One of the capital’s emblematic monuments, Notre Dame Cathedral has been part of the Paris cityscape for over 800 years. On April 15, 2019, the fire that ravaged the woodwork and spire of Notre Dame provoked a deeply emotional reaction in both France and many other countries. This catastrophe brought about a new awareness of the fragility of our historical monuments. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was mutilated, pillaged, and later transferred over into a national property. It nonetheless continued to represent a special place in the urban landscape, for a few years it even became the headquarters of the new atheist cult of reason. The Concordat of 1801 re-established the Catholic religion and Notre Dame recovered its initial function. In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo’s famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was wildly popular, and Notre Dame entered the hearts of every Frenchman. It became the place for state funerals and celebrations of military victories, most notably during the Liberation of Paris. The show of generosity immediately following the fire in 2019 showed how strongly the French are attached to monuments like this one and underscored how much they are a part of collective French history. Added to the national list of Historical Monuments in 1862 and later to the UNESCO World Heritage list, Notre Dame is a must-see for visitors to Paris. It is one of the most frequently-visited sites in the country, and is also the starting point for all roads in France!
Although it is one of the capital’s main tourist attractions, the cathedral is still dedicated to faithful worshipers and to liturgical celebrations. It is one of the most important Christian religious sites both in France and across the world because it holds extremely important relics that were formerly kept in nearby Sainte Chapelle. These include the Crown of Thorns purchased by St. Louis, a fragment of the cross, a nail from the treasury of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that was given to Charlemagne in 799, and the tunic of St. Louis.
A selection of more than 100 reproductions of works that are found in the City of Paris museums retraces the history of Notre Dame and highlights the great events witnessed by the cathedral.
- SECTION 1 : Notre-Dame de Paris, de l’église paléochrétienne au monument historique
- Notre-Dame de Paris, de l’église paléochrétienne au monument historique
- Notre-Dame, un joyau d’architecture
- Notre-Dame : objet mathématique
- Un coup de bourdon pour une flèche disparue
- Le parvis Notre-Dame
- SECTION 2 : Notre-Dame de Paris, lieu de culte et symbole du pouvoir
- Notre-Dame de Paris, lieu de culte et symbole du pouvoir
- Les processions de la Sainte-Geneviève
- Les Mays de Notre-Dame de Paris
- Notre-Dame de Paris et le pouvoir royal
- Les tourments de la Révolution française
- Le retour du culte catholique et les soubresauts de l’époque moderne
- Notre-Dame dans la libération de Paris
- Une messe de Noël historique
- SECTION 3 : Entre Notre-Dame et Paris, un lien indéfectible
- Entre Notre-Dame et Paris, un lien indéfectible
- Notre-Dame, témoin des temps modernes
- Notre-Dame de Paris dans le cœur des artistes
- Un monument intemporel et tutélaire
- Victor Hugo et la redécouverte de Notre-Dame
- Prenons de la hauteur
- Vues stéréoscopiques animées
- Pour prolonger cette exposition virtuelle
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Notre-Dame de Paris, de l’église paléochrétienne au monument historique
Au XIIème siècle, Maurice de Sully, évêque de Paris, lance la construction d’une nouvelle cathédrale à l’emplacement de l’ancienne. Cet espace, en plein cœur de l’île de la Cité, est occupé depuis l’antiquité par de nombreux bâtiments dont les vestiges sont aujourd’hui visibles dans la Crypte archéologique. Plusieurs décennies sont nécessaires à l’achèvement des travaux afin d’élever les voûtes en croisée d’ogive, les arcs-boutants, la charpente etc. L’essentiel des pierres calcaires utilisées provient des carrières de la région de Paris ainsi que les milliers de chênes utilisés pour la construction de la charpente surnommée la « Forêt de Notre-Dame ». Les plans originaux sont remaniés dans la première moitié du XIIIème siècle avec l’adjonction d’un système d’écoulement des eaux, l’ajout d’une flèche, l’ajourage des tours et le percement des fenêtres hautes pour laisser pénétrer toujours plus de lumière dans ce vaisseau de pierre. Les rosaces et les grandes baies font triompher l’art du vitrail, permettant à Notre-Dame de Paris de devenir l’un des plus majestueux édifices du gothique rayonnant et déjà, un symbole de la capitale.
