Paris - Ile De France

Notre Dame Cathedral in Historical Paris

This page was updated on: Friday, March 31, 2017 at: 3:28 pm

Notre Dame Cathedral - The foundation


Notre-Dame Cathedral and square

Notre-Dame Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

The 130m long and 35m wide building can accommodate 9,000 people!

Notre Dame Cathedral carried throughout the centuries the spiritual and religious heritage of the people of Paris and generations of kings, queens and emperors.

The Temple of Jupiter, the Romans built some 2,000 years ago, was replaced in 375AD by a chapel dedicated to St. Etienne.

In 528AD the Merovingian King Childebert built a second chapel dedicated to Notre Dame on the location of the current sacristy.

By the 12th century the two buildings had unfortunately fallen into ruins.

In 1163 the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, therefore commissioned the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral on their site.

The work lasted from 1165 to 1230 and the altar was consecrated only in 1196.

Many buildings such as the lateral chapels, the transept portal and blow-reliefs were added in the decades that followed.

Notre-Dame2-travelfranceonl copy

Notre-Dame Cathedral

Its architecture is a perfect illustration of early Gothic.

The flying buttresses were built during the 14th century to house lateral chapels and the huge rose windows to allow the light into the nave.

Notre Dame Cathedral was therefore completed in 1330.

Generations of artisans, workers and common people contributed to its construction.

Their names were lost in the mists of time.

What we know about them is that they worked under the direction of the most famous master-builders of the time: Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil, Jean Ravy and Jean le Boutellier.

Surprisingly, the name of the architect of Notre Dame Cathedral is unknown.

Viollet-Le-Duc's restoration

Sadly the cathedral was severely damaged and looted during the French Revolution.

All the bells, but one, were melted!


Notre-Dame Cathedral in Autumn

Notre Dame Cathedral was therefore in a pitiful state when Napoleon I was crowned there in 1804.

Heavy tapestries had to be hung in order to hide the many holes and cracks in the walls.

Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame Cathedral when he published his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831.

He launched a series of petitions that made the public aware of the disastrous state of the cathedral.

The French State allocated necessary funds for its restoration and commissioned the architect Lassus.

Viollet-le-Duc at the death of Lassus in 1857 and devoted 25 years returning the cathedral to its beauty and grandeur of 1330!

Notre Dame Cathedral fortunately escaped the devastation of the Commune of Paris in 1871 (the torch the revolutionaries used could not be lit!)

Notre Dame Cathedral's facade


Notre-Dame's majestic facade

The construction of the impressive facade began in 1200.

It was completed in 1270, when Guillaume d'Auvergne was bishop.

Its harmony comes from the arrangement of horizontal and vertical planes.

The towers and buttresses project towards the sky.

They seem to symbolize the elevation of the human soul towards God.

This facade has four superimposed levels - portals, Galerie des Rois, rose window and upper gallery - crowned by two 79m high square towers.

The north tower - slightly taller - was completed in 1240, and the south in 1250.

They both offer one of the finest views over Paris.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Portal of the Last Judgment

The Portal of the Last Judgment is framed by the Portal to the Virgin and the Portal to Sainte-Anne.


Portal of the Last Judgement

The construction of the Portal of the Last Judgment by St Matthew was completed in the 1220s-1230s, after the other two portals.

The tympanum is adorned with an impressive sculpture of Christ seated on His Throne of Majesty.

The low relief located below represents the Dead that are resurrected and the Archangel St Michael weighing their souls.

The lower low relief represent their souls being directed either to Heaven or to Hell.

The arches framing the tympanum are sculpted with angels, prophets, martyrs and virgins; they end above the statues of the Twelve Apostles.

The portal was severely damaged during the French Revolution but was restored.

New statues sculpted during the restoration of the 19th century.

The buttresses placed on each side of the portals are adorned with statues representing St-Etienne, St-Denis, the Synagogue and the Church.

Notre dame Cathedral - Sainte Anne Portal

Sainte Anne Portal was built in the early 13th century, before the other two portals.

