Notre-Dame Cathedral: History, April 2019 Fire, Restoration, and Major Facts

Known in French as Notre-Dame de Paris or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the Notre-Dame Cathedral or “Our Lady of Paris” is a magnificent Gothic cathedral located in the Paris. This Catholic cathedral, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is most famous for its architectural splendor and size, visited by millions of people a year.

It has been long held that Notre-Dame de Paris epitomizes what French Gothic architecture looks like. Located on the Seine in the center of Paris, construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral began in the 13th century and was later consecrated to the Virgin Mary.

In the article below, explores the history of this famous cathedral, as well as how it came to stand out for centuries. The article also explores how this magnificent monument came to be the property of the French state, as well as the major restorations that have been carried out in the cathedral over the centuries, including the restoration work that came following the April 2019 fire.

Quick Facts about Notre-Dame de Paris

Officially known as – Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Location – Parvis Notre-Dame, Place Jean-Paul-II, Paris

Style – French Gothic

Groundbreaking – 1163 CE

Construction period – 1163 CE – 1345 CE

Completed in – 1345 CE

Administered by – the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Paris

Owned by – the State of France

Designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – 1991

Name meaning – “Our Lady of Paris”

Dimensions and properties

Choir and apse

A short transept

Nave – with double aisles on each side

Central spire – built during the restoration works of the 19th century

Interior – 427 by 157 feet (130 X 48 meters)

Roof – 115 feet (35 meters) high

Towers – Two Gothic towers measuring 223 feet (68 meters) high – built between 1210-50 – at the western facade

Windows – Three great rose windows – built in the 13th century

Notre-Dame – History, Restoration, and Facts

A brief history of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame Cathedral is located at Île de la Cité, which is in turn situated on the Banks of the Seine in Paris. The land area that Notre-Dame occupies was once occupied by two smaller early Christian churches. Before those churches were built, the site was home to an ancient Gallo-Roman temple used to worship Jupiter, the king of the Roman pantheon of gods.

The idea to build the cathedral originated from Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris in the 12th century. He conceived the idea of erecting a cathedral that would rise from the ruins of two earlier churches in the area.

In 1163, Pope Alexander III attended a ceremony which saw him lay the foundation stone of the cathedral. Twenty-five years later, in 1189, a ceremony was held for the consecration of the high altar of the cathedral. It was not until the mid-13th century, that choir section, the western facade, and the nave were built. It will take about a century or so for the chapels and porches to be completed.

Once complete in 1345, Notre-Dame would go on to become one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. The cathedral’s huge and very brightly colorful rose windows have contributed to its image. It is also a sight worth beholding due its magnificently huge organs and church bells.

Over the centuries since its construction, Notre-Dame has been through quite a lot deterioration and desecration; and on each occasion it had come out stronger kind courtesy to restoration efforts, making it one of the most significant and recognizable structures in Paris and France for that matter. For example, the cathedral came out slightly scathed during the French Revolution; and had it not been for the intervention of Napoleon Bonaparte, the cathedral and its religious artefacts would have suffered far worse fate than they did.

In 2019, tragedy struck Notre-Dame while it renovation and restoration works were carried on the monument. The fire, which burnt for about 15 hours, swept through the roof of the Gothic cathedral, damaging a significant part of the roof.

Read More: 9 Major Causes of the French Revolution

How and when was Notre-Dame constructed?

Many historians claim that Notre-Dame was constructed at a site that used to be occupied by Early Christian churches and basilica, including the Cathedral of Saint-Étienne. As Christianity gained a strong foothold in the West, and as the population of Paris grew, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, conceived of the idea to build a larger church befitting of Parisians commitment to Christendom.  In 1160, the Romanesque cathedral was pulled down and construction of Notre-Dame started at the spot that once used to be the home of numerous early Christian churches.

According to Jean de Saint-Victor, it took between 24 March and 25 April 1163 to lay the cornerstone of the cathedral. Dignitaries like the King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III were in attendance when the cornerstone was laid.

First, the choir and two ambulatories were constructed. By 1177, the choir was near completion. Five years later, Maurice de Sully and Cardinal Henri de Château-Marçay consecrated the high altar.

Next, the four sections of the nave close to the choir were constructed. After that the façade were erected, which was then followed by the first traverses.