NOTRE DAME: AN ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL
Measuring 127 meters long and 69 meters high at the towers, Notre Dame is one of the largest medieval cathedrals in Europe. Until the Eiffel Tower’s construction in the late nineteenth century, the cathedral had been the tallest monument in the capital for centuries. Stained glass, which appeared in the twelfth century, was used from the beginning of Notre Dame’s construction. This worksite (like the one at Sainte Chapelle) led to the mastery of the technique for stained glass windows, which, at the time, required substantial financial means to be able to obtain the metal oxides required for coloring the glass. Among the remarkable elements of Notre Dame are the three rose windows set in stonework as fine as lace, which are masterpieces of Gothic architecture. The western rose window shows the Virgin and Child at the center of the composition, whose details can be observed on the engraving made by Emile Ollivier in the nineteenth century.
The choir, the area around the altar, of Notre Dame was rearranged with respect to the original layout, and the choir we see today was the work of architect Robert de Cotte. In 1637, Louis XIII implored the Virgin Mary to give him a son. As proof of his devotion, he decided to modify the choir of Notre Dame and give the cathedral a new main altar. Work began under Louis XIV with the demolition of the rood screen—a part of the altar—and the creation of a choir (during this work, fragments of the famous Pillar of the Nautes were discovered, now housed at the Musée de Cluny). A group of monumental sculptures presides majestically in the center of the new architectural arrangement, including a white marble pieta by Nicolas Coustou, a statue of Louis XIII offering his crown to Mary made by Guillaume Coustou, and a statue of Louis XIV imploring the Virgin, sculpted by Antoine Coysevox.
NOTRE-DAME: A MATHEMATICAL REFERENCE
In several documents from the Carnavalet Museum, it is interesting to note that Notre Dame became a mathematical tool. In his “Géometrie pratique” (Practical Geometry) from 1702, Allain Manesson-Mallet uses the cathedral as an example for a trigonometry demonstration:
“A chaplain from the Hôtel Dieu of Paris, who had some notions of geometry, wanted to know—without leaving his house—how high the north tower of Notre Dame was from the ground level (O) to the balustrade (P) [...]” (La Géométrie pratique, T.2, p.74).
In other documents, Notre Dame is a reference point, a sort of yardstick used to compare the dimensions of major engineering projects, such as the artesian well at the Grenelle slaughterhouse or the “300-meter-tall tower” of Gustave Eiffel, or even to emphasize the gigantic dimensions of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
A TENOR BELL TOLLS FOR A MISSING SPIRE
The 2019 fire destroyed the spire, one of the cathedral’s defining architectural elements. Built in the thirteenth century, the first spire was a bell tower (visible on an engraving by Jacques Rigaud). This spire was dismantled between 1786 and 1792 because it was in danger of collapsing. In the lower left corner of a stereoscopic view from the first half of the nineteenth century, an empty space was visible at the transept crossing. It can also be seen on Émile Harrouart’s representation of the apse. It wasn’t until 1843 that a restoration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc finally crowned the cathedral summit with a spire. Made of wood and protected with lead, it reached a height of 96 meters. In the towers on the west side of the building, 21 bells peal during religious ceremonies and major events. The “bourdon,” or tenor bell, is the oldest of the bells (it was cast in 1683 during Louis XIV’s reign); it has an imposing diameter of 2.62 meters and weighs 13 tons!