The tympanum, recovered from St Etienne Church, is decorated with a sculpture of the Virgin with Child.


Portal of Sainte-Anne

Mary is seated on a throne which is guarded by an angel on each side.

The Bishop of Paris is represented standing to her right and the King of France to her left.

The upper low relief is sculpted with scenes from the wedding of Joachim and that of Mary and Joseph.

The lower lower relief is dedicated to the arrival of Christ on earth from the Annunciation until the Epiphany.

The arches framing the tympanum are carved with statues of prophets, martyrs, angels and Elders of the Apocalypse.

Eight statues representing the Queen of Sheba, Saint Peter, St Paul, King Solomon, King David, two unidentified kings and Bathsheba stand below the arches that frame the portal.

These statues were sculpted during the 19th century restoration (the original statues were destroyed during the Revolution.)

Its original 13th century wooden doors are delineated by a column bearing the statue of St Marcel.

Notre dame Cathedral - Portal of the Virgin

The Portal of the Virgin was built in the 1210s-1220s.


Portal of the Virgin Mary

It is dedicated to the Virgin's death and ascension to Heaven and her coronation as Queen of Heavens.

She is represented in Heaven sitting next to Jesus who crowns her Queen.

The upper low relief shows Mary on her deathbed.

The lower low relief depicts three prophets and three kings of the Old Testament seated on either side of the Ark of Covenant.

Nine life-size statues representing the Emperor Constantine, two angels, St-Denis and Ste-Geneviève the patron saints of Paris, St John the Baptist, St Etienne and Pope St-Sylvestre stand below the arches that frame the portal.

These statues date from the 19th century restoration.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Galerie des Rois and Balcon de la Vierge

The Gallery of Kings of Judea is located just above the three portals and traverses the entire width of the facade.

The 28 statues representing the kings of Judea, the descendants of Jesus, were originally polychrome.

They were sculpted in the early 13th century and became soon mistaken for those of the kings of France.

Notre-Dame-Cathedral-Kings-Gallery-Virgin-BalconyThis earned them the terrible fate of being beheaded and looted during the French Revolution!

The current statues were sculpted in the Geoffroi-Dechaume workshops in 1843.

Fragments (143) of the original statues were discovered during construction work conducted in La Chaussée d'Antin district.

These statues are now exhibited in the Cluny Museum.

An impressive rose window marks the center of the facade.

It serves as a halo to the statue of the Virgin Mary with Child located on the Balcon de la Vierge (balcony).

The rose window has a diameter of 9,60m; it's the largest stained-glass created during the 13th century.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Upper gallery and gargoyles

A gallery of 5m high columns adorned with gargoyles links the towers.

These gargoyles are supposed to protect the cathedral against evil spirits!

500px_Notre_dame-paris-view copy


Gargoyles are carved stone figures mostly used in religious medieval architecture.

They act as gutters for the roof and have an elongated shape in order to deflect water as far away as possible from the walls in order to protect the masonry.

Gargoyles are mostly shaped as mythical animals and creatures and can look quite scary.

Others look like monks or combinations of real animals and people and are quite humorous.

Their origin is rooted in the legend of St Romain; the bishop of Rouen indeed delivered the region from a dragon named Gargouille during the 7th century!

The terrifying beast was burnt on the city square, however, his head and neck remained intact because they were protected by the fire it breathed from its mouth.

It was then decided that the dragon’s head would be mounted on the walls of the city newly built church in order to scare off evil spirits and therefore protect the building!

The use of gargoyles as gutters disappeared during the early 18th century when modern drainpipes were 'invented'.

Portal of Saint Etienne in Notre Dame Cathedral


Saint-Etienne Portal

Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept in the 1240s in order to enhance the spectacular rose window.

Pierre de Montreuil added the Portal of St Etienne on the south transept in the late 1250s.

Both portals were richly embellished with sculpture.

They are a superb illustration of Rayonnant style.

