Notre Dame de Paris: Survivor of 850 Years of Upheaval, Revolution, World Wars and Fire
Notre Dame de Paris (which translates as ‘Our Lady of Paris’) is one of the best-known Gothic cathedrals in the world and among the most famous landmarks in France. The monument caught the attention of the world recently when a fire broke out on its roof on the 15 th of April 2019. The blaze destroyed much of the roof and caused the spire to collapse. Fortunately, the rest of the cathedral was saved from the flames.
The Construction of Notre Dame de Paris
While Notre Dame de Paris was constructed during the 12 th century, its history stretches back further in time.
After the arrival of Christianity, the pagan temple was replaced by a succession of churches. In 1160, Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, decided to demolish the old church, and build a new, grander one in its place. This monument was to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was meant to reflect the status of Paris as the center of power in France.
Up until then, European architecture was dominated by the Romanesque style. The Gothic style emerged during the 12 th century, grew in popularity, and gradually replaced its predecessor. De Sully decided that the Notre Dame de Paris should be built in this style.
The Gothic style is characterized by such architectural elements as pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses, which allowed structures to be built to greater heights than was possible with the preceding Romanesque style.
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Cross-section of the double supporting arches and buttresses of the nave, in the Notre Dame de Paris, as they would have appeared from 1220 to 1230. (BuzzWikimedia / Public Domain)
The foundation stone of Notre Dame de Paris was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III and the King of France, Louis VII, was also present at the ceremony. The various parts of the cathedral were added in the decades that followed. For instance, the high altar was consecrated in 1182, the choir, nave, and western façade were completed by 1250, and the clerestory windows of the cathedral’s apse were installed by 1270. The construction of Notre Dame de Paris took a total of 182 years and the cathedral was completed only in 1345, long after the death of de Sully.
How Important was Notre Dame de Paris to France?
The subsequent centuries of the cathedral’s existence were perhaps not so significant in the ‘national’ history of France. For a start, it was not particularly associated with the French monarchy. Traditionally, the kings of France were crowned at Reims Cathedral and interred in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Henry VI of England was the only French king to be crowned at Notre Dame de Paris (in 1431), as Reims was under the control of the French. His status as King of France, however, was disputed from the start.
Instead, Notre Dame de Paris was an important landmark for the inhabitants of Paris. It was here that the annual Festival of Fools was held. Additionally, Notre Dame de Paris became the home of the city’s cathedral school, which was established prior to the monument’s construction. Thus, Notre Dame de Paris played an important role in the intellectual life of Paris and was a center of scholarship in Medieval Europe.
Notre Dame de Paris became an important landmark for the inhabitants of Paris. (Luciano Mortula-LGM / Adobe)
The statues in the Gallery of Kings were beheaded as they were mistakenly thought to represent the French monarchs. In reality, they were supposed to represent the Biblical kings of Judaea and Israel. Many statues and reliquaries were destroyed as well. The cathedral’s bells, with the exception of the Emmanuel Bell, were melted down and cast into cannons, while the lead was stripped from the roof to make bullets. Furthermore, the cathedral was de-Christianized, and then rededicated first to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being.
Notre Dame de Paris – Catholic Once Again
Notre Dame de Paris was returned to the Catholic Church by Napoleon in 1802. Two years later, he was crowned Emperor of France in the cathedral. In the decades that followed, Notre Dame de Paris regained its popularity. This was in part due to the publication of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English).
The success of this novel revived interest in the cathedral, leading to some much-needed restoration work being undertaken by the government. It was during this time that a taller reconstruction of the original spire was made, which included a statue of Saint Thomas that bears an uncanny resemblance to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, one of the architects who oversaw the work.
The western façade of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, France. Source: Mistervlad / Adobe.
Notre Dame de Paris was spared from destruction during both World Wars, and some modernization of the structure was carried out during the second half of the 20 th century.
On the 15th of April 2019, a fire broke out at Notre Dame de Paris and much of the building’s roof, as well as its 19 th century spire, were destroyed. While these are the most visible results of the disaster, the full damage has yet to be ascertained.
The fate of the many precious artworks and relics housed in the cathedral is uncertain and their condition would need to be assessed by conservation experts. As for the cathedral’s roof and spire that were destroyed, plans to have them reconstructed are already in the process of being made.
April 2019 a fire broke out at Notre Dame de Paris and much of the building’s roof and spire were destroyed. (Ralf Roletschek / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Top image: Notre Dame de Paris, a taller reconstruction of the original spire was made in the 1800s. (Iakov Kalinin / Adobe)
By Wu Mingren
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