“The Gothic of Verona is far nobler than that of Venice;
and that of Florence nobler than that of Verona.
… that of Notre Dame of Paris is the noblest of all.”
- The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin
The day was bright and filled with leisure hours. We would not have wished to be anywhere else in the world on that day but in the grand Cathédrale of Notre-Dame in Paris, the capital of elegance and art. With the presence of our daughter Bianca, the last few days had swiftly accelerated and rolled away quickly. She was absolutely vibrant. Having visited the central landmarks and point of identification, viz., the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Sacré-Cœur, The Louvre and Mona Lisa, all of which has been absorbed into the tradition of Paris, we had decided to take her to other blessedly French places not to be missed including Palais Garnier (Opéra de Paris). She had done her homework and knew there was far more colour and nerve in Paris.
Long before all the above landmarks came into existence and well before the city came to be known as Paris, “Lutetia” (Lutetium) as it was known during the Late Empire, was centred on a small island in the shape of a cradle in the Seine called Île de la Cité, the heart of the city. Years later, it was here on the pavement in the great plaza called Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II (1) before Notre-Dame de Paris that the official centre of Paris was landmarked with a bronze star on an embedded plaque – proclaiming the central place of Notre-Dame in the country’s life.
This bronze star, (placed by André Jules Michelin), is the point-zero (Point-Zéro des routes de France) for measuring distances from Paris. The local tip-off is that: a) if you stand on the bronze plate, you will return to Paris; b) your love will last forever, if you stand on it with your lover and share a kiss. No reward for guessing what I have often done there.
I know, so much has been written and said about Notre Dame. But, until last time I was here, I never thought that Notre-Dame de Paris is best seen from behind the flying buttresses at the east end. This time around, having reached the area via Quai Saint-Michel, we had crossed the Petit Pont (Little Bridge, erected in 1853) and entered the Parvis (square) which now dwarfs the apocalyptic west façade with its great area. The Parvis was indeed much smaller before Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), while remodelling Paris for Napoleon III in the nineteenth century, cleared the structures which clustered before the cathedral and enlarged the Parvis, adding different features to it.
The Parvis was crowded with people – we could pick up the scent of liveliness in the air. Moving past the Crypte Archéologique du Parvis de Notre-Dame, we came across the high stone base bearing “Charlemagne et Ses Leudes”, the imposing bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Charlemagne accompanied by his leudes: Roland and Olivier. It was sculpted by brothers Louis and Charles Rochet in time for the L’Exposition universelle de 1878 (third Paris World’s Fair – open to the public: May 20 to November 10, 1878). Since its erection in the square, it not only has outlived the threat of displacement but also has remained a mute spectator at the area which has played a vital part in so much of France’s history.
If one would track the olden times back from the time of Charlemagne to the origins of Paris, we would find that it was the military importance of Île de la Cité which had motivated the Romans to build the city of Lutetia where there was a small settlement of Gallic tribe of merchants and fishermen called Parisii. Given that the spot was already hallowed by a Druid shrine, no wonder a place of worship for Jupiter came up – the remains of this altar will be mentioned below.
The Roman occupation had ushered in Christendom and from the wreck of the Roman shrine rose a cathedral – just like many mediaeval churches of Western Europe which claim a pre-Christian origin. In his book about Paris, author A.J.C Hare relates that a church dedicated to Saint-Étienne (St. Stephen) was built on the islet about the year 375. (The website of Notre Dame states: This cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen was very large. Its western façade located about forty metres west of the current façade of Notre-Dame – which is where we are presently sitting now.) Adjacent to Saint-Étienne, an edifice far more rich and beautiful was built in 528 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame II), the substructions of which were found during excavation of the Parvis during the 19th century. Notre-Dame II had subsequently assumed a pre-eminence among the churches and for the faithful, became the center of the Christian cult.
During the three hundred years between 1050 and 1350, 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches and hundreds of small parish churches were built in France alone which reflected the wealth and variety of the country’s history and architecture. It has also been regarded as the most typical expression of medieval civilization. It was a period when the country’s faith was humble, her love a mounting flame. Following the construction of the abbey of St. Denis (now Basilique cathédrale de Saint-Denis) on the grave of Saint Denis north of Paris in 1144, there was strong plea for a cathedral much longer and upward looking than Saint-Étienne’s in Île de la Cité, – a cathedral worthy of the great demographic expansion and economic dynamism of Paris. With the low hills region such as Butte Saint-Jacques, nearby Bagneux, Arcueil, and Montrouge dispersed with great beds of granite and limestone, there was hardly any shortage for building materials. Without totally destroying the existing two churches, Maurice de Sully (elected bishop of Paris on October 12, 1160 – died in 1196) commenced to build a new edifice on the same site. It is generally held that Pope Alexander III laid its foundation stone in 1163.