The tympanum of the Portal of St Etienne depict the life of St Etienne and other saints.

The north portal featured the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus.

Bells of Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral had 20 bells before the French Revolution:

2 bourdon bells (Marie and Emmanuel) in the South Tower, 8 bells in the North Tower, 7 bells in the spire, and 3 bells in the north transept.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the new bells on February 2, 2013.

They were exhibited in the nave during the whole month of February; they rang for the first time on March 23, 2013.

South Tower - 2 bourdons

500px-FW_Glocke_Emmanuel copy


Only Emmanuel, the 13-ton bourdon bell and centre piece cast in 1686 was spared from destruction!

Napoleon I had it replaced in the South Tower in 1802.

It is said that its unique sound comes from the gold and silver jewellery donated by wealthy parishioners who funded to its cast!

Emmanuel is today a listed Historical Monument.

The small bourdon was named Marie, in honor of course the Virgin Mary, but also in remembrance of the initial that was cast in 1378.

It was cast in the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands.

North Tower - 8 bells

The four bells installed in the North Tower in 1856 were considered of poor quality.

They were therefore replaced for the celebrations of the Chemin du Jubilé celebrations in 2013.

The Cornille-Havard foundry in Villedieu-les-Poëles in Normandy produced these new bells.

Each bell has a name.

Gabriel was of course the name of the archangel who announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.


The spire of Notre-Dame

It was also the name of the North Tower’s largest bell during the 15th century.

Anne-Geneviève honors Sainte Anne, Mary’s mother, and Sainte-Geneviève the patron saint of Paris.

Denis was named in honor of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris in 250AD and the patron saint of the diocese.

Marcel honors Saint Marcel, the 9th bishop of Paris (late 4th century) and other patron saint of Paris.

Etienne was named after the first martyr of the New Testament.

Benoît-Joseph was named in honor of Joseph Ratzinger -Pope Benedict XVI.

Maurice was named in memory of Maurice de Sully, the 72nd Bishop of Paris (from 1160 to 1196) who initiated the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1163.

Finally, Jean-Marie was named after Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was the 139th Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005.

Rose windows of Notre Dame Cathedral


North rose window

The three rose windows of Notre Dame Cathedral are true masterpieces of religious art.

King St-Louis commissioned Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil with the creation of the south rose window.

Jean de Chelles, the first master builder of Notre Dame Cathedral, laid the first stone of the south transept’s facade in 1258.

The rose window was created in 1260 as a counterpoint to the north rose window.

Both rose windows have a diameter of 12.90m and are 19m high including their bay.

The south rosette depicts the New Testament, with Christ triumphant and ruling in Paradise.

The base is adorned with the prophets.

It is composed of 84 panels distributed in 4 circles.

The first circle has 12 medallions, and the 2nd 24.

The 3rd circle is composed of quatrefoil-shaped patterns, and the 4th circle of 24 medallions with quatrefoils.


South rose window

The number of circles, patterns and medallions are all multiples of 4.

The rosette was rebuilt in 1543 in order to correct the sagging of the stonework resulting from the lack of maintenance.

It was restored in 1723 and 1727.

It was damaged during the Revolution of 1830 and was rebuilt a few decades later.

A section was rebuilt as the stonework had collapsed and the rose window was turned 15 degrees in order to re-balance it.

Some motifs and medallions damaged or missing along with those depicting the prophets at the base had to be recreated.

The western rose window occupies the center of the main facade.

It measures 9,60m in diameter and is the largest stained-glass created during the 13th century.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Sacristy

Viollet le Duc entirely rebuilt the sacristy in Neo-Gothic in order to integrate it into the existing architecture.

The sacristy is organized around a small cloister decorated with 18 stained-glass windows created by the glass-maker Gérente and depicting the legend of Ste-Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris.

The main bay’s medallion represents the Coronation of the Virgin.

Half of these windows are open to the public during the visit of Notre Dame Cathedral’s treasure.

