Cathedral for art and history

Building history

Before the current Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Paris, formerly known as Lutetium, was evangelised in the 3rd century. There were enough Christians in the year 250 for Pope Fabian to send the first bishop, Dyonisius, to Paris. He became Saint Denis, the patron saint of the city. At the time, Christians were persecuted all over Gaul and the Roman Empire. the bishop Denis had to practice the faith in secret, probably in a simple room in a Gallo-Roman villa. Denis was martyred a few years later with his helpers on Mont Mercure, later named Mont Martyrum, or Montmartre. His successors lived in hiding until the Emperor Constantine declared peace with the Church in 313.

It was then possible to build Christian edifices, and the first one was most likely built on the left bank, perhaps, as some stories say, next to the current Val-de-Grâce. However, we do not have any precise information on this first cathedral or the ones to immediately follow it. Various excavations have been done on the eastern part of the Ile de la Cité, the current location of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. They lead to believe that at the beginning of the common era, there was a pagan temple, later replaced by a large Christian basilica with five naves, which most likely resembled the ancient basilicas of Rome or Ravenna. We do not know whether this cathedral, which was dedicated to Saint Stephen, was built in the 4th century and was later renovated or whether it was built in the 7th century with old or reused elements. One thing, however, remains certain. This cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen was very large. Its western façade located about forty metres west of the current façade of Notre-Dame, was slightly less wide than the building’s total length, approximately half the current width. Inside, the naves were separated by marble columns, and the walls were decorated with mosaics. According to the liturgy, it had a baptistery on its north side, named after Saint John the Round.

Saint Stephen’s cathedral seems to have been regularly maintained and repaired, at least enough to resist damage from wars and the wear of time. However, in the mid-12th century, under the reign of Louis VII, the bishop Maurice de Sully and the chapter made an extremely important decision: they decided to build a new cathedral instead of Saint Stephen. It would be much longer and taller than the previous one, since the new architectural techniques that were gaining favour, the ogival style, commonly known as the gothic style today, allowed it.

Birth of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

On 12 October 1160, Maurice de Sully was elected bishop of Paris.

Paris was experiencing a period of great demographic expansion and economic dynamism and was affirming its status in the kingdom of France as:

  • the political capital of the Capetian kings, Philip I in particular (1060-1108), Louis VI the Fat (1108-1137) and Louis VII the Young (1137-1180);
  • an economic centre, as a craftsmen’s and merchant’s village developed on the right bank of the Seine around the Marché des Halles;
  • a major intellectual and teaching centre: international influence of the cathedral school.

Maurice de Sully was bishop of Paris from 1160 to 1196. From the time he was elected, he provided a pastoral, theological and spiritual response to his diocese’s deep transformations by rebuilding a cathedral church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame) and making it a bishop’s church, a canon church and a baptistery. This project was the focal point of an enormous urban construction site:

  • demolition of the former Saint Stephen’s and construction of Notre-Dame;
  • creation of a square, or parvis, which would serve as an intermediary space between the secular world and the sacred world: an area for catechism and learning through the portal sculptures;
  • opening of the Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame: a vast, 6-metre wide street that would give a large population easy access to the cathedral; it would be stage to major processions over the centuries;
  • reconstruction of the Bishop’s Palace and the Hôtel-Dieu.

1163

Tradition has it that Notre-Dame’s first stone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III.

The new building fell under the new art movement known as the gothic style (or the ogival style). This style had already been seen on other worksites:

  • in 1140 with the dedication of the Abbey of Saint-Denis built by Abbé Suger;
  • in 1150: Noyon;
  • in 1153: Senlis;
  • in 1160: Laon, Sens.

The first anonymous builder began with a double side aisle plan without a salient transept (the same plan used in the previous cathedral, Saint Stephen), a four story construction with tribunes, large, 32.5 metre sexpartite arches, predominantly horizontal lines, original archwork in the curved part of the deambulatory, alternating “strong” and “weak” pillars between the first and second aisles.

12th – early 13th century

Four major construction campaigns, led by four builders, were the highlight of this period:

1163-1182 : construction of the choir and its double deambulatory. The choir’s high altar was dedicated on 19 May 1182 by Henri de Château-Marçay, the Papal legat, assisted by the bishop Maurice de Sully. (first builder).