Construction of the cathedral’s transepts and the nave was supervised by Bishop Maurice de Sully’s successor, Eudes de Sully. In the mid-13th century, the transepts were remodeled.

Renovations over the centuries

In the 13th century, a revolutionary technology was introduced in the form of the flying buttress. This technology prevented a situation where the walls of the cathedral bore bulk of the weight of the roof; rather with the flying buttress, the roof’s weight was bore by the ribs of the vault which were outside the cathedral. This technology allowed architects to make the walls higher and even thinner. It also meant that the Notre-Dame could get its iconic large windows.

During the Renaissance era, the walls and some sections of the internal pillars of the cathedral were decorated with tapestries. In 1625, a fountain was constructed to provide water for inhabitants in the cathedral’s area.

In 1699, Louis XIV carried out renovations, which were supervised by Robert de Cotte. Some of the renovation works done during that time included the removal of the tombs from the nave. Robert de Cotte also added a wrought iron fence, which replaced the rood screen.

Flying buttresses at Notre-Dame

Later flying buttresses  of Notre-Dame (14th century)

Notre-Dame becomes a public property

In 1789, the French Revolution resulted in the nationalization of Notre-Dame. The revolutionaries seized the cathedral from the clergy and turned it into a public property. Four years following the seizure, Notre-Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, an atheistic religion that is commonly referred to as France’s first state-backed religion.

A year later, and following the growth of Maximilien Robespierre’s the Cult of the Supreme Being, the cathedral was again rededicated. With Catholicism temporarily replaced by the state-sponsored religion, numerous precious artefacts of Notre-Dame were either stolen or destroyed. For example, a violent mob damaged the twenty-eight statues of biblical kings at the west façade. The mob wrongly thought that those statues were statues of old French kings of the pasts.

To show their break away from Catholicism, many of the Virgin Mary statues in the cathedral was replaced with the Goddess of Liberty statues. The desecration of Notre-Dame was so severe that the magnificent edifice was turned into a warehouse at some point following the French Revolution.

Had the Concardat of 1801, an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, not come to being, Notre-Dame, as well as many spectacular Catholic monuments up and down France, would undoubtedly have been destroyed over time by the revolutionaries. The Concordat, which was in effect a reconciliation treaty between the Catholic Church and revolutionaries, helped restore Notre-Dame to its former glory. The French state returned the cathedral to the Church; however, its ownership still remained in the hands of the French public.

According to the 1905 secular law that separated the Church and the state, the maintenance of the cathedral will be borne by the French tax payers under the Ministry of Culture. In recent times, the charity organization the Friends of Notre-Dame has contributed immensely towards maintaining the cathedral.

Under Napoleon’s rule, Jean-Baptiste de Belloy was appointed the new bishop of Paris. After restoration works were carried in the cathedral, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French in Notre-Dame in one of the most spectacular of ceremonies of the era.

Victor Hugo-inspired 1844 restoration of Notre-Dame

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) took such huge toll on not just the entire of Europe but also on Notre-Dame. The city officials in Paris contemplated demolishing the entire structure; however, French poet and novelist Victor-Marie Hugo came to the rescue of Notre-Dame with his novel Notre-Dame de Paris (known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in English). Hugo’s very successful 1831 novel drew the public’s attention to the deplorable state of Notre-Dame. A decade or so later, King Louis Philippe ordered for renovation works to begin.

The restoration, which began in 1844, was headed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. By the time the restoration was complete on May 31, 1864, the cost of restoration had ballooned to about 12 million francs. Part of the restoration included the construction of the sacristy, which was heavily plundered by anti-Legitimists in 1831.

Did you know: Prior to the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, Notre-Dame’s two towers (both 69 meters /226 ft.) were tallest structures in the French capital Paris?

Notre-Dame during the Second World War

In August 1944, as Allied forces courageously fought to liberate Paris, Notre-Dame sustained a bit of damage. Some of the cathedral’s glass dating to Medieval Ages was hit by stray bullets during the bloody exchange. After Paris was fully liberated from Nazi occupation, a special mass was organized in the cathedral on August 26, 1944. Top military generals such as General Philippe Leclerc and Charles De Gaulle were in attendance to celebrate the liberation of Paris.

The Renovation works after World War II

The 800th anniversary of the cathedral was celebrated in 1963 in an event organized by then culture minister André Malraux. A great deal of dirt and grime was removed the façade.

