Notre Dame Cathedral is among a few most evocative structures of Paris and its turbulent history. It is also one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. In Notre Dame’s long history, its involvement included coronations, destructions and numerous alterations of its design. This interesting ecclesiastical structure by all accounts is located in the Ile de la Cite, the birthplace of Paris, and its unique design, interesting as its history is, narrates the story of Christianity through its defining and most important stages in time.
A bit of Notre Dame’s history
The construction of Notre Dame - one of the leading masterpieces of the Gothic architecture - started in 1163, and is believed to be completed in 1345 in its original form. However, wear and tear and frequent restorations changed the original appearance quite a bit. The greatest damage (does this sound familiar?) was inflicted during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), which preceded the large scale restoration in the 19th century that inaugurated its present appearance.
The damage caused during the Revolution was so grave that even the utter demolition was considered. When imminent danger ceased, Notre Dame was a stage of the most important coronation in its history; Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned the Emperor in 1804. What an irony that one of the leading people of the Revolution, which aimed to revoke the kingship among other goals, ended up as an emperor. A couple of centuries back, during the Hundred Years War, the English king Henry VI was crowned the French king, in 1422. He was the disputed king of France until 1453, when the Hundred Years War was brought to an end.
Victor Hugo’s novel ‘Notre Dame de Paris’, which underlined the need for preservation of such majestic architectural gem, greatly influenced the 19th century renovation.
Architecture of Notre Dame
Did you know that, in fact, the Notre Dame Cathedral was never actually finished? And, that such a deliberate decision is credited for its characteristic design? If you look closely to its twin towers, you’ll quickly realize that they lack spires that are an integral part of any other Gothic cathedral. Massive portals at the base of the western façade are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment and St. Anne, from left to right. The arch of the central portal, depicting the Last Judgment, illustrates Jesus Christ in the role of the judge, while all around it are represented virtues, vices, apostles, Paradise and Hell.
Outstanding rose windows, located above the main portals on three sides of the Notre Dame, are yet another highlight. Additionally, the highly detailed façade is supported by the flying buttresses, which enabled the builders to create such an imposing structure rising into the heavens. The flying buttresses are approximately 15 meters thick. Besides those, large stylish windows featuring geometric patterns are densely distributed all around the expansive edifice.
The cathedral features 130 meters longitude, nearly 50 meters width, and 35 meters height, excluding the soaring spire that reaches 90 meters in height. The interior comprises a central nave and flanking aisles, defined by stylish columns supporting the arcades. The ceiling, seemingly higher than it really is, features the rib vaults.
The Notre Dame’s exquisite decoration
Before you enter the Notre Dame, you’ll be welcomed by the Old Testament kings, overlooking from the gallery over the portals on the cathedral’s western side. The kings of Israel and Judaea were pulled down during the Revolution because they reminded the people of the hated French kings. They assumed their original places during the mentioned restoration. Legendary gargoyles, gazing downwards, are still another striking decoration of the Notre Dame.
Once inside, your attention will be drawn to the above-mentioned rose windows and the organ over the central portal. The Great Organ, as it’s referred to, probably survived the Revolution by playing the patriotic melodies in this acoustic structure. The rose windows, which are 10 meters in diameter, depict scenes from the Old Testament (the northern one), Christ reigning on the heavens (southern) and scenes from the human life (western). Sadly, the last one is significantly obscured by the Great Organ.
As your way leads you through the aisles and the apse, make sure to observe an outstanding woodwork, which illustrates Christ after the resurrection. The alleged remnants of the Christ’s passion are stored in the Notre Dame’s treasury, but they aren’t on the display.
Additional tips and info
The Notre Dame Cathedral, meaning Our Lady Cathedral, is open daily and free of charge, unless you wish to climb on its towers, which offer great panoramic views (8.50 EUR / 9.15 USD). Paris Pass, Paris Museum Pass and other similar passes grant free entrance to the towers. Most of the time, you’ll find a long, sinuous queue at the entrance, but it should take you less than 15 minutes to make it inside. Various performers gather at the square in front of the Notre Dame, especially during the evening hours.
Quick tour of the cathedral, which includes rounding of its exterior and interior, takes no more than hour and a half (including the queuing time). A peaceful park at the back of the Notre Dame widely differs from its bustling front, and offers perfect opportunity to admire its diverse rear and lateral sides.
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