Notre dame Cathedral - Organ

401px-Organ_of_Notre-Dame_de_Paris_ copy

The great organ of Notre-Dame

The Great Organ was created in the 15th century and fifty organists have since played on its keyboards!

The organ was restored a first time in the 18th century when it took its present proportions.

The famous organ builder Aristide Caviallé-Coll restored it once more in 1868.

The electronic transmission was improved in 2012 in preparation for the Chemin du Jubilé celebrations.

The Grand Orgue of Notre Dame Cathedral was entirely disassembled in 2014 in order to replace various mechanisms and restore the facade pipes.

Those who enjoy Sacred Music can attend free organ concerts every Sunday in the cathedral during opening hours.

Notre Dame Cathedral - Porte Rouge and Porte du Cloître

The Porte Rouge was named after the colour of its leaves.

It is located on the northern wall of the chancel and led to the former cloisters.


Porte Rouge - Red Door

It was built by Pierre de Montreuil in 1250s as suggested by the sculpted garland of hawthorn (his sculptural signature).

This splendid door was restored in 2012 in preparation of the Chemin du Jubilé.

The door' s single arch is sculpted with scenes from the life of St-Marcel, one of the patron saints of Paris.

The tympanum is carved with a scene representing the Coronation of the Virgin Mary.

Two sculptures representing King St. Louis and his wife Marguerite of Provence, who sponsored its creation, once were at the base of the door.

A very clear Eastern influence, probably introduced by the Crusaders on their return from the Holy Land, is reflected in the style of the lower low relief.

Jean de Chelles built the magnificent Cloisters Portal in the 1240s and topped it with the superb north rose window.

The Cloisters Door is located a few steps away from the Porte Rouge.

It connected Notre Dame Cathedral to the Canons' lodgings.

Le Chemin du Jubilé in Notre Dame Cathedral

The year 2013 marked 850 years of history, art and spirituality of Notre Dame Cathedral.

This important anniversary was celebrated with the Chemin du Jubilé.


2013 - Chemin du Jubilé

This unique event took place from December 12, 2012 to November 24, 2013 under the patronage of the President of the Republic, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, ministry of culture and communication and the Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac.

The cathedral square - Parvis Notre Dame was transformed in order to accommodate various cultural and religious festivities, ceremonies, thanksgiving, conferences, exhibitions and extravaganza.

Major redevelopment and restoration works were carried out in 2012.

They included the production of 9 new bells, a new layout for the cathedral’s treasury, the restoration of the Shrine of Ste Geneviève the patron saint of Paris, the restoration of the magnificent Porte Rouge, the Grand Organ and the indoor lighting.

The 850th anniversary’s celebrations focused on the concept of pilgrimage, therefore all through the year visitors were offered a free mini pilgrimage.

Le Chemin des 850 ans started under a 13m high portal and lead people to the magnificent facade with its three sculpted gateways, then inside the cathedral to admire the many outstanding work of art.

Directions: 4th district
Metro station: Ile de la Cité on Line 4
Coordinates Notre Dame Cathedral: Lat 48.853250 - Long 2.348886

Source photos Wikimedia Commons: Emmanuel by de:Freedom_Wizard is licensed under CC BY 3.0 - Gargoyle by Michael Reeve is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 - Great Organ by Eric Chan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Paris – Ile De France - Latest content

Le Grand Assistant – Pompidou Centre

Le Grand Assistant by the German artist Max Ernst is a sculpture representing a humanoid with his arms outstretched and located by the Centre Pompidou

Marais – Paris Historic Rive Droite

The Marais is an historic enclave of the Right Bank which has been listed as a protected area since the promulgation of the Malraux Act in 1962

Esplanade des Olympiades – Chinatown

The Olympiades district was developed in Paris Chinatown in the 13th district and is centered on the Esplanade des Olympiades and La Pagode shopping mall

La Défense – Paris Business District

Paris La Défense, the largest purposely built business district in Europe was named after a statue commemorating the heroic defence of Paris in 1870-71

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Please note: We will not sell or distribute your email address to any third party.