If you go to Paris and do not visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, you are missing out on the grandest, most amazing and emblematic Gothic cathedral in the world. We visited Notre Dame in the middle of the tourist season, on a lovely August day, when a huge cosmopolitan group was crowding in the square in front of the cathedral.
A few meters from the entrance in the cathedral lies the hub of the city, called parvis in French, from the Latin paradisum. In front of the cathedral we find the imposing Statue of Charlemagne.
Notre Dame is the most visited historical landmark in France, followed by the Sacré Cœur de Montmartre Basilica, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Around 20 million visitors come to see the Notre Dame each year. Out of these, 14 million actually go inside the cathedral. Located in the center of l’Ile de la Cité, the cathedral dominates both the island and the river Seine. The very spot where the Notre Dame lies today has been ground for at least four other previous religious edifices, a Roman-Welsh temple dedicated to Jupiter, a Paleochristian church, a Merovingian church and a Carolingian church.
The construction began under the reign of Ludwig the 7th, in 1163, under the initiative of Maurice de Sully, Archbishop of Paris. The building was finished 180 years later, in 1345. It was the first cathedral built at such a large scale and it soon became the prototype for other similar edifices that were raised in France in the following period, like Amiens, Chartres or Rheims.
The impression that Notre Dame left upon me was overwhelming. It is a huge edifice, 128 meters in length and 48 meters wide. It has two 69 m high towers and a bell tower that is 96 m. There are three decorated entrances. To the north, we find the Portal of the Virgin, in the center the Portal of the Last Judgement and to the south, the Portal of St. Anne, the oldest of the three. Between the towers, the famous Galerie des Chimères, or the Gallery of Chimeras, displays a series of sculptures representing apocalyptic figures and hobgoblins inspired by old Christian legends. The ground level features the famous north rose window. With a diameter of 10 m, it shows Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. The three rose windows of the cathedral are considered one of the great artworks of Christianity. The south rose window, or La Rose du Midi, is a gift from King Ludwig the 13th. The King’s gallery, housing the 28 statues of the kings of Judea, was rebuilt in the 19th century.
The cathedral had to face a coarse destiny, dealing with vandalism and suffering alterations throughout its long history. During the French Revolution, in 1789, the statues in the King’s Gallery were decapitated because they were mistaken with the kings of France. Almost all the statues that decorated the gates, the thesaurus and the altar, with its furniture and paintings, were destroyed or stolen. The Cult of Reason was proclaimed inside Notre Dame. At the end of the revolution, the cathedral was turned into a warehouse. It wasn’t until 1802 that the edifice was restored to its original purpose. Because of its miserable aspect, it was subject to a few quick restorations and was camouflaged using decorations and flags in order to receive Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor in 1804, in the presence of Pope Pius the 7th.
It wasn’t until Notre Dame de Paris was published in 1831 by the great novelist Victor Hugo, that the public became aware of the inestimable value of the monument. The book had a tremendous success and authorities finally decided to save the cathedral and launched a thorough restoration program which was finalized in 1864. Restoring the sculptures was the main success of the architects. More than 100 statues were created for the exteriors, out of which 12 surrounded the towers. In a short while, the Paris Commune tried to blow up the edifice again, setting fire to the furniture. Fortunately, the fire was immediately put down. Beginning with 1990, modern techniques allowed the natural stone in the exterior walls, darkened by the passing of centuries, to be restored to its purity and its original white.
Just like the majority of the French cathedrals, Notre Dame was built following a Latin cross shaped plan. The interiors are set on three levels, with large arcades, tribunes and imposing windows. We admired the two organs. The Notre Dame Organ, dating from 1730 and restored in 1962, is the largest in France. All the objects in the cathedral have an inestimable value due to their age. The reliquary contains the ring of the Holly Crown of Thorns of the Lord Savior and other relics from the Lord’s Passion, all bought by King Louis in 1238.
The quintessence of Medieval French art, included on the UNESCO heritage list, the cathedral celebrates 850 years of existence between the 12th of December 2012 and the 24th of November, 2013. The event is accompanied by extensive liturgical, cultural and artistic manifestations. The mastery of the artists who built this wonderful masterpiece is detailed in Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris, where he wrote that “When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age, and the features of a king, even in the knocker on a door“.