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the notre-dame

Year: 1163-1345

Location: Île de la Cité in Paris, France

Style: Gothic, Medieval


Religion: Catholic cathedral

brief summary

The most iconic monument in Paris, and perhaps in France, the Notre Dame is one of the most pertinent examples of the French Gothic style.

general description

The Notre Dame, translating to “Our Lady of Paris”, is a medieval Catholic  cathedral consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Located in the Île de la Cité, roughly 128 metres (420 ft) in length, and 12 metres (39 ft) wide in the nave, its architecture has become greatly emblematic and iconic, especially for the French nation, as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris.

A symbol of Paris and of the French nation  (with over  13 million visitors a year), the Notre Dame is generally regarded as one of the most famous churches in the world, one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and one of the best examples of medieval architecture. Adding to its great historical and architectural importance is the fact that it preserves some of the most important relics of the Christian religion including the Crown of Thorns, and a sliver and a nail of the cross. The cathedral also features three rose windows, which are considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity, and it is the most visited monument in Paris.

The cathedral of Saint Denis had inaugurated the Gothic style a few decades earlier. This style, which exalted verticality and light, transformed architecture through the groundbreaking use of flying buttresses and the rib vault, in order to distribute and support the massive weight of the stone, to introduce bigger windows, allowing such incredible heights and light. Some of the most important examples of the French Gothic design are the Chartres Cathedral (1250), the Senlis Cathedral (1191), the Bourges Cathedral (c. 1230), the Rouen Cathedral (1030) and the  Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes (1379). The French style became very popular throughout the Middle Ages, and was extensively copied by northern Europe, especially by England – Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York (1472) – and Germany – Cologne Cathedral (1248-1880). The Gothic style was gradually surpassed by French Renaissance architecture in late medieval times, and it had fallen into the background by the 16th century.


Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes (1379) (CC BY-SA 3.0, DXR)

South facade of the Bourges Cathedral (c. 1230) and south porch (CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Wagner51)

Senlis Cathedral (1191) (CC BY-SA 3.0, Diliff)

South-east view of the Chartres Cathedral (1250) (CC BY-SA 3.0, Olvr)

Rouen Cathedral (1030) (CC BY-SA 3.0, DXR)

Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York (1472) (CC BY-SA 2.0, Keith Laverack)

Cologne Cathedral (1248-1880) (CC BY-SA 3.0, Thomas Wolf)

The cathedral, commissioned by Maurice de Sully after becoming Bishop of Paris in 1160, was to convert the ruins of two existing old basilicas into a single, larger unified cathedral in Gothic style (which had begun in the 1130’s with the abbey of Saint Denis). The Bishop defined the project and dedicated his whole life to carrying it out, investing time, resources and wealth, making sure most of it was completed before his death in 1196.  It is of reference that the two old basilicas had been built over a Gallo-Roman temple, marking a significant land in Parisian grounds for multiple centuries. Simultaneously, Notre Dame also responded to a theological imperative in a newly assertive Christian Europe, that aimed to affirm power and  status; in this context, the cathedrals were supposed to be echoes of God’s kingdom; Notre Dame then had the underlying purpose of literally being a New Jerusalem, asserting  the Land of God on earth; a place so beautiful and awe striking that it echoed the power and majesty of God.

