The History of Notre Dame

The most magnificent church in Paris throughout the Gothic age, Notre Dame defined what a cathedral should be

The Cathedral church of Our Lady, normally referred to simply as ‘Notre Dame’, stands on the Ile de la Cite in the centre of Paris. The site had formerly been occupied by two ancient churches dedicated to St Stephen and St Mary, the origins of which stretch back to the 5th Century. The building of the present cathedral commenced in the middle of the 12th Century, when its foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III. At the time of its construction it was the biggest of all western churches, and it became the model for the Gothic cathedrals built throughout Europe.

The cathedral seems larger than it actually is through the clever use of double aisles, side chapels and transepts incorporated into the body of the church. Its western towers contain huge, highly decorative portals and a profusion of sculptural detail. The cathedral lacks a central tower and instead sported a distinctive pointed fleche (spire) made from wood and lead, however the spire, along with the buildings  roof, were destroyed during a tragic fire on 15th April 2019. The cathedral’s roofs were made up of 1,326 slabs of lead, weighing more than 200,000kg (200 tons).

Throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrims flocked to the cathedral’s miraculous image of St Mary and the shrine of St Marcel. Most of its medieval magnificence disappeared during the French Revolution, when the cathedral’s demolition was seriously considered. Only in the 19th Century was the architectural importance of Notre Dame realised. Heavily restored under architect Viollet-le-Duc, the cathedral took on its present form. Many of its most iconic features, such as its fantastic gargoyles, date from this restoration.

Despite its fame, Notre Dame was neither the coronation nor burial church of the French monarchy, and it was only in 1662 that the bishop of Paris was raised to the status of archbishop. Its outstanding beauty, however, has always been recognised, and it will forever be associated with Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Notre Dame timeline

Construction begins 

Bishop Maurice de Sully begins the building of the present cathedral to replace the ancient churches of St Stephen and St Mary.

West Front finished

The towers were completed in this year and although they were intended to carry stone spires, these features were not included.

Coronation of Henry VI

The English king Henry VI is crowned in Notre Dame on 16 December, in an attempt to strengthen English claims to the French throne.

Notre Dame closed 

Revolutionaries close the cathedral and destroy the majority of the medieval interior, targeting statues, altars, woodwork and stained glass.

Coronation of Napoleon 

Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine are crowned Emperor
and Empress of France, with Pope Pius VII officiating.

Notre Dame receives the Crown of Thorns 

Napoleon gives the cathedral the relic of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. It is still exhibited to the public on the first Friday of the month.

Stained glass manufacture

We know precisely how medieval coloured (‘stained’) glass was made, as in around 1125 a German monk named Theophilus wrote a Latin treatise called ‘On Diverse Arts’ in which the process of coloured glass manufacture was detailed. The essential material for glass manufacture was river sand (silica). Requiring a very high temperature to become molten, potash was added to allow the silica to melt. Other substances (lime) were then added to make the glass more stable. Glass was coloured by adding metallic oxides while it was in a molten state. Copper produced green, cobalt made blue and gold produced red or ruby glass. Glass coloured while in the clay pot in the furnace is known as ‘pot metal’ glass. Details of faces, hair and hands were painted onto the inner surface of the glass with special glass paint, made from finely ground lead or copper filings and ground glass, suspended in a medium such as wine or (traditionally) urine.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 21, written by Tim Hopkinson-Ball 


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