Notre Dame Cathedral (full name: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, "Our Lady of Paris") is a beautiful cathedral on the the Île de la Cité in Paris. Begun in 1163 and mostly completed by 1250, Notre Dame is an important example of French Gothic architecture, sculpture and stained glass.
The Notre Dame is the most popular monument in Paris and in all of France, beating even the Eiffel Tower with 13 million visitors each year. But the famous cathedral is also an active Catholic church, a place of pilgrimage, and the focal point for Catholicism in France - religious events of national significance still take place here.
History of Notre Dame Cathedral
The Notre Dame de Paris stands on the site of Paris' first Christian church, Saint Etienne basilica, which was itself built on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter.
Notre-Dame's first version was a "magnificent church" built by Childebert I, the king of the Franks at the time, in 528, and was already the cathedral of the city of Paris in the 10th century. However, in 1160, having become the "parish church of the kings of Europe," Bishop Maurice de Sully deemed the building unworthy of its lofty role, and had it demolished.
Construction on the current cathedral began in 1163, during the reign of Louis VII, and opinion differs as to whether Bishop Maurice de Sully or Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone of the cathedral.
Construction of the west front, with its distinctive two towers, began in around 1200 before the nave had been completed. Over the construction period, numerous architects worked on the site, as is evidenced by 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 towers were finished around 1245 and the cathedral was finally completed around 1345.
During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV at the end of the 17th century the cathedral underwent major alterations, during which many tombs and stained glass windows were destroyed.
In 1793, the cathedral fell victim to the French Revolution. Many sculptures and treasures were destroyed or plundered; the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason and later to the Cult of the Supreme Being. Lady Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral also came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who had declared the Empire on May 28, 1804, was crowned Emperor at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804.
A restoration program was initiated in 1845, overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The restoration lasted 23 years, and included the construction of a spire.
In 1871, a civil uprising leading to the establishment of the short-lived Paris Commune nearly set fire to the cathedral, and some records suggest that a mount of chairs within the cathedral were set alight. In 1905, the law of separation of Church and State was passed; as all cathedrals, Notre-Dame remains state property, but its use is granted to the Roman Catholic Church.
The Te Deum Mass took place in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris in August 26, 1944. The Requiem Mass of General Charles de Gaulle took place in the cathedral on November 12, 1970.
In 1991, a major restoration program was undertaken. It was expected to last 10 years but continued well into the 21st century - the cleaning and restoration of the old sculptures was an exceedingly delicate job. But now the scaffolding is down and the result is spectacular: the stone architecture and sculptures gleam in their original honey-toned color instead of industrial black.
What to See at Notre Dame Cathedral
The west front of the cathedral is one of its most notable features, with its two 69-meter (228-feet) tall towers. The South Tower houses the cathedral's famous bell, "Emmanuel." The bell weighs 13 metric tons (over 28,000 pounds), its clapper alone weighs 500 kilograms. The bell is Notre-Dame's oldest, having been recast in 1631.
The Galerie des Chimères or Grand Gallery connects the two west towers, and is where the cathedral's legendary gargoyles (chimères) can be found. The gargoyles are full of Gothic character but are not medieval - they were added during the 19th-century restoration.
The King's Gallery is a line of statues of the 28 Kings of Judah and Israel, which was redesigned by Viollet-le-Duc to replace the statues destroyed during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries mistakenly believed the statues to be French kings instead of biblical kings, so they decapitated them. Some of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby and are now on display at the Museum of the Middle Ages.
The beautiful West Rose Window dates from about 1220. See the section on Notre Dame's windows below for more details.
The three west portals of Notre Dame Cathedral are magnificent examples of early Gothic art. Sculpted between 1200 and 1240, they depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment, and scenes from the life of St. Anne (the Virgin Mary's mother). Many of the statues, especially the larger ones, were destroyed in the Revolution and remade in the 19th century.
