Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most beloved churches in the world. The Gothic architectural treasure goes beyond being merely a place of worship and touches millions of people around the world regardless of their faith. This is why so many were devastated by the fire that ravaged parts of the cathedral on April 15th, 2019. While there is no way to make up for the cultural loses, what matters is that the cathedral is still with us, thanks to the tireless efforts of the firemen and women fought to save it. This wasn’t the first time Notre-Dame had gone through some trials and tribulations in its 800+ year history. The cathedral will live again and have more lives.
On the anniversary of fire I’m paying homage to Notre-Dame with this week’s participatory short story (to be released on Sunday April 19th, more on the project here) in addition to this collection of lesser known facts. I’ve included a few slightly more common facts at the beginning to give context to some which follow. May Notre-Dame welcome us again soon, in the meantime it shines in our hearts and minds!
Notre Dame Wasn’t the First Cathedral of Paris.
It’s something of a myth that there was a Roman temple to Jupiter where Notre-Dame now stands (a roman pillar was found under the building in the 1700s, but that could have been from anywhere in Roman Paris). Nevertheless, as of the 4th century there were early Christian churches built in the very close proximity of Notre-Dame. The current cathedral replaced a previous one, Saint-Etienne (Saint Stephen), which stood just in front of the current position of Notre Dame. Saint Stephen itself had two lives (see below) and its second incarnation was about half the size of Notre-Dame. It was torn down between 1160 to 1163 to make way for a new cathedral of an adequate size for Paris’ growing population.
The 2019 Fire Wasn’t the First to Hit the Cathedral.
I’d come across this interesting fact in a few places, including this New York Times article. The first fire to strike the “cathedral” of Paris was set by Norman/Vikings when they sacked Paris much of Paris, Saint Stephen included, in 856. The cathedral was rebuilt as of the following year and survived until work on Notre-Dame began in 1163. Around sixty years later, a third the way through its 180-year construction, a fire is thought to have broken out in the upper regions of the church which subsequently required some remodelling work. Or so purports Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the mid 19th-century restorer of the cathedral who got to know it intimately, as cited in the book The Engineering of Medieval Cathedrals by Lynn T. Courtenay.
Revolutionaries Repurposed Notre-Dame… Three Times.
Like all other property of the clergy, Notre-Dame was seized during the early days of the French Revolution, however it wasn’t all doom and gloom… at first. The real trouble began during the Terror, an extremely turbulent period lasting from September 1793 to July 1794. On November 2nd the cathedral was transformed into a “Temple of Reason,” like a number of other churches in Paris and around the country and on November 24th, Christianity was outlawed. It was after this date that serious damage was inflicted on Notre-Dame (see some examples below). The following spring Notre-Dame became a Temple to the “Cult of the Supreme Being,” a short-lived craze instigated by Robespierre which was axed, along with that Revolutionary’s head, in July 1794. Afterwards, the cathedral was used as a warehouse for storing wine barrels for the Revolutionary Army until Napoléon returned the building to its original raison d’être in the early 1800s.
Victor Hugo Helped Save the Cathedral, Above and Beyond His Writing.
Napoléon had spruced up Notre-Dame for his coronation in 1804, however, otherwise the church was in shambles. This wasn’t merely because people didn’t care about the cathedral, France was in serious debt and since there were any Marie Antoinette bioche’s to go around, State finances were needed for other things. Many historic monuments were being sold off or even demolished. Young writer Victor Hugo was already involved in the movement to preserve the country’s heritage and it was within this context that he wrote one of his most famous novels: in English it’s known as the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, however, in French it’s simply called Notre-Dame de Paris. Taking place during medieval times, the story puts the cathedral at the forefront, as a character itself in the love story between Quasimodo and Esmeralda. In the book’s forward, Hugo goes as far as having the following dedication for his book: “Let’s inspire, if possible, a love of national architecture in the Nation. This is, declares the author, the main goal of this book, one of the main goals on his life.” Wildly popular Hugo’s book sparked nation-wide interest in saving Notre-Dame and other monuments. Hugo was also involved in the campaign to save the cathedral which followed and was even was made a member of the Committee of Arts and Monuments, created in 1835. All of this effort finally paid off in 1842 when the government officially accepted the restoration projects, with the works beginning in 1845.
The Spire That Burnt Was Not The Original, But Do You Know What Happened to Its Predecessor?
