Notre Dame: Origins of a Phoenix

Norte Dame at nightIt was with horror that the world watched the famed Notre Dame Cathedral burn this week. We held our collective breath as the Paris Fire Brigade, a unit of the French Army, battled the roaring blaze. And while we were deeply saddened by such loss at one of the world’s most visited and historic sties, we were also relieved that the damage was not greater. Heroic efforts by human chains passing things hand-to-hand saved most of the famous works of art. By some miracle, the huge 1868 symphonic organ with its 7,800 pipes, five keyboards, and accompanying ranks of pedals was for the most part spared, though the extent of damage caused by being exposed to an atmosphere created by such a conflagration is still being assessed.

SONY DSCMost miraculous, in my opinion, is that the three enormous rose windows made of lead and stained glass survived unscathed. The oldest, the west window, dates back to 1225. The north and south windows were added between 1250-1260. April 15, 2019 was a day of disaster but also one of miracles for Paris and the world. It is sadly ironic that after surviving two world wars, Notre Dame was brought low by an accident during renovation and by the failure to install sprinkler systems and firewalls within its warren of attics. It was felt that adding the fire prevention measures would too greatly alter the iconic roofline. The choice was an esthetic one and its cost is immense.

As with many famous landmarks, Notre Dame has been such a centuries-long fixture in human minds and imaginations that we sometimes forgot it did not always exist. Although the cathedral is over 800 years old, Paris is much older and the history of Notre Dame cannot be separated from that of the city whose center it graces. The founding of Paris dates back to the 3rd century BC when a migrating tribe of fishermen Celts, the Parisii, settled along the banks of the Seine and on the river’s islands, especially île de la Cité. The fertility of the area and the temperate climate provided a perfect location for a permanent settlement.

romans conquer gaul

Roman conquers Gaul

Until the engineering feats of the 19th century merged some and joined others to the mainland, the Seine contained seven islands. These were collectively named Lutetia by the Romans. When the legions conquered the Gauls under the leadership of Julius Caesar, the settlement’s name was changed to Civitas Parisorium, meaning City of the Parisii. As the Empire spread, the area of the Seine became an axis of commerce. The city grew, was fortified, and spread onto the Left Bank where the first Roman baths were built. In the 3rd century, the citizens were Christianized, laying the foundation for the marvelous places of worship that were to come.

In 451, Attila and his hoard of Huns set their sights on Paris, but the city repulsed his attack. The citizens believed that St. Genevieve had interceded on their behalf and made her the city’s patron saint. It was during the early Middle Ages that Paris first became the capitol of France. Clovis, King of the Francs, took the city in 486 and in 508 made her his capitol. During the Middle Ages (500-1500), Paris’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the occupants of the French throne, but by the 11th century the city was established as a urban commercial center. The importance of France’s rivers to European commerce made Paris a shipping capitol, and the by the High Middle Ages, Paris and Europe were experiencing an economic boom. By the 12th century, Paris claimed a place of preeminence among Europe’s cities. Growth in trade and commerce paid the bills for  expansion and lead to its growth as a spiritual center under the leadership of her  ambitious bishop, Maurice de Sully.


Basilica of St Denis

While observing the construction of the Basilica of St. Denis in the nearby town by the same name, Bishop Sully decided that Paris must not be outdone. He was greatly impressed by the new Gothic style of architecture being used and wanted the same for Paris, only greater. In fact, he dreamed of a cathedral that would not only be the linchpin of a great city, but would also be the wonder of all Christendom. To complete his vision, he decided he would dedicate his church to the Virgin Mary. With considerable financial backing from Louis VII, he hired an architect, whose name is not known, and design began in 1160. During the planning stage, several houses and two churches were demolished to make way for the new cathedral on the Île de la Cité. The cornerstone was laid with great ceremony in 1163 with Pope Alexander III adding his august presence and blessing to the occasion.

Construction on the sanctuary and nave began, but it was not until 1182 that the High Altar was consecrated and Sully was able to celebrate the first Mass in the cathedral. National Geographic summarizes the design and completion of the structure as follows:

When the church was initially designed, the heavy roof called for thick, sturdy walls to support it, which limited the size of the windows and reduced the amount of natural light in the building. In 1220 the ceiling was reconceived with rib vaults, one of the great innovations of the Gothic style, that used intersecting stone ribs to brace the structure. As a result, less pressure was put on the supporting walls, and more windows could be featured.

In the 1240s the Master of Works, Jean de Chelles—the first architect of Notre Dame whose identity is known—finished the nave and the two towers of the main (west) facade. Work began on the transept facades, which were completed by his successor, Pierre de Montreuil. During his tenure, de Montreuil oversaw the installation of new, bigger windows including the three rose windows in the northern, southern, and western walls.

The final touches to the monument were put in place in the 1300s by master builder Jean Ravy, who was one of the first to employ another great Gothic architectural innovation: flying buttresses…[1]

From start to finish, it took nearly two centuries to build Notre Dame. The cathedral has known hard times as well as good. During the French Revolution, tremendous damage was done and the church was actually de-Christianized by Robespierre who dedicated it to the cult of the Supreme Being. Revolutionaries destroyed statuary, stole its treasurers, and ransacked the church to the point that birds drifted through the broken windows and nested in its galleries. In 1801, Napoleon finally ceded the church back to the Vatican and clean up began, but it took a work of fiction, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, to remind Parisians of the importance of fully restoring and preserving the treasure in their midst.

Borrowing a phrase from Hugo’s English contemporary, Charles Dickens, Notre Dame has known “the best of times and the worst of times.” It has risen from destruction once before, and like the mythical phoenix, it will rise from the ashes of April 15, 2019. Several hundred million dollars have already been pledged to that end.


Notes and Resources

  1., accessed April 18, 2019.

Notre Dame Cathedral History