Notre Dame de Paris – A Turbulent History

The front facade of Notre Dame de Paris towers above the throngs of tourists, reaching into the heavens. Lavishly ornamented with statues and gargoyles this ancient cathedral, like much of Paris, has had a turbulent history including periods of destruction, atheistic worship and long periods of restoration. I don’t remember the first time I visited Notre Dame but as a newborn, my Mum and Dad took me high up in these galleries to look down over the Ile de Cite. Over the years I have re-visited the cathedral many times and although little changes, there are always more stories and interesting architectural features to discover.

Notre Dame and the Ile de Cite

The name Notre Dame de Paris translates as ‘Our Lady of Paris’ in English. Built under the auspices of the Roman Catholic tradition, Notre Dame has seen short periods of re-dedication to other beliefs. The cathedral remains one of the greatest examples of the French Gothic Style in existence. Notre Dame de Paris lies in the eastern quadrant of the Ile de Cite. Being in the heart of Paris the area had already been well-developed by then. Contemporary houses were leveled in order to make way for the monumental building. Prior to that Roman buildings existed, the hypocaust (or underground heating vents) for some of these can still be seen preserved beneath the cathedral in one of the crypts. As with many modern religious institutions, it is believed that the site was originally occupied by a Pagan temple.

Construction of Notre Dame begins

It was in 1163 under bishop Maurice Sully that the corner-stone of Notre Dame was set, initiating the construction of the building. It was to take 182 years to complete. Built-in well-defined stages, worship started soon after early building work was complete, with areas still under construction screened from the parishioners. Having put much of his life and wealth into the creation of Notre Dame, Maurice Sully died in 1196, long before the cathedral was completed in 1345.

The Huguenots

In 1548 Huguenots damaged a number of features within Notre Dame believing they were idolatrous. The Huguenots had come to prominence in France as a Protestant movement inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530s. By 1562 there were some estimated two million Huguenots in France. The Catholic establishment pushed back against the movement and finally quashed it with the enactment of the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. This edict banned the recognition of Protestantism in France and led to some 500,000 Huguenots fleeing the country. The rest were killed or converted to Catholicism.

The effects of the French Revolution on Notre Dame

Catholicism and the power of the monarch endured over France for several hundred more years until the French Revolution began in 1774. A growing discontent at the indulgences of the wealthy and the power of the Catholic church led to a period of de-Christianisation throughout France, precipitating the bloody uprising. Caught up in this turmoil Notre Dame was re-dedicated to the Cult of Reason, an early atheistic style belief system. Centered on humanity rather than divinity the Cult of Reason had a goal of achieving the perfection of mankind through the pursuit of truth and freedom. As a reaction to the power of the monarchy and the Catholic church, the religion was celebrated with exuberant parades and the destruction of religious artifacts. Several statues of the kings of Judah residing in Notre Dame were ‘beheaded’ in the mistaken belief that they represented French kings. Years after this the heads were found during local excavations and are now on display at the Musee de Cluny. The Cult of Reason came to an abrupt end when Maximilian Robespierre attempted to have the Cult of the Supreme Being adopted as the French national religion. A key figure during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror he had the leaders of the Cult of Reason executed and Notre Dame was rededicated to the new religion. This was not too last long though. Political unrest was rife. There were numerous conspiracy theories concerning threats to the Republic and excesses by envoys to French provinces. During one celebration of The Cult of the Supreme Being Robespierre led crowds through the streets of Paris, leading some to believe that this was another example of how he was attempting to make himself the supreme leader of France. Unable to quell the growing discontent Robespierre was arrested and executed in July 1794.

Restoration and re-establishment

Following the revolutionary turmoil, for a time Notre Dame was used as a warehouse for storing food. It was finally returned to the Roman Catholic church in 1802. And in 1831 Victor Hugo’s hugely popular novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published adding to the mystic reputation of the cathedral. It wasn’t until 1844 that King Louis-Philippe I decreed that the cathedral should be restored at which point a 20-year restoration began, re-establishing the cathedral as one of the best-known buildings in Paris, and a major tourist attraction. In 1991 another major restoration project was started to clean up and repair the damage done by years of weathering, pollution and tourist visits. Notre Dame remains one of my favorite places to visit when in Paris. Of all the photos I took of the cathedral during this recent trip I liked the soaring perspective and depth of this one best. Perhaps more than a picture of the whole cathedral it better captures the scale and intense level of detail throughout the whole building.

Kilometre Zero

As an aside. Just outside of the cathedral, in front of this facade, you will often find a small group of people standing in the square looking at a small marker set in the cobbles. This is the location of the Paris ‘Kilometre Zero’. The marker is the location from which all measurements within France, from Paris, are taken. In a square dominated by the towering facade of the very holy Notre Dame, it is interesting that this small marker has inspired its own rituals. You can watch as tourists spin on one leg over the marker, making wishes. Others touch the marker to affirm the completion of a journey to Paris.  

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