As horrifying as it was to see Notre-Dame’s spire go up in flames, one can take a little solace in the fact that that spire was part of the original construction, like the incredibly tragic loss of “forest” of 700-800 year old beams underneath the roof and many other medieval treasures. This “new” spire was part of the vast renovations which the cathedral saw during the 1840-60s. Overseen by then young architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, in addition to the new spire, he also redid much of the sculpture work, added “Chimera” grotesque figures to the bell towers and the bronze statues of the 12 Apostles and four Evangelists which where thankfully removed for restoration work a few days before the fire broke out. But if he added a new spire… what had happened to the previous one? No, we can’t blame its disappearance on those troublesome Revolutionaries. The original 78-meter-high spire, built in the 1220s, was in such bad condition, due to wind damage, that it was dismantled in 1786. As such, the cathedral was “spireless” before the Revolution, and for a good half century afterwards. Inaugurated in 1859, Viollet-le-Duc’s lead-coated oak spire weighed 750 tons and was 93 meters tall.
The King’s Heads Have Had Several Lives.
Spire aside, the Revolutionaries can actually be blamed for much destruction done to the cathedral, including the beheading of the 28 statues of biblical kings that are found in a row above the facade’s three portals. The heads, and a whole range of other bits knocked off the building, sat in a pile in front of the cathedral for years. A “public safety” hazard, the rubble was finally sold off in the late 1790s, as the state didn’t want pay for its expensive removal. This was bought by Jean-Baptiste Lakanal, who was going to use the pieces of stone to build a private mansion, the Hôtel Moreau, in what is now the 9th arrondissement. The possible whereabouts of these heads was long forgotten when Viollet-le-Duc begun his restoration of the cathedral and he proceeded to recreate the heads to his own liking. Over a century later, during some works taking place in the historic mansion’s courtyard in 1977, the original heads, along with over 300 other pieces of damaged sculpture work from Notre-Dame, were uncovered. The heads made their way, not back on the shoulders of the kings, but into the collections of the Musée de Cluny, the French National Museum of the Middle Ages.
Parts of the Facade Used to be Painted.
Churches weren’t always as austere as we know them today. In fact, they used to be colorful and lively places, both inside and out. The above modern simulation shows what the facade could have looked like in medieval times with the sculptures and columns painted in vibrant colors. This fell out of fashion over the years and the walls of medieval buildings were eventually whitewashed. This spirit is revived at some historic churches in France during sound and light shows.
The Right Portal Wasn’t Built for Notre-Dame.
Although it was refashioned by Viollet-le-Duc, the base of the sculpture work did date back to the original Gothic church, all but a curious section, hidden in plain sight. Prior to the fire, the cathedral’s millions of visitors all must file through the same door to enter, the right portal, but few stop to look up at the sculpture work located about the massive doorway. Called the Portal of Saint Anne, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s mother, it is made up of a tympanum originally built for Saint Stephen and was repurposed for the new cathedral. Romanesque in style, upon careful examination, you’ll see the carving is much less sophisticated as the cathedral’s other two portals, sculpted over a hundred years later.
The Left Portal Contains its own Secrets, Including the Signs of the Zodiac.
Speaking of Portals, the one of the left side also has some mysteries. This is the Portal of the Virgin, who just so happens to represent the astrological sign Virgo, and you can find the full collection of 12 zodiac signs, sculpted in bas-relief, on either side of the doorway. Don’t worry if you have trouble placing all of them—they are not in the order we are used to. Here they are lined up according to sidereal astrology, or the position of the zodiac constellations, and not a tropical one, the monthly order that normally employed in Western astrology.
There Are Square Holes on the Facade, For a Reason.
If you examine the facade carefully, you’ll notice so roughly square holes at regular intervals. especially above the row of kings. In medieval construction, wooden scaffolding was attached directly to the building. These medieval “scars” were patched over during the 19th-century renovations. These were uncovered during the cathedral’s 1990s restoration for the millennium, no longer deemed a blemish but instead as integral part of how the cathedral came to be in the first place.
There are 10 Bells, All With their Own Names.
High up in the towers of Notre-Dame are 10 bells, varying in size, each bears the name of an important religious figure. It was perhaps Quasimodo who made the bells of Notre-Dame famous, however, none of the bells date back to medieval times. In fact, only one survived the Revolution, when the other 19 bells where melted down into cannons. Called Emmanuel, in honor of Jesus, the massive 13-ton bell was made 1681 under the royal patronage of Louis XIV. It’s second largest bell in France, after the bell of Sacré-Coeur. The other nine bells are actually quite modern, commissioned for Notre-Dame’s 850th birthday in 2013.
