On April 15, 2019, I was dining in a Mexican restaurant with another historian. While enjoying steak fajitas, I glanced up at the television monitor behind her to see a horrific scene playing out on the news. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire! The look of horror on my face and my exclamation of a strangled “no” caused her to look too. We both sat in teary-eyed disbelief.
We tried to convince ourselves that the fire would be put out soon. It would not. And that little damage would be done. Also not true.
Notre Dame de Paris is a national and international historical treasure though and it will be restored…eventually. President Macron has set a timeline of opening for the 2024 Paris Olympics, but this may be unrealistic (even before the pandemic). It may be ready for a return to worship by then though and visits to some portions.
Notre Dame’s glory can still be admired during the restoration. Set apart on an island in the Seine makes this beautiful church easy to spot and clear to see.
- Initial construction started in 1163
- High altar was consecrated in 1189
- Choir, western façade, and the nave completed c. 1250
- Completed in 1345
- Two Gothic bell towers are 223 feet tall
- Notre Dame means “our lady” in French
- Three rose windows
- Apse is supported by single-arch flying buttresses
- Point Zero—just in front of Notre Dame lies a paving stone which is the center of France from which all distances are measured. It states: Point Zero des Routes de France.
Exterior Points of Interest of Western Façade
- Three arched portals (from left to right): Portal of Mary (aka the Virgin), the Last Judgment, Portal of St. Anne
- Above the portals is the Gallery of Kings featuring the 28 Kings of Judah—interestingly these Biblical kings were mistaken for French kings during the French Revolution and some enthusiastic citizens beheaded them. A teacher rounded up the heads and buried them in a yard to protect them. In the late 20th century, the heads were unearthed and now reside at the Musee de Cluny (a remarkable medieval museum that is a must-see in Paris).
- The Virgin’s Balcony tops the Gallery of Kings
- Centered about the Last Judgment portal is the West Rose Window
- A colonnade runs across the stunning blue and purple Rose Window and the surrounding arches to its left and right
- The Gallery of the Chimeras with the charming gargoyles we all know and love come next
- Finishing the front are the two bell towers located directly above the left and right portals.
Notable Things that Happened at (or about) Notre Dame
- 1431—King Henry VI of England is crowned King of France after the Hundred Years War
- 1558—Site of royal wedding of Mary, Queen of Scots to Dauphin Francis (there have been other famous weddings)
- 1790s—the heads of 28 Kings of Judah are beheaded during the French Revolution
- 1804—Napoleon crowns himself emperor inside the cathedral
- 1831—Publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
- 1909—Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc 1412-1431) was beautified by Pope Pius X
Even if you can only gaze at its exterior, you need to place Notre Dame on your sightseeing list for your next Paris trip. While you’re there, you might want to visit the archaeological site out front—the Paris Archaeological Crypt. You can tour Roman ruins from the reign of Emperor Augustus I, as well as see the street plan of a medieval village. The small site really shows how Paris grew. Displays put the ruins in context and demonstrate how cities continue to build and grow throughout time and how Paris developed from the Roman town of Lutèce to an early medieval city with a church that preceded the one above—Notre Dame de Paris. I hope you enjoy a wonderful trip to Paris! It’s a city rich with history…and fattening food. Both of which should be enjoyed to the extreme. Bon voyage!
Good article on how restoration is progressing two years after the fire: https://www.afar.com/magazine/what-will-it-take-to-rebuild-notre-dame-cathedral/amp
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