Of all the French Gothic buildings, it is perhaps the Notre Dame cathedral of Paris, with the aid of Victor Hugo’s written word, that has most captured our collective imaginations. This eight-century-old monument is one of the most famous examples of the Gothic cathedral, and demonstrates the invention of the flying buttress.
One of the first examples of French Gothic architecture, the style that turned stone buildings into worlds of light, color, and soaring heights, was the Basilica of Saint-Denis. It was Abbot Suger, one of the most prominent patrons of Gothic architecture, who directed the design and construction of the basilica in the 12th century. Cathedrals in Reims, Amiens, and Chartres followed suit. And with feats of engineering, they made use of pointed arches and flying buttresses to give parishioners a glimpse into eternity.
At the Heart of Paris
Some believe the cathedral sits on hallowed ground. Before Notre Dame, before Christianity, the site was home to a temple for Jupiter, as an ancient pillar discovered on the grounds suggests. Over the next several centuries, several sacred buildings took its place, one after the other. Today, a small bronze star on the ground in front of the cathedral marks “Paris Point Zero,” supposedly the center of the city, from which all distances to other French cities are calculated.
In 1160, Maurice de Sully was appointed bishop of Paris. The Romanesque structure standing at the time was far too small for the growing population of the city, and Sully had the basilica demolished to build a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Three years later, Pope Alexander III laid the first stone in the presence of King Louis VII, but it would be nearly two centuries before Notre Dame cathedral was completed in 1345.
The church was to be built in the Gothic style, following in the footsteps of Suger. Pointed arches reaching upward and flying buttresses that spread out like lacework allowed these buildings to soar higher, creating a sense of openness. The support system of these structures allowed the heavy stone to be set thinner, and in slivers, allowing for more glass and more light.
The construction of Notre Dame began with the choir and ambulatories (the backmost area of the church), and by the end of the century, the western facades were nearly built. In 1225, the first rose window, on the west facade, was completed. It is the smallest of the rose windows, some of the most famous features of Notre Dame.
By the middle of the 13th century, the invention of the flying buttress allowed for the north and south rose windows to be much larger in size. The south rose, gifted by King Louis IX, stretches more than 14 yards in diameter, with additional detailing around it measuring more than 20 yards.
In 1323, French theologian John of Jandun wrote, “In fact, I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”
Modifications and Renovations
Over the next several centuries, as with many great churches, the building was modified to better fit the style of the times, and it also suffered wear and tear that went unrepaired.
Then during the French Revolution in 1793, Notre Dame suffered severe damage when revolutionaries melted down the great bells to make canons, replaced a statue of the Virgin Mary with one of their icon, Liberty, and beheaded the figures of biblical kings, mistaking them for figures of the French monarchy.
When Napoleon Bonaparte took power, he gave the cathedral back to the Catholic Church. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor of France there, with Pope Pius VII officiating.
By this time, the cathedral was still in use but in a very poor state. In 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel “Notre-Dame de Paris” (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), and its enormous success shone a light on the battered monument.
“Beside each wrinkle on the face of this old queen of our cathedrals, you will find a scar,” wrote Hugo.
The people called for the renovation of the cathedral, and the city arranged a commission to select which architects would work on the project. Hugo eventually sat on the commission that chose architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to do the job.
The architects worked to restore the statues that had been left smashed after the French Revolution. They rebuilt the original medieval spire and replaced the bells, designed new stained glass windows, and updated many other details. It was this 25-year renovation that added the famous gargoyles of Notre Dame, along with other mythical beasts, as symbols to ward off evil as well as to serve as spigots to divert rainwater in small streams off the building.
The spire is the one that was recently damaged by fire. The original had been removed in 1786 because it could not withstand the wind, and Viollet-le-Duc created a new
one that was taller—300 feet tall—stronger and decorated with statues of the apostles.
In More Recent Times
New renovation projects have been sorely needed since the mid-19th century.
Air pollution covered the cathedral in soot and grime, decorative features were falling off, and stained glass windows were once again damaged.
Some medieval windows were broken in the 1944 liberation of the city during World War II and subsequently replaced with modern designs. In 1963, the facade was finally cleaned, in time for the cathedral’s 800th anniversary. For its 850th anniversary in 2013, four of its bells were melted and recast to sound like the original bells.
The latest renovation was a languorous project in search of funding. The government, which owns the property, had budgeted 2 million euros ($2.2 million) annually for its upkeep. But the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris, which uses the cathedral, found that this sum covered only basic repairs and that additional funds were needed to fix greater structural issues.
As of 2017, the goal was to raise more than 100 million euros ($114 million) over the following 5 to 10 years. However, in the aftermath of the fire this month, individuals and organizations have together pledged about $1 billion.
Beyond maintenance, though, there is talk of a redesign.
The fire resulted in the collapse of the cathedral’s 300-foot spire. Two days later, French officials announced an international architectural competition for the design of a new spire. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a tweet that this would allow the examination of whether the spire should be rebuilt or adapted for the times.
President Emmanuel Macron told the press, “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years.”