Last Judgment Portal (Center Portal)
The central west portal was sculpted last of the three, in the 1220s and 1230s, and its theme is the Last Judgment, with Christ emphasized less as judge and more as the suffering savior of humanity. Click here for an illustrated guide to the sculptures of the Last Judgment Portal.
Portal of St. Anne (Right Portal)
The Portal of St. Anne was the first of the three west portals to be installed (c.1200) and its tympanum is an earlier Romanesque work from the former St. Stephen's Cathedral, dating from about 1150. Anne is the Virgin Mary's mother, who is mentioned in early Christian stories but not in the Bible.
The tympanum shows the Virgin and Child on a throne, accompanied by two censing angels, a bishop and his assistant, and a king. The upper lintel depicts scenes from the advent of Christ (Annunciation, Nativity, Magi, etc.) and the lower lintel tells the stories of Anne and Joachim and Mary and Joseph.
On the trumeau is a statue of Saint Marcel, a 5th-century bishop of Paris, who spears a dragon symbolizing the scourges with which his diocese was cursed. Statues of Peter, Paul, and biblical monarchs (all remade in the 19th century) are on the door jambs. The wooden doors have original 13th-century ironwork.
Portal of the Virgin (Left Portal)
The Portal of the Virgin, dedicated to the patroness of the cathedral, is usually the exit door for modern visitors. It was sculpted second of the three portals in the 1210s-1220s. Unlike the other two west portals, it is surmounted by a gable.
The tympanum features the Coronation of the Virgin, with an angel crowning Mary while Christ blesses her and gives her a scepter. The top lintel depicts the Death of the Virgin - Mary lies on her death bed (corresponding to the Nativity bed in the same position on the right portal) surrounded by Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. Two angels at her head and feet lift up her up to Heaven. The bottom lintel has three Old Testament prophets (left) and three Old Testament kings (right), all holding scrolls representing prophecies of Christ.
The archivolts are populated by the Heavenly Court (angels, patriarchs, kings, prophets). The door-jamb statues, destroyed at the Revolution and replaced in the 19th century, represent, from left to right: Emperor Constantine, an angel, Saint Denis holding his head, another angel, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, Saint Genevieve and Pope Saint Sylvester. On the trumeau is a standing statue of the Virgin and Child, with the pedestal below carved with scenes of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.
The abutments of the doors have panels representing the natural universe, or life on earth. The panels on either side of the portal are weathered but elegant Zodiacs and Labors of the Months. The positions of the months echo the yearly cycle of the sun: rising in the sky from January to June (left jamb), then descending from July to December (right jamb). Completing the symbolic medieval universe on the inside jambs are the seasons (left) and the ages of man (right).
South Transept Portal
The south transept portal is dedicated to St. Stephen. The bottom section of the tympanum depicts scenes from his life: ordination, preaching, and confrontation with the Jewish council. The top shows his death by stoning, with Saul by himself to the left with a heap of clothes at his feet and a scene possibly relating to the finding of his relics on the right.
North Transept Portal
The north transept portal has a 13th-century statue of the Virgin Mary on the trumeau that managed to survive the Revolution. The bottom section of the tympanum depicts scenes relating to the birth of Christ - Nativity, Presentation, and Massacre of the Innocents - while the upper two levels show miracles of St. Theophilus.
Stained Glass Windows
The stained glass windows of the Notre-Dame are very beautiful and a significant number of them date from the 13th century when the cathedral was constructed. In this author's opinion, Notre-Dame's collection of stained glass is not as impressive as those at some other French cathedrals, such as Chartres and Bourges, and in Paris the best place to enjoy an overall effect of stained glass is probably not Notre Dame but Sainte-Chapelle.
Nevertheless, Notre-Dame's stained glass windows remain an important and beautiful collection of 13th-century Gothic art, with interesting details well worth exploring in more detail. The highlight - and the greatest survival of original glass - is the set of three beautiful rose windows, which shine like jewels over the west door and in the north and south transept.