The French authorities approved renovation project that lasted from 1991 to 2000. This decade-long renovation work saw the replacement of large parts of the cathedral’s exterior. Electrical wires were also installed on the roof to shoo away pigeons. Notre-Dame’s pipe organ received an upgrade while the west face of the cathedral was cleaned.

However, the renovation works of the 1990s appeared to be insufficient to tackle the extent of deterioration. As a result, the French government approved a 100 million-Euro renovation work to be carried out in the late 2010s.

Did you know: As at 2018, Notre-Dame was the most visited place in France, attracting about 13 million visitors a year? At that figure, the monument attracts more visitors than the Eiffel Tower.

Notre-Dame 2019 Fire Disaster

Notre-Dame cathedral fire

The roof and spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames — the 2019 fire that ravaged Notre-Dame is reasoned to have started in the attic before engulfing the entire roof

Notre-Dame’s famous spire and the large parts of the roof took a heavy battering as fire broke out in the cathedral on April 15, 2019. The fire was likely linked to the renovation work that was taking place in the cathedral at the time.

Investigations revealed that the fire started in the attic around 6 pm local time. A series of poor decisions minutes after the fire break out resulted in the fire brigade not being informed promptly. It was not until about 40 minutes after the first fire alarm sound off before the fire brigade received a call from a guard at Notre-Dame. By that time the fire had spread way beyond the attic. Firemen got to the cathedral round about 7 pm.

In spite of their frantic efforts to put out the fire, it was too little too late for the cathedral’s spire, which folded around 7:50 pm. As the spire came crushing down, it took along close to 1000 tons of lead and stone. The spire went right through the stone vault. The firefighters battling the fire inside the cathedral had to pull out due to concerns over their safety.

The firemen then turned their attention to the north tower. They tried to put out the fire out in the tower in order to prevent the eight bells in north tower from falling down, which in turn would have caused immense damage to the other tower or even the whole cathedral. Kind courtesy to the brave efforts of the firemen, the fire in the tower was extinguished by 9:45 pm.

Even though the firemen were called to scene very late, they were still able to prevent a large section of the cathedral – i.e. the walls, the two towers, buttresses, stained glass windows, and the façade – from going up in flames.

Their heroic efforts also meant that they could halt the fire from spreading to wreak havoc on the Great Organ of Notre-Dame. Unbeknownst to many people, the cathedral’s organ contains an astonishing number of pipes, over 8,000 pipes. The organ was first made in 1401 and later rebuilt in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

All in all, about 500 firemen were at the scene on the night of the fire at Notre-Dame. Luckily, there was no casualty stemming from the fire of 2019. There was however three first responders who sustained varying levels of injuries.

Due to the fire of 2019, the December 25, 2019 Christmas mass was called off. The traditional Notre-Dame Christmas mass was for the first time cancelled in over 200 years.

Did you know: Since the beginning of the 20th century, ownership of cathedrals in France, including Notre-Dame, has rested in the hands of the French people, i.e. the state of France?

Restoration works following the devastating fire of April 2019

France president Emmanuel Macron announced that the cathedral would undergo a five-year restorative work to fix not just the damages caused by the fire of 2019 but other structural issues facing the cathedral. Guiding the entire restoration works is the July 29, 2019 law that stated Notre-Dame’s restoration should be done to “preserve the historic, artistic and architectural interest of the monument”.

The French authorities are optimistic that the restoration works will be completed by the spring of 2024, just in time for 2024 Summer Olympics to be held in the French capital Paris.

Requiem Mass in Notre-Dame

The Requiem Mass for the famous French army general Charles de Gaulle took place in Notre-Dame on November 12, 1970. The cathedral has hosted Requiem Mass for many deceased French heads of state, including one for François Mitterrand (1916- 1996), Frances longest-served president (from 1981 to 1995). On August 10, 2007, the Requiem Mass of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger – the former Archbishop of Paris – was held in the cathedral.

Why has Notre-Dame stood out for centuries?

Attracting tens of millions of visitors a year, Notre-Dame is most famous for a number of reasons such as:

  • Its very large historic organ and huge church bells
  • At the time it was constructed, workers used pioneering technology in rib vault and flying buttress
  • Notre-Dame’s huge and brightly colorful rose windows
  • The various sculptural decoration
  • Notre-Dame’s historic organ and huge church bells

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