It was in April when we were all watching the coverage of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a somber moment not only for the Parisians but for the entire world. I had the opportunity to visit the cathedral on two different trips to Paris. Since those trips were before I started this blog, I thought I would write a post as a tribute to the Notre Dame Cathedral and its history that goes back 850 years.
But before I begin, do you know what other historical disaster took place years ago on April 15, the same day as the cathedral burned? It was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
HISTORY OF NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
The construction of Notre Dame de Paris, meaning “Our Lady of Paris” in French, began in 1160 and construction continued through the next 300 years. The cathedral is considered to be one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture, but due to the length of construction, it also incorporates styles of the Renaissance and the Naturalism era.
Until the fire in April, the most significant damage to the cathedral happened during the French Revolution in the 1790’s when much of the cathedral’s religious imagery was destroyed. In the years following, the cathedral went through a period of serious decline.
In 1804, the cathedral was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor. This historical event brought renewed attention to the cathedral. But it was the success of the 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo that provided enough interest to lead to a major restoration. It was during this restoration that its world-famous spire was added to the cathedral.
During the Second World War, Paris was occupied by the Nazis. The cathedral sustained only minor damage, some of the medieval glass was damaged from stray bullets, as the city was liberated in August 1944.
The cathedral has shown signs of deterioration since the end of the war. Some of that deterioration has been caused by the increase in air pollution within the city. During each of these renovations, care was given to retaining the authentic architectural elements of the cathedral. It was during one of these renovations when the fire started.
Did you know the Notre Dame cathedral is one of the most visited attractions in Paris, with 11 to 13 million visitors per year? It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL – 2016
It was 2016 when I was fortunate to visit Paris on two different trips. During one of the trips, I attended mass and on the second trip attended a special organ concert. Both very emotional events!
WEST FAÇADE – ENTRANCE TO THE CATHEDRAL
The main entrance to the cathedral is on the west side. A plaza is in front and this is the spot where everyone takes pictures of the cathedral and its two towers. It is in these towers where the famous bells are located. These two towers, which were constructed in the 1200s, were the tallest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.
Even though it was a dreary day, the ringing of the bells greeted me upon my arrival on Sunday morning. As you watch the video, note the long line. It is for the tourists who enter the church during mass and walk through other parts of the cathedral during the service. A shorter line admitted anyone who wanted to attend the full mass. Wanting to experience a service in this famous cathedral, I chose the shorter line.
In the picture below is the West Façade of the cathedral. There are some very interesting highlights on this side of the cathedral. The West Rose window can be seen in the upper part of the picture. This is the one which is located near the organ and will be seen again later in the post.
Below the Rose window is the Gallery of the Kings which stretches across the front of the cathedral. On the ground level are three portals, entrances to the cathedral. Each portal includes sculpted saints and sacred scenes. The largest portal, in the center, is called the Portal of the Last Judgement. The left portal is the Portal of the Virgin and the one to the right is the Portal of St. Anne.
The picture below is a closer look at the Portal of the Last Judgement. It was built in the 1220s to 1230s and was the last of the portals to be completed. The scene depicts Christ sitting on the throne of glory.
INSIDE THE CATHEDRAL
The nave of the cathedral is long and narrow as one looks toward the altar. The pillars on each side of the nave, along with the soaring high rib-vaulted ceiling, focus one’s attention on the altar at the other end. The vaulted ceiling was formed using wood-timber frames. This wood came from about 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam was constructed from an individual tree. It was the wood in the ceiling that burned and led to the collapse of the roof.
The cathedral is much wider than can be seen from the picture above. To the left and right of the main seating area is the space in which tourists walk to see the iconic sites within the cathedral.
At the end opposite the main entrance of the cathedral is the altar with its cross.
In pictures that have been taken after the fire, it appears the altar and cross survived the inferno.
As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to attend a mass and pictures are not allowed to be taken from the nave’s general seating area. During my second visit, I was touring the building and was able to take pictures of the service.
THE GRAND ORGAN
The Notre Dame organ was dedicated in 1868 although some of the pipes in the organ date back to the Middle Ages. The organ is the largest in France and one of the most famous in the world. The organ has 8,000 pipes and five manuals (keyboards). The sound of the pipe organ filled the cathedral. That fullness came from the large number of pipes plus the acoustics from the structure of the cathedral that helped promote the rich sound.
The following video is at the end of the church service as the organ is playing.
Behind the organ is the west Rose Window.
The good news is the organ was spared from the flames. It has been tested and determined that it did not sustain any damage by the fire.
THE ROSE WINDOWS
The three Rose windows are among the most famous features of the cathedral. They are considered to be the greatest masterpieces of Christianity. The smallest of the Rose windows is above the main entrance to the cathedral. On the inside, it can be seen looking at the organ which partially blocks the view of it.
The two other Rose windows are at each end of the transept. The transept is the area that forms the layout of the cross in the cathedral. These two Rose windows were created in the mid-1200s.
The South Rose window is the one which receives the direct sunlight casting its colors across the transept of the cathedral. It is known for its size (42 feet in diameter) and its artistry.
The window has 94 medallions that are arranged in four circles. These circles depict scenes from the life of Christ and those who witnessed His time on earth.
In the closeup of the Rose window as seen above, the colors and scenes are easier to see. The stained glass contains both medieval and 19th-century glass.
It has been assessed that the Rose windows did survive the fire.
OUTSIDE THE CATHEDRAL
The cathedral is located on an island, the Ile de la Cite, which is usually referred to as the epicenter of Paris. Along the north side of the cathedral is a street and buildings across from that. Because of that, most pictures we see of the cathedral are taken from the south side where gardens are located as well as a view of the Seine river.
At the beginning of this post, I shared a video of the twin towers as the bells were ringing. But my favorite perspective of the towers is from another angle where other parts of the cathedral bring more character to the towers.
Continuing along the south side of the cathedral are gardens. One of these gardens has a statue of Pope John Paul II. Behind the statue is the south Rose window which I featured in the previous section.
Continuing to walk along the south side of the cathedral, there are many areas where the spire can be seen. Unfortunately, this spire collapsed during the fire. The spire was not part of the original cathedral. During the restoration in the 1800s, a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the original spire was added to the cathedral.
Outside the back of the cathedral are more gardens and also a good view of the flying buttresses. This system of arched exterior supports is unique because it was one of the first buildings in the world to use it. The flying buttresses help bring stability to Gothic architecture because the walls built in this style were predominantly thinner than other walls.
The Future of the Cathedral
While much of the cathedral has been saved, only time will tell how it will be rebuilt and when. At the present time, over $1 billion has been donated to help in the restoration of the cathedral. President Macron, the French president, has said he would like to have the cathedral rebuilt within five years which would coincide with the 2024 Summer Olympics which France will be hosting.
Many questions remain as to how it will be restored. But as we look at the history of the Notre Dame cathedral, we see that it has been restored many different times. While there has been no damage as severe as that of this fire, the cathedral has continued to stand for hundreds of years.
I’ve always enjoyed seeing the cathedral at night and that is how I will end this post. We’ll have to see what the “new dawn” brings for the Notre Dame Cathedral.