West Rose (c.1220)
The west rose window at Notre Dame is 10 meters in diameter and exceptionally beautiful. Dating from about 1220, it retains most of its original glass and tracery. The main theme of the west rose is human life, featuring symbolic scenes such as the Zodiacs and Labors of the Months. On the exterior, it is fronted by a statue of the Virgin and Child accompanied by angels. Unfortunately, the interior view of its colorful medieval glass is now more than half blocked by the great organ.
South Rose (c.1260)
The south rose window was donated by King St. Louis and installed around 1260. Designed by Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil, its general themes are the New Testament, the Triumph of Christ, and the symbolic number four.
Repaired more than once over the centuries (in 1725 and 1727 by Guillaume Brice; beginning in 1861 by Viollet-le-Duc and Alfred Gérente), many of the panes are now out of order. In addition, Viollet-le-Duc rotated the entire rose 15° to create horizontal and vertical axes for stability in the masonry.
The south rose is 12.9 meters in diameter and contains 84 panes of glass. Radiating out from a central medallion of Christ, it consists of four concentric circles of 12 medallions, 24 medallions, quadrilobes, and 24 trilobes.
The original central medallion has been lost; it probably depicted Christ in Majesty. It was replaced in 1726 by the coat of arms of Cardinal de Noailles, the Archbishop of Paris who restored the window. Viollet-le-Duc replaced it with a modern Christ of the Apocalypse. The original medallions surrounding it include:
- 12 apostles (in the first and second circles),
- 20 angels carrying a candle, two crowns and a censer (fourth circle);
- the Wise Virgins;
- biblical scenes including the flight into Egypt, healing of the paralytic, Judgement of Solomon, and Annunciation (third and fourth circle);
- saints and martyrs including Lawrence with his grill, Denis holding his head, Pothin (Bishop of Lyon), Marguerite and a dragon, Blandine and two lions, George, Ambrose, and Eustacius;
- scenes of exceptional quality dating from the 12th century, depicting the Life of St. Matthew (third and fourth circle)
The corner pieces depict: the Descent into Hell (left) with Moses and Aaron (top) and temptation of Adam and Eve (bottom); and the Resurrection of Christ (right) with Peter and Paul (top), and Mary Magdalene and John (top).
Below the rose are 16 lancets (spear-shaped windows), which are entirely 19th-century replacements. Designed by Alfred Gérente under Viollet-le-Duc’s supervision, the depict 16 prophets. In the center, the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) carry the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) on their shoulders (inspired by Chartres Cathedral).
North Rose (1250)
The north rose window dates from 1250 and is also 12.9 meters in diameter. Its main theme is the Old Testament, but the central medallion depicts the Virgin and Child.
Quick Facts on Notre Dame Cathedral
|Names:||Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris · Notre Dame Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||48.852977° N, 2.349937° E|
|Address:||6 place du Parvis Notre-Dame|
|Hours:||Mon-Fri 8am-6:45pm, Sat-Sun 8am-7:15pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Notre Dame Cathedral|
- Personal visits (most recent July 22, 2008).
- Cathedral for Art and History - official website
- Blue Guide Paris, 11th ed., 24-29.
- Parisian Images of the Medieval Year - Andrea Kirkby, Podtours
- Notre Dame de Paris - Wikipedia (some text used under "History")
- Traveler Reviews of Notre Dame - TripAdvisor
- Notre Dame – Paris Pages
- Cathedrale Notre-Dame – Lonely Planet Paris Attractions
- Notre-Dame de Paris – A View on Cities
- Eight centuries later, Notre Dame still a fascinating work in progress – Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 1998
- William W. Clark and Franklin M. Ludden, "Notes on the Archivolts of the Sainte-Anne Portal of Notre-Dame de Paris" Gesta, Vol. 25, No. 1, Essays in Honor of Whitney Snow Stoddard (1986), pp. 109-118.
- Photos of Notre Dame Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Notre Dame Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Notre Dame Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.