The Notre Dame Cathedral is an enormous and intricately decorated building, with hundreds of hidden details. From the front doors to the gargoyles lining the ledges, each piece has a story of its own. This ancient structure has been a sacred place of worship in the center of Paris for over 800 years. At times it has stood in glory, and it has also suffered through periods of neglect. But the cathedral has always been repaired, and its place in popular thought restored.
The area now occupied by the Notre Dame Cathedral, Île de la Cité, has been a religious site for centuries. It was first home to a temple dedicated to the Roman god of the skies, Jupiter. Then the area housed a 4th-century Christian church, then in the 6th-century it became a basilica, then a 9th-century Cathedral, which became an 11th-century Romanesque cathedral. But by 1160, that cathedral still wasn’t a large enough place of worship or the ever-growing population of Paris. So King Louis VII approved and funded the construction of a new cathedral, and construction began in 1163. Although the building has been modified and remodeled several times throughout its long history, original construction is considered to have been completed in 1345. This new church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and named Notre Dame (‘Our Lady’ in French).
Many parts of the cathedral are intricately decorated, and nearly every detail is associated with a story. One of the most famous stories regards the stunning ironwork adorning one of the front doors. A young blacksmith named Biscornet was commissioned to craft them. When he revealed the doors to the public, they were so beautiful, rumors spread they were far too intricate to have been made with human hands. People said that Biscornet, under such pressure to make the doors, had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for beautiful ironwork. When Biscornet died shortly after the doors were completed, people said it must have been the devil receiving his payment. Rumors gained ground when the people couldn’t open the doors until a priest blessed them with holy water.
Gargoyles are another interesting detail of Notre Dame, as with many gothic pieces of architecture. They are grotesque animal statues made of limestone that adorn the Cathedral’s roof and ledges. The word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the French word gargouille, meaning throat or gullet. This is because gargoyles have spouts in their mouths, and spit rainwater away from the buildings they’re mounted on. They serve the practical purpose of providing a drainage system and also have a more symbolic purpose. They were intended to represent the sins & tragedy outside of the church walls in contrast with the sanctuary offered within. People at the time also believed gargoyles protected the church from evil.
Heroes of Notre Dame
There have been many low points in the cathedral’s 800-year history. Times when the public didn’t need it anymore and it fell apart. One of these times was the Renaissance, when the cathedral simply fell out of style. By 1789, Notre Dame was no longer maintained by the Parisian Archbishop and fell into a state of disrepair. Many priceless artifacts were sold or stolen. Then in 1792, the famous spire collapsed.
But in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte I crowned himself emperor in the cathedral, and a surge of popularity followed. Then time passed again, and Notre Dame began to fall apart once more. In 1830, the revolution took its toll when rioters further degraded the building. Authorities considered demolishing it.
But a year later, Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris (more commonly called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). This again popularized the building, and breathed new life into the ancient cathedral. In 1842, a restoration project was launched.
2019 Fire and the Future of Notre Dame
As many of us remember, 2 years ago a fire broke out on the roof of the cathedral. It raged for nine hours before firefighters could put it out. Much of the roof was destroyed, and the spire collapsed. At one point, many wondered if the cathedral was beyond repair. But the people of Paris worked to save the building’s invaluable artifacts from the fire, and since then, restoration projects have been announced. Restoration efforts will focus on recreating the original architecture (including the spire) with authentic materials. Although the pandemic has stalled restoration efforts, French president Emmanuel Macron has promised that the cathedral will reopen in 2024. This 800-year-old building will be saved again, and continue to stand tall in the center of Paris.