THE NOTRE DAME PARVIS
During the Middle Ages, Paris was one of the largest cities in the West, and Ile de la Cité was its center. Since this dense neighborhood was occupied by a number of buildings (religious, royal, or private) and crisscrossed by winding narrow streets, the architects of Notre Dame needed to create a vast open area. To do this, they tore down the Romanesque church of Saint Etienne and left an empty area in front of the monumental portal of the new edifice that would open on Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame. This became the parvis of Notre Dame de Paris, the front courtyard or square. In the sixteenth century, it was surrounded by a low wall, against which the so-called “Jeûneur” fountain, designed by the king’s architect Christophe Gamard, was built in 1639. The former Hôtel-Dieu Church was located on the south edge of the parvis (it can be seen on the sixteenth-century layout by Truschet and Hoyau). In 1748, the fountain was destroyed and the parvis was redesigned so that the Enfants Trouvés hospital designed by Germain Boffrand could be built on the west side. After the fire of 1772, the Hôtel Dieu was given a monumental neoclassical entrance that opened on to the Notre Dame parvis. In 1865, it was demolished and rebuilt on the north side of the parvis. Then, in 1874, the Enfants Trouvés hospital was torn down so that Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame could be widened, leaving the parvis with the aspect we see today. Some planned projects were not ultimately carried out, such as the installation of a monument paying tribute to Joan of Arc in the center of the parvis. Instead, an equestrian statue of Charlemagne was chosen. The numerous changes made in the nineteenth century allowed for archeological excavations that enriched the knowledge of Ile de la Cité during Antiquity (site of the archeological map of Paris).
Notre-Dame de Paris, lieu de culte et symbole du pouvoir
Jusqu’à la Révolution, Notre-Dame est l’un des principaux lieux de culte catholique de Paris. Elle voit défiler les rois, les papes, les évêques et les grands personnages venant participer aux événements majeurs du royaume.
Les processions de la Sainte-Geneviève
Place incontournable de la vie religieuse, de nombreux fidèles se rendent à la cathédrale pour se recueillir et prier. Du Moyen Âge à la Révolution, la capitale vit au rythme des cérémonies religieuses qui ponctuent le calendrier. Une des plus célèbres d’entre elles (bien qu’exceptionnelle) est sans doute la procession de la châsse de sainte Geneviève, protectrice de Paris, depuis l’abbaye Sainte-Geneviève jusqu’à Notre-Dame. Lors de cette cérémonie, la position de chacun est déterminée par la hiérarchie des statuts sociaux. Les personnages importants de la cité sont situés en fin de cortège, aux côtés de la châsse principale, c’est pourquoi ce sont eux qui sont presque toujours représentés au premier plan dans les œuvres figurant l’événement.
THE “MAYS” OF NOTRE DAME DE PARIS
Starting in the sixteenth century, the goldsmiths’ guild of Paris commissioned artists every year to create small paintings representing biblical scenes related to the Virgin Mary to be offered to the cathedral in the month of May (also spelled “May” in Old French). From 1630 to 1707, these paintings took on colossal dimensions and were exhibited at various locations in the cathedral. The works representing these “Mays” often included a perspective view of the Notre Dame nave that highlighted the building’s monumentality. During the French Revolution, the Mays were seized and some were taken to the Louvre. Others were kept in the regions and some disappeared. After the Concordat of 1801, thirteen “Mays” were hung once again in the side chapels of the Notre Dame nave, in particular the goldsmiths’ chapel.
NOTRE DAME AND ROYAL POWER
Notre Dame de Paris witnessed some of the major events that shook the capital and the country. During the sixteenth century, when the country was in the midst of the Wars of Religion, King Henry III of France was assassinated in 1589 by the Dominican monk Jacques Clément, a fervent partisan of the Catholic League. Henry IV, who succeeded him with the title of “King of France and Navarre,” entered Paris peacefully on March 22, 1594, and went to Notre Dame to pray. The cathedral appears in the background of two works representing this event. The building can easily be identified by its characteristic silhouette and rose window.