Prior to the start of the work, the Rue Neuve-Notre Dame was created to make it easier to bring the masonry. With the center of worship shifted to the nave of the older Notre-Dame II, the foundations of the new cathedral were dug thirty feet deep and filled with the hard stone of Montrouge on which the enormous weight would rest. The construction was done by professional workers organized in accordance with the traditions and rules of the guilds, and the powerful Chapter of Notre-Dame. The underlying efficiency of the work done is that the vault webs of Notre-Dame are only 6 inches in thickness and they have held steadfast for 850 years!
The chancel was built first so that the church could function. The choir’s high altar was consecrated in 1182. The nave (with the exception of the extreme west end) was realised about the year 1195 (the year Santo Antônio de Pádua was born in Lisbon.) Under Eudes de Sully (died 1208), the successor of Maurice, the work on the west façade which begun in 1202 was completed to the base of the gallery by 1223. The galerie des rois (the Gallery of Kings) was completed under Guillaume de Seignelay (1219-1224). The twin towers (without the spires) were realised by 1235. A transept was not in the original plan, but a short one was inserted before the nave was laid down. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was in Paris during the time the transept was being built. After visiting the chapel of the Virgin behind the choir in 1323, French philosopher, theologian Johannes de Janduno wrote, “On entering one feels as if ravished to heaven, and ushered into one of the most beautiful chambers of paradise.” Although the cathedral was never completed consistent to the plan of the original designers, when the work was finally realised circa 1345, the edifice presented an irregular alignment due to interruptions in its construction.
God must have danced around me when I was born – for as it turned out, I have been generously blessed with occasions to travel far and wide – and most importantly in the presence of wonderful persons. For the past few days, Carina was having fun naming to me the various trees adorning Paris: the Linden- and Horse chestnut trees along the Seine; Honey Locust, Mimosa, Empress, Cherry…… and many others including the London Plane by the Avenue des Champs Élysées. That was hardly a fortuitous coincidence, but in lieu of the movie locations of Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler) which I pointed out to her in Rome on a spring-like day – few of which she knew!
My theory/schedules of longer periods of stay and repeated visits to a given place has aided my endeavours for in-the-field study of important subjects augmented with the minute details of history and architecture available in various writings. The day before, Carina brought me a book from a little shop across from our hotel, which I had been looking to buy for a long time. Everything comes to he who waits. This book to which the quote on the header relates, had given me the right disposition to write this article. But for me, to be in the presence of a cathedral of religious, cultural and architectural significance such as Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris is good fodder in that respect.
We have now moved closer to the cathedral. From where we sat, we could clearly view the features of the major divisions of the west façade crowned by two towers. Dissimilar in size, the towers rose from a parapet or pierced cornice which surmounts an open arcaded screen of gigantic proportions. The spires for the two towers of Notre Dame, originally planned by the builders, were never made.
At the top of the towers are open arcades and small turrets where the staircases end. The panoramic view of Paris from up there is also complimented by the full structural beauty of the cathedral – its grand arrangement of flying buttresses, the great roof ridge, fléche (built in 1859-60 since the ancient fléche was destroyed in 1787), the circular chevet, the host of statues, gargoyles and other sculptured ornaments.
Atop the south tower, one can see the great bell or bourdon of the cathedral which was re-foundered and re-baptized “Emmanuel” (Emmanuel-Louise-Thérèse) in 1686 in honour of Louis XIV, and Marie-Thérèse of Austria. According to a book by Esther Singleton, it was originally named “Jacqueline“ in honour of Jacqueline de la Grange, the wife of Jean de Montaigu (about 1349 – 1409) who had presented the bell in 1400 (very interesting – must read up this history). You could listen to the sound of Emmanuel, topping over the other bells, in Youtube videos featuring liturgical ceremonies of the cathedral.
Under the division containing the wheel window is the Gallery of (28) Kings running across the entire façade. The figures we see now are restorations. Directly below, on ground level, are the three great portals – all asymmetrical in height and width and in sculptural subjects.
Le Portail du Jugement – Central doorway
The Portal of the Last Judgment (Le Portail du Jugement) occupies the central doorway with The Portal of the Virgin (Le Portail de la Vierge) on the left, and commemorating the Blessed Virgin’s mother is The Portal of Saint Anne (Le Portail Sainte-Anne) to the right which is a composite work carved during Maurice’s time (between 1160-1170) but was set up only after Eudes de Sully took over the work of the west façade.