Although most of it was completed before 1196, overall, the cathedral was built over the course of two centuries, from 1163 to 1345 (although some sources consider that it was completed by 1260). In 1163, the construction began (during the reign of Louis VII, under coordination of Bishop Maurice de Sully), with the laying of the cornerstone in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III. The first phase of construction was the construction of the choir and the two ambulatories, both completed in 1177, which allowed for the consecration of the High Altar a few years later in 1182. With Maurice de Sully’s death in 1196, Eudes de Sully (unrelated to him) became his successor, continuing the construction of the cathedral. Eudes supervisioned the finishing of the transepts, and carried on with the execution of the nave, which would be close to its completion by the time of his death, in 1208. Once the nave was completed, it was time to focus on the creation of the western and main façade (including the two early-Gothic towers of 68 m (223 ft) in height), which was built between 1208 and the mid-1240s. During this time, the cathedral was under further changes in the Rayonnant style, having its transepts rebuilt according to the new aesthetic, and it had a new portal and a new rose window added to the north transept by Jean de Chelles. During his reign, Louis IX (1214-1270) deposited the relics of the passion of Christ (the Crown of thorns, a nail and a sliver of the Cross) at the cathedral marking it as a fundamental sacred place for the whole of Christianity. In the 17th century, many statues, especially the grotesques, were removed from the facade. During the French Revolution, in the 1790’s, revolting against religious idolatry, the cathedral was greatly desecrated and damaged; the spire was torn down, further sculptures (including the remaining grotesques) were removed, and the cathedral was used for storing food. In order to improve its deteriorated condition, in the mid 1840’s the restoration specialist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc began its renovation. During the restoration project which lasted between 1844 and 1864, one of the various changes was the replacement of the grotesques with figures in the Gothic style, designed by Viollet-le-Duc himself. Since the original spire (also a bell tower) had been taken down in 1786-1792 because of instability, Viollet-le-Duc’s also decided to re-build it, adorning it with copper statues of the 12 Apostles (representing himself as St. Thomas).

Photograph of Renovation

Almost all the new technological advances of the time were used in the construction of the cathedral. Further innovations were developed responding to the demands of this large space which introduced various technical and constructive problems. Besides the technical functional necessities, these new solutions aimed at creating a new kind of internal spatiality, bringing in more light to the large liturgical space.  Because the walls of the choir and nave were developing stress fractures due to heavy loads, during the 13th century, the architects were forced to come up with a new solution; they incorporated the single arched flying buttresses, preventing the walls from being pushed outwards by carrying the weight outside of the structure to a series of counter-supports, which allowed the walls to be thinner and have larger windows. It is speculated (specially by historian  Andrew Tallon) that the buttresses could have been part of the original design; either way, the invention was developed to respond to the Notre Dame construction needs and aesthetic ambitions. It also uses a more uncomplicated four-part  rib vault (instead of the six-part rib vault), which fortified the roof, enabling taller heights. The vault over the nave, more than 30m height, is crossed by stone ribs that are both structural and a visual aesthetic element, proving the symbiosis between the two.

The flying buttresses (CC BY-SA 2.0, Jean Lemoine)

The cathedral was built on the wrecks of two other churches, which preceded a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Furthermore, in the 19th century, the cathedral was the site of the coronation of Napoleon I and the funerals of many Presidents of the French Republic. The Notre Dame was also the setting for Victor Hugo’s novel, published in 1831 entitled ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’, which was greatly responsible for its increase in popularity; In 1944, the Allied liberation of Paris was celebrated within Notre-Dame, as well.

Arrival of Napoleon for his coronation

aesthetic/architectural analysis

The cathedral is gifted with various unique features which mark it distinctively as one of the most incredible Gothic masterpieces and clearly differentiate it from the previous and more dense Romanesque style. Ranging from the intricate decorative sculpting, to the wonderful rose window and the flying buttress, with the addition of the transepts, remodeled in the latest Rayonnant style, in the mid-13th century, make for all the features that lend Notre Dame much of what the Gothic style is all about.

The Cathedral consists of a choir and apse, a small transept, a nave flanked by double aisles and various square chapels. The interior of the cathedral is 130 by 48 metres in plan, and the roof is 35 metres high. The cathedral presents a latin cross plan: The nave and portals are located on the left side, in the middle there’s a choir, and on the right are an ambulatory and an apse. The Sacristy is at the south annex.

Floor Plan

Cross Section

The spires

The west facade (the main frontal facade), called by Le Corbusier “a pure creation of the spirit” is a simple yet complex structure and composition. With 41 metres in width, and 63 metres in height to the top of towers. It is composed of  two towers (68 me in height) in the early style (1210–50), a large rose (9.6 m in diameter) that acts as a halo above the statue of the Virgin with Child, with an angel on each side; underneath which is the Gallery of Kings (28 statues aligned representing the 28 generations of the Judah Kingdom.