Official ceremonies were held under the rib-vaulted ceiling. In 1663, Louis XIV welcomed a diplomatic delegation to Paris that was made up of representatives from the thirteen Swiss cantons. This encounter was the result of several years of behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the signing of an alliance between France and the Swiss leagues. In Paris, negotiations took place out of sight until the official ceremony that featured the swearing of the oath of allegiance in Notre Dame Cathedral. The print shown reproduces the scene depicted by Charles le Brun, the king’s foremost painter. Louis XIV also ordered a series of tapestries entitled “The King’s History” from the Royal Manufactory of the Gobelins, which were designed to spread royal propaganda. The original tapestry representing the swearing of the oath of allegiance now hangs in the Swiss Embassy in Paris.
Leading figures in the kingdom celebrated baptisms, weddings, and funerals at Notre Dame de Paris. In 1746, this was where the funeral services for Maria Teresa of Spain were held with pomp and circumstance. She was the first wife of Louis de France (son of Louis XV and father of kings Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, and Charles X), who died a few days after giving birth to Marie Thérèse of France. During the same year, funeral services were held at Notre Dame for Philip V, King of Spain from the Bourbon side, although the sovereign’s body was not present. This type of in absentia ceremony was characteristic of European monarchies from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
TORMENTED BY THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
When the French Revolution broke out, Notre Dame and its assets were seized by the newborn Republic. In the political and social upheaval that followed the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the municipality of Paris came into being. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the first president of the National Assembly, was named to lead Paris, thus becoming the city’s first mayor. Once again, Notre Dame was chosen for celebrating the event. In his History of the French Revolution, Adolphe Thiers describes this episode in the following way:
“A Te Deum was immediately voted upon, and we went together as a crowd to Notre Dame. Marching arm-in-arm, the new judges, the archbishop of Paris and the electors, together with French Guards and militia soldiers, went to the old cathedral in a state that resembled intoxication. On the way, orphaned children fell at the feet of Bailly, who had done much for the hospitals, and called him “father” (History of the French Revolution by A. Thiers and F. Bodin, 1865, Paris, T.1, p.403. Online at BnF)
The National Guard, which had been created a few days earlier, took its members from the 60 newly created districts in Paris that were added to the existing parishes to get a better idea of Parisian social reality. From July 17, 1789, to December 31 of the same year, the flags of the National Guard were blessed at Notre Dame, a short time before it was desecrated. Then, the cathedral was vandalized, in particular the sculptures of the Gallery of Kings on the façade. It became a polling place and, from 1793 to 1795, a wine storehouse belonging to the Republic. After the passing of a law on May 31, 1795, that granted the use of non-alienated buildings to various religions, the well-known Abbot Gregory (bishop of Loir-et-Cher and later president of the Constituent Assembly) created the “Catholic Society of Notre Dame” and was given the keys to Notre Dame by the Ile de la Cité section. At that point, Notre Dame was in an advanced stage of disrepair.
It was not until 1804 that Notre Dame again became the site of prestigious ceremonies and regained its former glory with the consecration of Napoleon Bonaparte. For the occasion, fringed silk rugs covered the floor, gigantic draperies with the emperor’s coat of arms were hung from balconies and immense chandeliers were hung from the vaults (description of the preparations). By choosing the cathedral to celebrate his ascension to the throne, Napoleon placed it once again at the center of buildings that symbolize power.
RETURN TO CATHOLICISM AND THE JOLTS OF THE MODERN ERA
During the nineteenth century, Notre Dame de Paris was once again the preferred place for great national ceremonies, such as weddings and baptisms. On June 17, 1816, Charles-Ferdinand d’Artois (the son of Charles X) and Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile were married in splendor. Designed ahead of time, the decorations filled Notre Dame with wall hangings, curtains and foliage garlands that created an exceptional setting.
The baptism of the imperial prince, son of Napoleon III, on June 14, 1856, at Notre Dame was another occasion to observe the means employed to glorify the ceremony, whose decoration was supervised by Viollet-le-Duc himself. The splendor was such that Napoleon III commented: “This baptism is worthy of a consecration,” a direct allusion to the ceremony of his uncle’s enthronement some 52 years earlier at the same site.
The only negative event was the pillage of the cathedral and the archbishop’s palace on July 29, 1830, during the revolution that dethroned Charles X.
