By far the most famous Notre Dame is located on the Ile de la Cité, in Paris, France. Actually, however, the gothic Notre Dame cathedral is not a uniquely Parisian affair.

Notre Dame literally means "Our Lady", refering to Mary, the mother of Jesus. While the Paris tourism bureau would probably like you to think that they've got the best one, there are really beautiful Notre Dame cathedrals scattered all over France... Our Lady of Rouen, Our Lady of Chartes, Our Lady of Toulouse, Our Lady of Amiens, etc.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

The Notre Dame de Paris is located in Paris, France. (Notre Dame meaning ‘Our Lady’) Construction of the cathedral began during the Early Gothic period between 1163 and 1250 C.E. The bishop who oversaw the construction was Maurice de Sully. The original master mason (the term architect was not used for many years to come) is unknown, but is obviously someone quite capable of manifesting Sully’s intentions. The church was a tangible representation of the newly acquired power of Paris. The French were to spare no costs in their building of Notre Dame so as to exemplify their accomplishments.

The materials used to build the 110 ft (approximately 30 m) high cathedral were for the most part taken from local quarries. Even though the location of the quarries was nearby transporting the large stones required was costly. To economize, much of the initial shaping of the stones was done at the quarries themselves and the cutting was finalized at the site. Construction of the cathedral was done in three stages. The first parts of the structure to be completed were the choir, apse, and chancel. After the completion of these spaces the building could continue to be used throughout the construction.

The breadth and height of the vaults in Notre Dame surpassed any buildings that had been built. The innovative structural techniques allowed for more light and space. One of the important innovations was the combination of triangular ribs and transverse arches. These elements were primarily hidden unlike the exposed and intrusive elements that existed previously in the Romanesque period. The flying buttresses used in Notre Dame are considered some of the earliest in existence; however there have recently been discovered similar buttresses that are from an earlier time period.

Maurice de Sully passed away in 1196 with the completion of the nave. Maurice’s successor, Bishop Eudes de Sully (no blood relation), become the overseer of the construction for the next fifty years. Eudes de Sully was a wealthy noble and decided to enlarge the plans for the cathedral contributing his own money to the funding. The changes to the plans are most evident in the western façade. It took twenty-five years to complete the façade up to the rose window and yet and twenty-five years to complete the two towers. Other than the west façade the structure remained true to the original plans.

The façade of the cathedral is a careful balance of vertical and horizontal elements. This gives the exterior stability that has lead to it being remembered as quintessentially Early Gothic. The grid created by the horizontal and vertical balance accentuates the stained glass rosettes. In order to allow for more light to enter the space the windows were enlarged and lowered. The plan contains a five-aisled structure containing a Romanesque bay system combined with Early Gothic nave vaulting.

Four hundred years after the completion of the cathedral many changes were made. At this time Baroque art and architecture was the standard and the Gothic style was seen as barbaric at best. Due to this generally negative perception of the Gothic style the stained glass windows were removed, tombs were destroyed, and a high alter was constructed. Soon before the French Revolution sculptures and gargoyles were removed from the exterior of the church because people saw them as tasteless. During the height of the Revolution the sculptures adorning the cathedral were smashed and the heads of the statues were given away as trophies. A series of sculptures known as the gallery of kings on the west façade was completely destroyed. The broken pieces of the building were not removed from the site for three years. After the revolution the primary use of the structure was for non-religious gatherings.

In the nineteenth century the Romanticists began an attempt to restore the cathedral. In 1831 Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Little did he know that his book would inspire many to take an active role in the recreation of the original splendor of the building. One of those who was inspired by Hugo’s writing was an aspiring architect named Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc had fairly extensive knowledge of the Gothic style and was therefore able to oversee an accurate restoration. The gallery of kings and gargoyles were replaced and the white washed interior was removed during the twenty-three years the restoration occupied.

See Also: Chartres Cathedral Gothic Architecture

Sources and Images: Gardener’s Art Through The Ages Tenth Edition

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