlargements were made of the transept’s arms, a rood screen was erected and a stone fence was built around the choir and sanctuary.  Flying buttresses were introduced around this time.  Before the engineering of the buttresses, the entire weight of the roof pressed outward and down on the walls and any structure that supported the walls.  The flying buttresses allowed this weight to be carried by the ribs of the vault to the outside of the building to a series of counter-supports, allowing the walls of the church to be higher and thinner.  We know the buttresses were installed in the thirteenth century.  But it is unclear if they were part of the initial plan of construction or were added later.  These earlier buttresses were replaced by larger and stronger ones in the fourteenth century.  In 1548, Huguenots revolted and damaged some of the statues of Notre-Dame during rioting.

Notre Dame 1525
Notre-Dame-de-Paris, in Roman Pontifical with the arms of John II of Mauléon, bishop of Saint-Bertrand-de Comminges, BnF, Ms. Latin 1226-2. c. 1525

In 1638, after twenty-three years of marriage, King Louis XIII’s wife Anne of Austria finally conceived a child.  Louis wanted to thank the Virgin Mary on behalf of himself and his kingdom for the birth of a royal heir.  Consequently, on February 10, when Anne was two months pregnant, Louis made a vow of consecration of his person, his family and the country of France to Our Lady of Assumption.  The future King Louis XIV was born on September 5.  The Feast of the Assumption, celebrated on August 15, has been a national holiday in France ever since Louis XIII’s vow.

In honor of this vow, extensive modifications Cathedral of Notre-Dame were commenced under Louis XIV in 1699.   The choir and ambulatory were opened up and tombs were removed from the Nave.  An opulent and gilded wrought iron fence replaced the rood screen and the high altar was built with statues of Louis XIV and Louis XIII kneeling before a Pietà.  The south Rose Window was restored.

Rose Window of Notre-Dame
Rose Window of Notre-Dame de Paris (Photo copyright: The Freelance History Writer)

In the eighteenth century, the stained glass was restored near the White Windows.  A new sacristy was built and the central portal of the Façade was restored.  During the revolutionary period, Notre-Dame and other religious landed holdings were made public property and many of the treasures of the cathedral were purloined or demolished.  The Arrow (spire) was disassembled, the twenty-eight biblical statues in the Gallery of Kings were beheaded along with all the statues of the portals with the exception of the Virgin in the pier of the Cloisters portal.

The bells survived the revolution but the building itself was used as a food storage warehouse and for other non-religious purposes.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the cathedral was in a disgraceful state of disrepair.  Napoleon had restored the cathedral to the Catholic Church.  The new Bishop of Paris had the building’s exterior whitewashed and the interior was renovated and adorned in the newly popular Neoclassical style.

The writer Victor Hugo, one of the most respected poets and authors of the Romantic era, greatly admired the cathedral.  In 1831, he wrote the novel “Notre-Dame de Paris”, also known as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, in an effort to save the cathedral.  The popularity and success of the novel prompted the government of King Louis-Philippe I to decree additional restoration of the cathedral and the construction of a new sacristy.  The restoration project was entrusted to Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus.  In 1857, Lassus died and Viollet-le-Duc remained in charge of the entire project.

A great deal of major restoration was accomplished.  The Arrow was reconstructed and restitution of the sculptures was made with the help of fifteen sculptors.  The new sacristy was erected.  New glazing was done on the windows.  The central portal was restored to its prior state.  Murals were painted in the side chapels and the great organ was completely overhauled.  The work was declared completed and dedicated on May 31, 1864.

The cathedral survived intact through the two World Wars with only some damage from bullets during the liberation of Paris in 1944.  In 1965, the stained-glass windows of the nave were restored.  From 1990-92, the organ went through a large-scale restoration and from 1990 to 2000, the Façade went through a thorough cleaning giving us a view of how it appeared in medieval times.  The four nineteenth century bells of the northern tower were melted down and recast into new bronze bells in 2013 in celebration of the cathedral’s 850th anniversary.  Due to deterioration since the 1990’s, the government proposed more renovation in the late 2010’s.  Renovation of the Arrow began in late 2018 and it was during this work that the fire started in April 2019.

Notre dame 1900
Notre-Dame, c. 1900 by an unknown photographer

Many events of historical importance occurred in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.  In 1302, King Philip the Fair opened the first Estates General.  The coronation of Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI was celebrated in August of 1389.  On December 31, 1431, nine-year-old King Henry VI of England was crowned King of France, the only king to be crowned in both countries.

On January 1, 1537, a splendid wedding celebration took place in the cathedral.  James V, King of Scots married Madeleine de Valois, the daughter of King Francis I and Queen Claude.  It was a true love match.  On April 24, 1558, Mary Queen of Scots married the Dauphin François, eldest son of King Henri II and Catherine de’Medici.  On August 17, 1572, King Henri III of Navarre (the future Henri IV of France) married Marguerite de Valois.  A few days after this wedding, the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre started, resulting in the long-lasting religious wars and the death of many Huguenots.

In 1804, the coronation of Napoleon and his wife Josephine took place.  On January 30, 1853, Napoléon III, Emperor of the French married the beautiful Eugénie de Montijo, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman.  Requiem Masses are held for French heads of state in the cathedral such as those held for Charles de Gaulle in 1970 and for François Mitterrand in 1996.  In 1971, Philippe Petit had audiences spellbound when he walked across a tight-rope strung up between Notre-Dame’s two bell towers.  It is believed the cathedral will rise from the proverbial ashes to see many more historical events in the future.


Further reading: “The Engineering of Medieval Cathedrals” by Lynn T. Courtenay, “Paris, 1200” by John Baldwin

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