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Churches of France

Gallery: Churches of Paris

by Peter Kessler, 26 October 2009

4e Arrondissement Part 1: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris) lies on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, and is the heart of Catholicism in France. It also forms one of France's most popular monuments, beating even the Eiffel Tower for the number of visitors who pass through its doors. It stands on the site of Paris' first Christian church, Saint Etienne Basilica, which was itself built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

That first church, St Etienne Basilica, was a 'magnificent church' which was built by the Merovingian Frankish king of Paris, Childebert I, in 528. By the tenth century it was already acknowledged as the city's cathedral. However, in 1160, having become the 'parish church of the kings of Europe,' Bishop Maurice de Sully deemed the building unworthy of its lofty role, and had it demolished, an act that would today have earned him almost universal condemnation.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

An important example of French Gothic architecture, sculpture and stained glass, work on the current cathedral began in 1163, during the reign of the Capetian king, Louis VII, and opinion differs as to whether Bishop Maurice de Sully or Pope Alexander III laid the cathedral's foundation stone. Construction of the west front, with its distinctive two towers which reach up to a total of sixty-nine metres, began around 1200, before the nave had been completed.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

The three west portals are magnificent examples of early Gothic art. Sculpted in 1200-1240, many of the statues, especially the larger ones, were destroyed in the Revolution and remade in the nineteenth century. The south tower was built to house the cathedral's famous bell, 'Emmanuel'. The bell weighs thirteen metric tons (over 28,000 pounds), and its clapper alone weighs 500 kilograms. The bell is Notre-Dame's oldest, having been recast in 1631.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

During the period of construction, numerous architects worked on the site, and this is shown in the differing styles at different heights of the west front and towers. Between 1210 and 1220, the fourth architect to work on the project oversaw the construction of the level which contains the rose window and the great halls beneath the towers. The towers were finished around 1245 and the cathedral was finally completed around 1345.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV at the end of the seventeenth century the cathedral underwent major alterations, destroying many tombs and stained glass windows. In 1793, the cathedral fell victim to the French Revolution. Many sculptures and treasures were destroyed or plundered. The cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason and later to the Cult of the Supreme Being. Lady Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

The cathedral also came to be used as a food storage warehouse during the Revolution, a fate that befell many churches in France (and similarly Estonian churches during the Soviet period), but a restoration program was initiated in 1845, overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The restoration work lasted twenty-three years, and included the construction of a spire and the addition of the Gothic gargoyles (chimères).

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

The King's Gallery is a line of statues of the twenty-eight kings of Judah and Israel. These were designed by Viollet-le-Duc to replace statues destroyed during the Revolution. The revolutionaries had believed those statues to be of French kings instead of biblical kings, so they decapitated them. Some heads were found during a 1977 excavation and are now on display at the Museum of the Middle Ages at Place Paul Painlevé, off the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

In 1871, a civil uprising leading to the creation of the short-lived Paris Commune nearly set fire to the cathedral. In 1905, the law of separation of Church and State was passed, and as with all cathedrals, Notre-Dame remains state property with its use granted to the Roman Catholic Church. A Te Deum Mass was held to celebrate the liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944, and a Requiem Mass for General Charles de Gaulle took place here on 12 November 1970.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris

In 1991, a major restoration program was undertaken. It was expected to last for ten years but continued well into the following century. The cleaning and restoration of the old sculptures was an exceedingly delicate job, but the scaffolding eventually came down leaving the cathedral looking as clean and brilliant as when it was first built, without any of the signs of black industrial stains that covered it in the previous decade.

One photo on this page kindly contributed by Emilie Taillardat.



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