The Plaza In Front of Notre-Dame Used to Be Much, Much Smaller.
Today we can majestically take in the cathedral’s beauty thanks to the spacious plaza, Le Parvis de Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II, which spreads out in front of it, however, this was not always the case. As you can see in the above medieval simulation image, Ile-de-la-Cité was packed with houses, chapels and other buildings which crept virtually right up to the entrance to the Notre-Dame. These were demolished in the mid-1800s, in part to offer a lovely perspective of the cathedral and its renovations and in part due to Baron Haussmann and Napoléon III’s quest to bulldoze medieval Paris and make way for their new modern city. As you can see in the photo below, until the mid 1900s, one could previously park right in this plaza. In the 1960s a project to build an underground parking lot here was halted due to archeological findings. The parking lot did go ahead, on a much smaller scale, the ancient heritage found underground was preserved with the creation of the Crypte Archéologique (currently closed)…. and more recently, the medieval urbanism of the plaza was revived in the form of different paving stones which indicated where the buildings used to stand and where the roads were. Look for these when we’re allowed back on Le Parvis!
Flags Captured by Enemy Armies Used to Hang from the Nave.
Yes, the children’s game “capture the flag,” does come from somewhere. Historically speaking in war, capturing the flag of one’s enemy was a symbol of victory. In French tradition these were then hung in an important church to thank God for the victory. Until 1793, these hung from the nave of Notre-Dame. Fortunately, these weren’t destroyed by Revolutionaries, like many religious relics. Instead they were moved to the military church, The Cathedral of Saint-Louis at Les Invalides, although most of the flags hanging there today date from the 1800s onwards.
Notre-Dame Was the Tallest Building in Paris Until 1889.
The cathedral, thanks to its bell towers, was the tallest “building” in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889. The towers stand at 69 meters (226 feet) high whereas the Eiffel tower soars to 324 meters (1063 feet). Sure, the Eiffel Tower might be over four times higher than Notre Dame, but until the fire, the cathedral received double the visitors. Interesting, both have feminine nicknames: Notre-Dame is la Grande Dame de Paris and the Eiffel Tower is la Dame de Fer (the Iron Lady).
The Stained Glass was removed during WWI and WWII.
To protect the precious medieval stained glass from potentially exploding if a bomb landed nearby during the World Wars, the sections of historic glass, including those of the three rose windows, were removed and carefully catalogued so that they could be correctly replaced after the wars ended.
BONUS: Notre-Dame is Owned by the French State.
The tragic fire cast light on the dilapidated state of parts of the cathedral. The fire actually broke out in the area where scaffolding had been set up for renovations to the spire. In the days following the fire, some people protested that since it’s a catholic church, the Vatican should pay for the restoration. They logistically cannot because it does not own Notre-Dame, the French State does. While much of the Catholic Church’s belongings in France were confiscated during the Revolution, the national government actually only took official ownership of it, and 87 other cathedrals around the country, via the law of December 9th, 1905. This was also the law that put a division between State and the Church, making France a secular country. In turn, the State puts these buildings at disposal to use if the Catholic Church, under the condition that they are free of charge for purposes of religious worship, another reason why Notre-Dame, and the other churches of France, are low on funds and often in bad shape. On the other hand, Notre-Dame, like some of these other cathedrals, are also national classified monuments, a status which qualifies them for certain State funding. The Vatican could still make a generous donation to the renovations, like many others have done around the globe.
Loving Notre-Dame and cheering on the restoration is also a way to support it! Brighter Days are in store for it! Hopefully we’ll be able to visit it again as of 2024, if the restoration goes according to plan.
Further Reading on Notre-Dame
- The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Get to know Quasimodo yourself by reading Victor Hugo’s great classic.
- Notre-Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral – with its attractive presentation it could seem like a coffee table book, however, Kathy Borrus’ book contains a lot of information on the cathedral as well as some rare historic photos.
- Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals – Triggered by the 2019 fire, international bestselling author Ken Follett shares the history of the cathedral, as well as the emotion of its tragic blaze.
- The Girl and the Cathedral: The Story of Notre-Dame de Paris – a lovely children’s book written by by