Notre-Dame in Paris on fire Source: Wikipedia 2019

Notre-Dame de Paris

Last night an incendiary firestorm swept through the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. What is the history of this iconic building? And how do we move on?

Paris c. 1150 Île de la Cité
Paris c. 1150 – 1200 Île de la Cité

At the end of Antiquity, in the 4th century, Paris retrenched to the Île de la Cité, the island in the river Seine, and barricaded itself behind a wall. However, behind the walls, a significant religious landscape gradually appeared. To the northwest, an Imperial palace was taken over by the Merovingians after c. 500, while the east gave a home to a series of churches, Saint-Étienne, the female convent of Saint Christophe, a baptistery and the first cathedral. Mentioned for the first time c. 400 in the vita of St. Martin of Tours, this first Cathedral was nevertheless, not the iconic centre of Paris until much later. Although a bishop was mentioned for the first time in 346, Sainte-Geneviève, where the Merovingian kings were buried was more prominent. Later, Saint-Denis to the north came to play that role.

The first episcopal centre consisted of the Episcopal residence to the south, aligned with the Basilica of Saint-Étienne, later called the Cathedral. This early church was located beneath the court of the present Cathedral and approximately a third of its size. Adjacent was a rectangular baptistery and further to the south a much smaller church or oratory, Église Notre-Dame. Dedicated initially to Saint-Denis, it was given its new name by the Carolingians. This name appears for the first time in writing in 775.

The “Portail Sainte-Anne”, later preserved in the Gothic Cathedral, dates from a renovation period undertaken by the bishop, Thibaud II, and has been dated to the mid-12th century with changes after 1165.

At the same time, 1140, Abbot Suger, commenced on his major project, the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Denis north of Paris. Here, for the first time, the invention of the ribbed vault was adopted. With its dispersion of the weight to the ribs, the adoption of souring pillars and piers could take place. From this point on, the continuous thick walls of the massive Romanesque churches were a thing of the past. Now daring hollow-wall structures with or without flying buttresses were the construction technique of the day. It has been argued that the invention of the ribbed vaults took place in the Middle East in the Ummayad period (661 – 750). From here it spread to Andalucía and further into Spain. An early example is the Tornerias mosque in Toledo from c. 1050 – 1100. Likely, the inspiration from the cultural melting pot of the crusades also played a significant role in the development of the idea of the Gothic Cathedral.

The Gothic Cathedral

Paris in the 15th century. From the Harley Froissart, Harley 4379. The Entry of Isobel Fol 3 © British Library
Paris in the 15th century. Notice Notre-Dame to the right. From the Harley Froissart, Harley 4379. The Entry of Isobel Fol 3 © British Library

Soon after Suger had begun on the construction of Saint-Denis, the Parisian bishop Maurice de Sully (1160 -1196) initiated the building of the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Initial step was to demolish the ancient cathedral of Saint-Etienne, giving room for the planned processional space in front of the future Cathedral.

Albeit the Pope, Alexander III laid the first cornerstone in 1163, the rest of the building material was sourced in the north and transported along the Seine. Probably financed by the bishop and canons, the edifice rose quickly, and in 1182, the Pope’s representative could consecrate and inaugurate the new choir. During the next 100 years, the Cathedral was completed. It continued for the next 200 years, however, to be continuously built upon and renewed. At first- perhaps – it did not sport the famous flying buttresses, but soon they were needed to support the thin walls. Part of the enduring charm of this Gothic Cathedral was also the renowned rose windows from the mid-1225 – 1260, as well as the carved reliefs in the interior from the 14th century. As an architectural marvel located in the centre of Paris, Notre-Dame was considered one of the foremost models for how to build a Gothic Cathedral. It also came to be the centre of musical and liturgical invention inspiring patrons Europa at large.

During the revolution at the end of the 18th century, the building and interior suffered vastly, and at some point, it was even suggested to pull down this dilapidated and destroyed building. Partly due to the adoption of Notre-Dame as the site for the coronation of Napoleon I, it regained a part of its aura. Finally, in 1843 Eugène Viollet-le-Duc began his renovation adding sculptures, gargoyles, and a new spire. Torn down in the 18th century, he imagined a new and very neo-gothic dream of what the Cathedral might have looked like had “the original intentions been carried out”.

The Future

On the evening of the devastating fire, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged to have Notre-Dame rebuilt inside of five years. The plan is to be able to reconsecrate it in time for the Olympics in 2024. Following this, global companies, as well as private individuals, have already donated more than €600 mill inside the first two days. It will likely happen.

The question, though, will be: which Notre-Dame? The original medieval edifice constructed between 1163 and 1250 was until a few days ago discernible in the roof and the walls. The rest, though, constituted layers upon layers of reconstructions and modifications, the latest being the liturgical reorientation of the inner space following Vatican II.

  • The Gothic Cathedral of the 12- 13th centuries?
  • The Neo-gothic dream of Viollet-le-Duc?
  • The modern renovations carried out in the 1960s?

To mention just two dilemmas: Initially, the Cathedral was embellished with stained glass windows such as may still be admired in the nearby Sainte-Chapelle. During the revolution final destruction took place. Later, In the mid-19th century, Viollet-le-Duc decided to replace the plain windows with grisaille panes. Finally, in the 1960s these were substituted by windows designed by Jacques Le Chevallier, who wished to recreate the luminosity of the Cathedral’s interior with his non-figurative, yet colourful art.

And what about the steeple or spire? As can be seen from the illumination by Jen Fouquet from the mid-15th century, Notre-Dame was embellished with a spire or steeple in the late Middle Ages. Torn down in the 18th century, the present steeple (now burned to the ground) was a recreation from the 19th century. Which steeple or spire should be reconstructed?

Safe to say that numerous decisions will have to be made. But first, the remains will have to be secured. This work is estimated to last at least a couple of years.


Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Historique de la Construction



Paris 3D © Dassoault Systemes










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