Le Portail de la Vierge – Left doorway
Le Portail Sainte-Anne – Right doorway
It was outside on the porch of the cathedral, in front of the “architectural glory of France”, that the marriage of King Henri of Navarre with Marguerite de Valois took place on August 18, 1572, owing that the King was a Huguenot at that time. In May 1625, the marriage of Charles I of England to the French princess Henrietta Maria (youngest daughter of King Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici) took place by proxy with the west façade as the backdrop (2)(3) (4),
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame), the edifice was subjected to reckless mutilation between 1699 and 1753 when the Cloister, the stalls of the sixteenth century, the old high altar, many sepulchral monuments, and stained glass were destroyed – yet, considering the vicissitudes through which the cathedral has passed, it’s a blessing that so much remained unaltered in contour and general effect and also much of original sculpture has been preserved. While the mid-19th century restorer, Eugéne Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc has outshot the others in proving his efficiency for all of the present state of skilful restorations of Notre-Dame which included aesthetic and structural improvements; at any rate, Bishop Maurice de Sully, the ancient designers and premier massons (5) of the cathedral have ensured that everything was essentially arranged to concentrate the eye on the chief altar, and to provide dignity to its position.
Ever since the consecration of its main altar in 1182, the cathedral with its vast open space to accommodate the ever-numerous believers has served the religious services and frequent synods. I read somewhere that St. Dominic preached there. The new-born heir was blessed at its altar. Emperors were crowned there. Standing before the altar of the cathedral on December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte took the crown from Pope Pius VII (1742 -1823) and crowned himself. For being the venue, it was decorated for spectacular royal marriages like the fairy-tale wedding of Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) and Empress Eugenie (Spanish Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, Comtesse de Teba) in January, 1853, Little more than 100 years later, Princess Françoise of Bourbon-Parma married Prince Edouard de Lobkowicz there in January, 1960.
Prior to ceremonial interment of Saint Louis (Louis IX (1214 – 1270) at St. Denis, his body (having undergone the process known as mos Teutonicus) lay in state at Notre Dame – a custom followed for many French monarchs and princes. In October 1895, the cathedral was the venue for the State funeral of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (reinterred at the Institut Pasteur). When Gen. Charles de Gaulle died in 1970, it was in Notre Dame de Paris, (the very place where gunshots were fired at him in August 1944), where the heads of nations gathered for a Requiem Mass on the day the funeral was held at his home village, Colombey-les-Deus-Églises where he was laid to rest by the grave of his daughter Anna.
Bound in the developments of the times, Notre Dame de Paris had also served as a meeting place for trade unions, dormitory for the homeless, location for movies, while its nave was once used to store wine casks. According to media reports, in May 2013, a French historian pulled out a shotgun and shot himself dead in the cathedral.
Periodical repairs and modifications were done to redress the wear and tear it suffered by time, climate, intolerance and ignorance. In their book, authors Jean-Benit Nadeau and Julie Barlow wrote that by the middle of the 19th century, the cathedral had fallen into such neglect that authorities considered demolishing it and using the stones to build bridges. The restoration of the cathedral finally came when the government of King Louis-Philippe I (1773 – 1850) decided to counter the concerns with remedial measures.
Ever since our arrival, we had noticed that the porch of the cathedral was swarming with visitors of all shades and shapes. Right now, the line-up of people under the southern door: Portail de Sainte-Anne or St. Marcel, has swelled. It was time for us to join the queue.
Merci et au revoir. Jo
(End of Part One)
- Named in September 2006 in honour of the pope who had died in 2005;
- Charles I of England and Princess Henrietta Maria were married in person at St. Augustine’s Church, Canterbury, Kent in June 1625.
- According to the website of Notre Dame de Paris, although masses, vespers and the sacrament of reconciliation are celebrated every day of the year, since the cathedral is no longer a parish, baptisms, marriages and funerals are no longer held there;
- Currently, outdoor wedding ceremony packages are available for couples wanting a symbolic wedding ceremony or symbolic renewal of vows held at major Paris landmarks and in the vicinity of Place Jean-Paul II or at its fringes with Notre Dame Cathedral as backdrop. Of course, I mention here only about symbolic ceremonies.
- Name of the first master of the work is unknown although, according to a book, a “Richard the Mason” witnessed a cathedral document in 1164.
- I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
- This article is dedicated to all the brave soldiers of India, the fallen and the living, for their courage and dedication in protecting our country from the menace lurking at our frontier.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)