September 2017 Print

Notre Dame Cathedral

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

Tourists who visit only one church in Paris will undoubtedly find their way to the finest jewel of Gothic art: the Cathedral of Notre Dame. However, even if they take a guided tour, they may miss many valuable details and historical significance regarding this magnificent structure. So, in the spirit of providing some elements of sightseeing combined with those of formal architectural study, the following summary is offered:

The History of the Site

For 2.000 years, the prayers of worshipers have been offered on this particular spot: first, at a Gallo Roman temple, then at a Christian Basilica which St. Stephen built around the 5th or 6th centuries, situated where the nave is now. In the 7th century, a Romanesque church of Notre Dame stood to the east of the present building and preceded the present sanctuary. With time, St. Stephen fell into ruins, and the remaining Notre Dame became greatly diminished in size. Bishop Maurice de Sully, supervisor of the diocese in 1159, undertook a building project to provide the capital city with a worthy cathedral. Construction began in 1163, in the reign of Louis the VII. To the resources of the church, which included royal gifts, were added the toils and skills of the common people: masons, carpenters, iron workers, sculptors, and glass workers.

All worked with religious fervor and ardor under the architects. By 1345, the building was complete, the original plan not having been modified in any way. The building is 33 meters high under the vault, 43 meters high under the roof, the side aisles are 10 meters high, the towers are 69 meters. If you want to go to the top, be prepared for the 380 steps. The total length of the building is 128 meters. The wooden framework is made from over 1300 oak trees. The fact that we talk of the “forest” of Notre Dame is justified, since it comprises some 21 hectares of forest.

An Important Historical Setting

Long before it was completed, Notre Dame became the setting for many major religious and political occasions. St. Louis placed the Crown of Thorns in the cathedral in 1239 until the Sainte-Chapelle was ready to receive it. Ceremonies, distributions of grace, state funerals, the Te Deum, and innumerable processions have followed down the centuries. The young Henry VI of England was crowned there in 1430. Mary Stuart was crowned there on becoming Queen of France by her marriage to Francis II, and Margaret de Valois stood alone in the chancel while her Huguenot suiter, Henri de Navarre, waited at the door as their marriage ceremony was performed in 1572. Henry converted to Catholicism later, having discovered that Paris was well worth a Mass.

The Revolution created enormous damage. Statues and steeples where broken, the treasure pillaged, reliquaries and bells, all but the largest one, were melted down. Notre Dame was dedicated to the cult of Reason, and then to the Supreme Being. The church was used to store forage and food until 1802. In 1804 Napoleon was crowned there by Pope Pius VII.

Gradually the building began to fall into disrepair, but the Romantic sense of fashion and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame caused the July monarchy to order the restoration of the cathedral. A team of men worked for 23 years on the statuary and glass, removing additions, repairing the roof, erecting the spire, the sacristy, etc. The first thing general de Gaulle did when Paris was liberated in August 1944 was to sing the Te Deum there. His Requiem Mass was celebrated there in 1970.

An Impressive Design

The façade’s design overall is majestic and perfectly balanced. There are three portals: the one in the center is dedicated to the Last Judgment, the one on the right to St. Anne, and the one on the left to Mary. They are beautiful examples of the classical phase of the Gothic sculpture of around 1220. The figures on the jambs and on four of the buttresses, as well as the figures rising on the lowest row of the central portal, date from 19th century restorations. Many of the small reliefs on the socle are representations of great vitality. In front of the large rose window and between two angels stands the Madonna, the Patroness of the Church. She is the new Eve, who has made reparation for the sin of the old Eve. In front of the window Adam and Eve stand on each side of the Madonna. The central portal is taller and wider than the others: the one on the left is surmounted by a gable. It was a medieval practice to avoid monotony by a lack of symmetry.

The 28 statues are those of the kings of Judah and Israel. In 1793 it was believed that they were the kings of France and thus they were shattered. They were restored in the 19th century. The design of the great rose window nearly 30 feet across is so perfect that it has never shifted in 700 years. It forms a halo to the group before it of the Virgin and Child supported by two angels. The gallery is a superb line of ornately carved arches linking the towers. The twin towers, majestic, graceful, and 226 feet in height, are pierced by slender lancets more than 50 feet in height. The north tower upper chapel contains original portal statues and paintings. Steps lead to the south tower platform from which the visitor gets a splendid view of the spire and flying buttress, and of the city of Paris in general. Statues, once multi-colored against a gilt background, stand in the portals, and used to afford a Bible in stone for those who did not know how to read. Today, without color, they remain worthy of examination. The dignity and harmony of Notre-Dame are apparent not only in the west façade. One must wander around the church and view it from different angles. The south side is at its best when seen across the river as it rises over the green-covered wall of the Seine embankment: the choir looks more beautiful when viewed from the Ile Saint-Louis.

