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The story of Notre-Dame Cathedral Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris under glowing sunset

Notre-Dame de Paris, the grand Gothic cathedral on the Île de la Cité is a symbol to millions. Not just to Parisians but to many around the world. When in April 2019, a fire broke out at the Cathedral, the world watched as the tragedy unfolded and an outpouring of love for the building showed just how much it means to so many.

Now closed pending repairs and reconstruction, Notre-Dame welcomes around 12-14 million people a year. Surprisingly, more visitors even than the Eiffel Tower. They’re drawn to admire its beauty, feel its history and to see its famous interior and artefacts.

History of Notre-Dame Cathedral

Exterior view of Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, the River Seine running alongside

The cathedral is made up of a mixture of elements and architectural styles created over many years. The North Tower was completed in 1240, but the South Tower wasn’t finished for another 10 years. They look as if they match perfectly but look closely and you’ll see the north tower is a little bit taller. The two towers were the tallest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889.

Building of the Cathedral began in 1163 on top of the ruins of previous churches, and before that a Roman temple. Pope Alexander III attended the ceremony in which the first stone was laid. It was completed in 1260, almost 100 years after building first started, longer if you include the addition of the flying buttresses added in 1345.

The wooden roof structure was nicknamed ‘the Forest’, made of more than 1300 trees and dating to the mid-12th century. Each beam was made from an individual tree. Sadly, this roof structure was devastated by the fire in April 2019.

The bells, the bells

Giant metal bell hanging from the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

There are 10 bells at Notre-Dame, all named after Saints. Marie, Emmanuel, Gabriel, Anne-Genevieve, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoit-Joseph, Maurice, and Jean-Marie.

Most of the original bells from the cathedral were melted to make cannons during the French Revolution. New bells were not installed in the cathedral until the mid-19th century.

The South tower is home to the largest bell, Emmanuel, installed in 1638. Weighing in at 13-tonnes, it’s clapper alone weighs 1,100 lbs.

Famous events at Notre-Dame

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte being crowned Emperor at Notre-Dame Cathedral Paris

Notre-Dame Cathedral has witnessed more than 850 years of history, though the Cathedral of Reims saw more action from French royals. It was in Reims that most coronations took place though an exception was in 1431 when Henry VI, King of England, was crowned King of France at Notre-Dame.

Mary Queen of Scots married Francis II in the Cathedral in 1558. But  mostly it was a church for Parisians.

During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame was, as all religious buildings were, seen as a symbol of the power and aggression of church and monarchy. It was ransacked, many sculptures and statues were destroyed, and it was used as a food storage warehouse.

In 1793, 28 statues of biblical kings on the facade of the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by angry mobs. King Louis XVI had been guillotined earlier that year, and there was a desire to destroy more kings, even if they were made of stone. In 1977, the heads of 21 of the 28 statues were rediscovered. Today, they’re on display at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

In 1801 work began to clear up the building and repair some of the damage. Three years later Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France in the Cathedral.

How Notre-Dame was saved by a best-selling book

Pointy eared stone gargoyle on the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral looking over Paris

The work of the early 19th century wasn’t enough to save Notre-Dame, it fell into a neglected state. When Victor Hugo’s blockbuster novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published in 1831 it bought huge fame to the forgotten Cathedral, and the people of Paris called for its rescue. Hugo wrote: “It is difficult not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”

A major project to repair and save it was undertaken under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc between 1844-1864. During this time the tall spire was added (the one we all watched burning in 2019) and the gargoyles and chimeras.

What to see at Notre-Dame

Ornate stained glass window, thousands of tiny pieces in every colour, Notre-Dame Paris

The Cathedral is 425-feet long, 157-feet wide, and 226-feet high including the towers. The rose windows of the cathedral have a diameter of 32-feet, wider than the length of a London bus. Many of the exquisite stained glass windows date to the 13th century. During World War II, they were removed for safety and reinstalled after the war.

Notre-Dame’s pipe organ is the largest in France. It contains almost 8,000 pipes, some of which date back to the 18th century.

The Cathedral is home to what is considered to be one of the most important religious artefacts in Christianity, the ‘Holy Crown of Thorns’ worn by Jesus Christ. It was originally housed in the church of Sainte-Chapelle, a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame.

There’s also a piece of the Cross and a nail which it’s claimed, was used to crucify Christ.

In front of the Notre-Dame is a small circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It was installed in 1924 and is engraved with the words “Point zero des routes de France”. This circle marks the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France.

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