Lower portion of West Façade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, at night (above – Kings of Judah and Israel; below, from left to right – Portal of the Virgin, Portal of the Last Judgement, Portal of Saint-Anne). (CC BY-SA 3.0, Benh LIEU SONG)

Detail from West Facade, Madonna and Child (CC BY-SA 4.0, Dietmar Rabich)

In addition, four buttresses appear on the bottom level, each one encasing a statue. While the side ones show allegories of the Church and the Synagogue, the north one depicts Saint Stephen and the south one represents Saint Denis. The buttresses are alternated with three big portals (the central portal is both taller and wider than the ones on the sides). The facade is known for its balance, between verticality and horizontal elements, and the extensive sculptural work that adorns it. The vertical twin towers (69 meters in height) seem to balance the horizontal bands of organized decorative elements in a rather unique and exquisite way.

Detail from West Facade, Church (CC BY-SA 3.0, Thesupermat)

Detail from West Facade, Synagogue (CC BY-SA 3.0, Thesupermat)

Detail from West Facade, Saint Stephen (CC BY-SA 3.0, Thesupermat)

Detail from West Facade, Denis of Paris (CC BY-SA 3.0, Thesupermat)

The cathedral aimed to be a liber pauperum which translates to a “poor people’s book”, meaning that it aimed to be covered with sculptures that illustrated biblical stories, making them accessible for the majority of the illiterate people.  The most notorious sculptural work is found in the West facade (the main facade that faces the square) in the three portals, with explendid intricacies on each of their tympanums (semi-circular decorative wall surface over an entrance), above which stands a row of Kings (the 28 kings of Judea and Israel).

Detail of four Kings (CC BY-SA 4.0, Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga))

The tympanum of the central portal illustrates scenes of the Last Judgment: the lower lintel depicts the dead being revived from their graves, the upper lintel features the archangel Michael weighing their souls, with selected people (good souls) being led to Heaven on the left, and the evil souls being drawn down to hell on the left; above, is Christ, and above him are figures of Heaven.  The right portal illustrates  the coronation of the Virgin Mary and the left portal depicts the lives of saints (of importance to Paris).  Besides the religious themes, there is a vast number of sculptural work that features grotesque figures and monsters, including the gargoyle, the chimera (a mythological beast with the head of a goat and the body of a lion) and the Strix (a creature similar to a bat or an owl, believed to devour human flesh). These assert themselves as allegorical beasts representing danger and evil, part of the message to worshipers to act in accordance to Christian doctrine; in some cases, such as is the case with the gargoyles, they were also believed to scare away evil spirits. Some of the sculptures used in the exterior, besides being decorative in nature, also had a practical function; such was the case with the gargoyles that also functioned as individual thin water spouts.

Portal of the Last Judgement (CC BY-SA 3.0, Carlos Delgado)

Detail of the Tympanum of the Last Judgment (CC BY-SA 4.0, Chriskaridis)

Other sculptures were dedicated to illustrate medieval philosophy and science; an example can be found in the central portal of the west facade, that feature alchemical symbolical references (figures holding circular plates). Another example is found in the central pillar of the middle door, that features a woman on a throne with two books – one open (symbol of knowledge), the other closed (symbol of esoteric knowledge) with a seven step ladder -, that symbolizes the seven stages of the alchemists.