1182-1190 : construction of the last three bays in the nave, the side aisles and the tribunes. (second builder).

1190-1225 : edification of the façade courses and the first two bays in the nave, connection of the two bays to the upper façade and the Gallery of Kings. (third builder).

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Reconstitution de Choeur gothique clos par le mur d’enceinte et le jubé.
Dession de Viollet-le-Duc dans son Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. 1856

1225-1250 : upper gallery and two towers on the façade, modification and expansion of the upper windows and fitting out the nave side chapels between the flying buttresses’ abutments (fourth builder).

Building work from the late 13th – early 14th century

The builders are all well-known: Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil, Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy, Jean le Bouteiller.

Expansion of the transept arms: North counter-brace (Cloister Portal and North Rose Window) and South counter-brace (Saint-Etienne Portal and South Rose Window).

Construction of the choir chapels and the apse between the buttresses.

Installation of the large flying buttresses in the choir and the 15-metre apse.

Erection of the tribune and a historiated stone screen around the choir and the sanctuary.

Modifications in the 17th and 18th centuries

Refurbishment of the sanctuary and the choir, led by Robert de Cotte, to fulfil the vow of Louis XIII.

Restoration of the South Rose Window.

Replacement of the 12th and 13th century stained glass windows with white windows in the mid-18th century by the Le Vieil brothers.

Architectural work done by Soufflot:

During the Revolution:

  • Disassembly of the 13th century spire;
  • Destruction of the 28 statues from the Gallery of Kings;
  • Destruction of all the major portal statues except the
  • Virgin from the Cloister portal trumeau.

New interest in the 19th century

New context in the early 19th century: a new concordat is signed in July 1801 and Notre-Dame is given back to the Roman Catholic church on 18 April 1802. In 1831, Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was a huge success. In 1844, the government of King Louis-Philippe I decreed the restoration of the Paris cathedral and the construction of a sacristy.

The restoration project was given to two architects: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. In 1857, after the death of Lassus, Viollet-le-Duc was left as the sole builder.

To restore an edifice is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it, it is to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a given moment. (Viollet-le-Duc)

This is how the major restoration campaign began, often associated with changes in the general architecture, mainly including:

  • reconstruction of the spire;
  • restoration of the sculptures (around fifteen sculptors, including Adolphe Geoffroy-Dechaume, would take part);
  • construction of the new sacristy;
  • installation of new windows by great master glassworkers (Alfred Gérente, Louis Steinhel, Antoine Husson, Maréchal de Metz, Didron the Elder);
  • refurbishment of the central portal to the pre-Soufflot state;
  • reconstitution of part of the Treasury and the furniture;
  • wall paintings in the side chapels;
  • complete repair of the great organ.

On 31 May 1864, the cathedral was dedicated by Msgr. Darboy, archbishop of Paris.

Contemporary period

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Les verrières de Jacques Le Chevallier
© Gérard Boullay

Windows by Jacques Le Chevalier © Gérard Boullay Fortunately, the two world wars spared the cathedral.

In 1965, there was an end to the 30 years of intense debates over whether to replace the nave’s 19th century grisaille windows with colour windows. In the end, master glassworker Jacques Le Chevallier was selected to make these windows, non-figurative grisailles with splashes of colour. This idea matched the bright atmosphere that would have been used in the 13th century.

Between 1990 and 1992, the great organ, which in the 20th century doubtlessly became the world’s most famous, underwent major restoration work done by a group of French organ builders.

Since 2000 (the last year of major cleaning work on the west façade, which lasted over ten years), thanks to the talents and techniques of the Historical Monuments restorers, it has been possible to admire the splendour of this jewel of medieval architecture.

To meet the imperatives of the Second Vatican Council, the clergy refurbished the liturgical platform several times. The last changes, made in 2004, under cardinal-archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger, included the recreation of the passage between the two transepts and rearranged the site to fully bring the choir and the nave together so that they now form a single unit during liturgical celebrations.

The cathedral is now more than ever a part of our culture. It is more than just a museum, and serves, as it has from the beginning, as the House of God and the Home of Men, its influence always remaining current.

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