History of the church
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was built on a site which in Roman Lutetia is believed to have been occupied by a pagan temple, and then by a Romanesque church, the Basilica of Saint Étienne, built between the 4th century and 7th century. The basilica was about forty meters west of the current cathedral, and was wider and lower, and roughly half its size.
King Louis VII of France (reigned 1137-1180) wanted to build monuments to show that Paris was the political, economic, and cultural capital of France. In this context, Maurice de Sully, who had been elevated Bishop in 1160, had the old basilica torn down to its foundations, and began to build a larger and taller cathedral.
The cornerstone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III. The design followed the traditional plan, with the ambulatory and choir, where the altar was located, to the east, and the entrance, facing the setting sun, to the west. By long tradition, the choir, where the altar was located, was constructed first, so that the church could be consecrated and used long before it was completed. The original plan was for a long nave, four levels high, with no transept. The flying buttress was not yet in use, so the walls were thick and reinforced by solid stone abutments placed against them on the outside, and later by chapels placed between the abutments.
The roof of the nave was constructed with a new technology, the rib vault, which had earlier been used in the Basilica of Saint Denis. The roof of the nave was supported by crossed ribs which divided each vault into six compartments. The pointed arches were stronger than the earlier Romanesque arches, and carried the weight of the roof outwards and downwards to rows of pillars, and out to the abutments against the walls. Construction of the choir took from 1163 until around 1177. The High Altar was consecrated in 1182. Between 1182 and 1190 the first three traverses of the nave were built up to the level of tribunes. Beginning in 1190, the bases of the facade were put in place, and the first traverses were completed.
The decision was made to add a transept at the choir, where the altar was located, in order to bring more light into the center of the church. The use of simpler four-part rather than six-part rib vaults meant that the roofs were stronger and could be higher. After Bishop Maurice de Sully's death in 1196, his successor, Eudes de Sully (unrelated to the previous Bishop) oversaw the completion of the transepts, and continued work on the nave, which was nearing completion at the time of his own death in 1208. By this time, the western facade was already largely built, though it was not completed until around the mid-1240s. Between 1225 and 1250 the upper gallery of the nave was constructed, along with the two towers on the west facade.
Another significant change came in the mid 13th century, when the transepts were remodeled in the latest Rayonnant style; in the late 1240s Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept topped off by a spectacular rose window. Shortly afterwards (from 1258) Pierre de Montreuil executed a similar scheme on the southern transept. Both these transept portals were richly embellished with sculpture; the south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and of various local saints, while the north portal featured the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus in the tympanum, with a highly influential statue of the Virgin and Child in the trumeau.
An important innovation in the 13th century was the introduction of the flying buttress. Before the buttresses, all of the weight of the roof pressed outward and down to the walls, and the abutments supporting them. With the flying buttress, the weight was carried by the ribs of the vault entirely outside the structure to a series of counter-supports, which were topped with stone pinnacles which gave them greater weight. The buttresses meant that the walls could be higher and thinner, and could have much larger windows. The date of the first buttresses is not known with any precision; they were installed some time in the 13th century. The first buttresses were replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th century; these had a reach of fifteen meters between the walls and counter-supports.
Timeline of construction
- 1160 Maurice de Sully (named Bishop of Paris) orders the original cathedral demolished.
- 1163 Cornerstone laid for Notre-Dame de Paris; construction begins.
- 1182 Apse and choir completed.
- 1196 Bishop Maurice de Sully dies.
- c.1200 Work begins on western facade.
- 1208 Bishop Eudes de Sully dies. Nave vaults nearing completion.
- 1225 Western facade completed.
- 1250 Western towers and north rose window completed.
- c.1245–1260s Transepts remodelled in the rayonnant style by Jean de Chelles then Pierre de Montreuil.
- 14th century New flying buttresses added to apse and choir.
Early six-part rib vaults of the nave. The ribs transferred the thrust of the weight of the roof downward and outwards to the pillars and the supporting buttresses.
The massive buttresses which counter the outward thrust from the rib vaults of the nave.
Later flying buttresses of the apse of Notre-Dame (14th century) reached 15 meters from the wall to the counter-supports.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots damaged some of the statues of Notre-Dame, considering them idolatrous. During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the cathedral underwent numerous alterations to comply with the more classical style of the period. The sanctuary was re-arranged; the choir was largely rebuilt in marble, and many of the stained glass windows from the 12th and 13th century were removed and replaced with white glass windows, to bring more light into the church. A colossal statue of St Christopher, standing against a pillar near the western entrance and dating from 1413, was destroyed in 1786. The spire, which had been damaged by the wind, was removed in the second part of the 18th century.
In 1793, during the French Revolution, the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. During this time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The twenty-eight statues of biblical kings located at the west facade, mistaken for statues of French kings, were beheaded. Many of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby, and are on display at the Musée de Cluny. For a time the Goddess of Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral's great bells escaped being melted down. All of the other large statues on the facade, with the exception of the statue of the Virgin Mary on the portal of the cloister, were destroyed. The cathedral came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food and other non-religious purposes.
In July 1801, the new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, signed an agreement to restore the cathedral to the Church. It was formally transferred on April 18, 1802. It was the setting of Napoleon's coronation as Emperor on December 2, 1804, and of his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.
The cathedral was functioning in the early 19th century, but was half-ruined inside and battered without. In 1831, the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had an enormous success, and brought the cathedral new attention. In 1844 King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored. The commission for the restoration was won by two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was then just 31 years old. They supervised a large team of sculptors, glass makers and other craftsmen who remade, working from drawings or engravings, the original decoration, or, if they did not have a model, adding new elements they felt were in the spirit of the original style. They made a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the original spire (including a statue of Saint Thomas that resembles Viollet-le-Duc), as well as adding the sculpture of mythical creatures on the Galerie des Chimères. The restoration lasted twenty five years.
During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the cathedral suffered some minor damage from stray bullets. Some of the medieval glass was damaged, and was replaced by glass with modern abstract designs. On August 26, a special mass was held in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Germans; it was attended by General Charles De Gaulle and General Philippe Leclerc.
In 1963, on the initiative of culture minister André Malraux and to mark the 800th anniversary of the Cathedral, the facade was cleaned of the centuries of soot and grime, restoring it to its original off-white color.
Stones damaged by air pollution were replaced, and a discreet system of electrical wires, not visible from below, was installed on the roof to deter pigeons. Another major cleaning and restoration program was commenced in 1991.