Detail of West facade, Allegory of Alchemy (CC BY-SA 2.5, Chosovi)

The Rose Windows: The Notre Dame features three rose windows, which are considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity. The west rose windows, which is placed over the portals, is the first and the smallest, with 9.6m in diameter and made out of 1225 pieces of glass (which were recreated in the 19th century as the original ones had been destroyed). The North and South ones, the two transept rose windows, are larger and were created in 1250 and in 1260 respectively. The South Rose (a gift by King Louis IX)  is more prominent due to its size, 12.9 meters in diameter, totalizing 19 meters with the claire-voie surrounding it; it possesses  94 medallions, arranged in four circles, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and those who witnessed his time on earth; the inner circle has twelve medallions showing the twelve apostles, and the following circles depict martyrs, virgins, angels, saints (that were important to Paris such as Saint Denis, Margaret the Virgin with a dragon, and Saint Eustace), the Old Testament,  and the New Testament Gospel of Matthew (from the 12th century, the oldest). The North Rose, features Mary holding the Christ Child in the centre, surrounded by images of kings and prophets of the Old Testament.

South Rose Window

Rose Window (1255) CC BY-SA 2.0, by Zachi Evenor

Besides all these features, other major components that make Notre Dame unique include its large historic organ and its large church bells.

Bells of Notre Dame (CC BY-SA 3.0, Lionel Allorge)

There are numerous depictions of Notre Dame in paintings, illumination manuscripts, drawings and prints through the ages. Two examples of those are from Arrivée à Paris du jeune duc Louis II d’Anjou et de sa mère Marie de Blois (1475), an illumination by the Flemish miniature painter Master of Anthony of Burgundy (15th century), and a print made by the French artist Alfred-Alexandre Delauney (1830-1894) in the 19th century.

Depiction of Notre Dame in a Medieval illumination, by Master of Anthony of Burgundy.

Notre dame portrayed (1867-1890), Alfred-Alexandre Delauney

There are also numerous mentions and significant referrals, that all testify to Notre Dame’s beauty. For example John of Jandun, a French theologist, philosophist and writer, included the cathedral amongst the three most iconic buildings in Paris, in the Treatise on the Praises of Paris of 1323: “That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe, however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion.” The west facade, particularly,  is acclaimed internationally by various architects and critics. It was described as “a masterpiece of composition and execution,” by Marcel Aubert and  “a pure creation of the spirit” by Le Corbusier.

reference images

related works

Architect: unknown
Title: Bourges Cathedral
Location: Bourges, France
Beginning of Construction: 1195
Concluded: 1230
Movements: High Gothic Architecture
Commission: Dedicated to Saint Stephen
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC-BY-SA FR; CC-BY-SA-2.0-FR – Wagner51)

Architect: unknown
Title: York Minster
Location: North Yorkshire, England
Beginning of Construction: c. 1230
Concluded: 1472
Movements: Early English, Perpendicular Architecture
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 2.0, Keith Laverack)

Architect: unknown
Title: Senlis Cathedral
Location: Place de Notre Dame, Picardy, France
Beginning of Construction: 1154
Concluded: 1191
Movements: Early Gothic Architecture
Commissioned By: Bishop Pierre
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – Diliff)

Architect: Jean Texier
Title: Chartres Cathedral
Location: Chartres, France
Beginning of Construction: 1145
Concluded: 1220
Movements: High Gothic and Romanesque Architecture
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 3.0, Olvr)

Architect: Pêro Anes / Gil Enes
Title: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Location: Funchal, Madeira Island
Beginning of Construction: 1493
Concluded: 1514
Movements: Manueline Architecture
Commissioned By: D Manuel I
Function: Religious Architecture

Architect: unknown
Title: Cologne Cathedral
Location: Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Years Built: 1248–1560; 1842–1880; 1950s–present (restoration)
Movements: Gothic Architecture
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 3.0, Thomas Wolf)

Architect: Alavoine
Title: Rouen Cathedral
Location: Rouen, Normandy, France
Beginning of Construction: 1030
Concluded: 1880
Movements: Early Gothic to late Flamboyant and Renaissance Architecture
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – Daniel Vorndran / DXR)

Architects: Raymond du Temple and Pierre de Montereau
Title: Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes
Location: Vincennes, France
Founded: 1379
Movements: Gothic Architecture
Commissioned By: Charles V of France
Function: Religious Architecture

(CC BY-SA 3.0 – Daniel Vorndran / DXR)