The central west-facing portal, that of the Virgin, served as a model to the sculptors of the Middle-Ages. It shows, below, the Ark of the Covenant, prophets and kings; above, the Dormition in the presence of Christ, and at the apex, the coronation of the Virgin. The portal of the Last Judgement illustrates the Resurrection and, above, the weighing of souls. The portal of St. Anne shows the cathedral’s oldest statues, carved around 1170, some 60 years before the portal was erected. At the apex are a Virgin and Child with Louis VII kneeling. The 12th century central lintel shows the life of the Virgin and lower, that of St. Anne and St. Joachim. The exquisitely decorated transept facades were created in the middle of the 13th century.

The appearance of those transept facades is quite different from that of the west façade, completed only a few decades earlier. For example, the transept wall is treated as a surface, not a three-dimensional unit. The emphasis is on the wall not as a supporting member, but as a transparent screen, with the gigantic rose window (43 feet in diameter) seeming to melt into the light-filled gallery beneath, creating the impression of one single window, 49 feet high. All of the wedge-shaped areas around the rose window and in the gable are filled with tracery. The rose itself, more delicately constructed than that of the west façade, is formed of small intricate arches interlaced within larger ones. The sculpture is less monumental than that of the west façade, but delightful in its narrative quality. The south door is dedicated to St. Stephen. His life is represented in the tympanum. The north portal is dedicated to Our Lady. She stands against a pillar, a magnificent figure dating from the second half of the 13th century. Only the lowest zone of the tympanum is devoted to scenes from the life of the Virgin, from the birth of Christ to the flight into Egypt.

Further Details on the Interior

A congregation of 7,000 can be accommodated in the dimly illuminated interior, which possesses a commanding air of gravity. The plan is that of all large Gothic cathedrals. In the 13th century upper windows and galleries were enlarged and lowered to increase the light reaching the chapels. Flying buttresses were then added to support the roofing. Part of the 12th century architecture can still be seen at the transept crossing, in the small rose and tall windows. The pillars supporting the towers measure 16 feet across.

Notre Dame is surrounded by chapels. They were built between the buttresses. The transepts are a brilliant evidence of the rapid advances made in architecture in the Gothic period. The north rose, which has remained practically intact since the 13th century, shows Old Testament figures around the Virgin. At the entrance of the choir is the beautiful 14th century Virgin and Child, Our Lady of Paris. Inside the choir stand statues of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Around the chancel are remarkable bas-reliefs of the life of Christ and His apparitions. Going up the three steps to the right of the podium, one enters the choir. Seen from the bottom right-handed side, nine carved panels show the occasions when the risen Christ appeared: to Mary Magdalen, to the women at the tomb, to Peter and John, to the disciples of Emmaus, in the upper room, to Thomas, by the sea of Galilee, in Galilee, on Ascension Day.

Entering the choir from the south, there are 46 stalls, and above them carved wooden panels which mostly represent the life of the Virgin Mary: Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary receiving the body of her crucified Son, Mary among the disciples on the day of Pentecost, Mary’s Assumption. By walking across the choir, the other set of panels can be seen. From east to west, they are: the visit the Magi, the Nativity, Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, the announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Savior. At the end of the choir is the magnificent high altar, surmounted by the Pieta. On the left and on the right are Louis XIII and Louis XIV paying homage to Mary. Six bronze angels which stand around the marble group hold an object used during the Passion of Our Lord. Passing through the choir gate to the north side, there is the next section of the carved screen, whose figures represent the Visitation, the Nativity of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the flight to Egypt, the Presentation at the Temple, Jesus among the teachers, the baptism of Jesus, the wedding at Cana, the entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Returning to the transept, the south rose window can be seen and admired again.

Some Unfortunate Happenings

An unfortunate addition had been made to the choir between 1979 and 1989. It was made to protrude into the nave. There is no communion rail. Eight steps lead to an “altar,” made of bronze, no less, the top part being covered by a white cloth. The picture shows a full church, the “service” ready to start, a priest standing in front of the totally bare “altar”: no crucifix, missal, candles.

Like all cathedrals in France, Notre Dame has been owned by the State since 1905 and the Parisian clergy are only the administrators. The State controls the visits to the towers and directs the conservation of the building as one of the Historical Monuments. The clergy, as well as providing Catholic services, must also light, heat, clean, and maintain the public parts of the monument.

Notre-Dame de Paris, emblem of the glory of God, is also a symbol of medieval faith.