Some of the nation’s great figures were also entitled to funeral services at Notre Dame, such as Louis Pasteur on October 6, 1895, Dr. Emile Roux in 1933 and François Mitterrand on January 11, 1996.
In May 1945, General De Gaulle and the allied ambassadors attended a Te Deum (a religious ceremony of praise and thanksgiving) given at Notre Dame to celebrate the capitulation of Nazi Germany. In the second half of the twentieth century, major restoration work was carried out, in particular on the stained glass windows. Following the Second Vatican Council and at the request of Monsignor Lustiger, a new altar was installed at the transept crossing. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the 850th anniversary of the edifice inside a partially-restored cathedral.
The fight to liberate Paris was filmed by a team of Resistance cameramen and were the first images of Free France broadcast by France Libre Actualités and the French Cinema Liberation Committee (CLCF). Source: INA.
On December 24, 1948, the first mass to be filmed for television was shot live from Notre Dame de Paris. It was a technical feat for the teams of Radiodiffusion Française, who had to adapt to the special conditions imposed by the setting. Source: INA.
STEADFAST TIES BETWEEN NOTRE DAME AND PARIS
In the nineteenth century, the urban landscape of Paris was transformed in large part through the work of Baron Haussmann. Broad avenues were built, buildings were standardized and aligned, squares were created and, as we have seen, the Hôtel Dieu was moved to the north of the Notre Dame parvis, leaving more space for the cathedral and setting it off to greater advantage. This work coincided with the start of Viollet-le-Duc’s rehabilitation of Notre Dame.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the building acquired a gas lighting system, which was installed by the “Parisian Company of Gas Lighting and Heating.” This innovation required numerous brigades to light the gas burners. Photographers like Brassaï or Louis Vert captured the work of “lamp cleaners” on film. It was their job to remove the soot deposited on windows by the burning of coal gas. In line with newfound hygenic ideals of the nineteenth century, innovations appeared, such as the “sweeper truck” or the “watering truck” that was immortalized at the foot of Notre Dame by Eugène Atget.
NOTRE DAME: WITNESS TO MODERNITY
Notre Dame de Paris saw the installation of a new type of transportation with a bright future: the Paris metro. From 1905 to 1907, work on Line 4 totally disrupted the usual way of circulating between the left and right banks of the Seine, which were linked for the first time by a tunnel under the river. On the proposed projects, there was a striking contrast between the Gothic cathedral, symbol of continuity, and the modern engineering structures, symbols of rupture. The flood of 1910 is also an event that became anchored in the collective memory. Notre Dame was affected by the rise in river water, which flooded the underground levels of the sacristy and the presbytery (article in the Petit Parisien dated January 27, 1910).
Finally, in this early part of the century, the threat of a German invasion floated in the air. To protect Notre Dame, impressive piles of sandbags were placed around the cathedral, in particular against the sculpted portals. In spite of this precaution, German aviation and artillery would damage certain monuments, of which Notre Dame would be affected.
NOTRE DAME DE PARIS IN THE HEART OF ARTISTS
Although Paris has a number of remarkable monuments, it would seem that artists particularly favored Notre Dame de Paris. The first representations conserved in the city’s museums date from the sixteenth century. Careful attention to details is relatively important in these works, as well as in the engravings and prints from later centuries. The reproduction of various architectural elements in these works is more or less faithful, depending on factors like point of view or composition of the scene, but the artists generally aim for accuracy.
With the evolution of artistic styles, the representation of Notre Dame by artists became more flexible. They strived to suggest the presence of the cathedral more by its contours than through a technical drawing of each part of the monument. Covered with snow, surrounded by clouds, in the moonlight or the noonday sun, the perception of Notre Dame was ceaselessly reinvented by these artists. For them, it was a novel sensorial experience, depending on whether light fell on the limestone walls or the lead roof, bringing out original plays of light and shade at different times of the day. The magnificent Pointillist paintings of Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce and Robert Delaunay illustrate this. We should also note the unique photographic montages made by Bruno Fabien, which are housed at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Their visual effects are stunning!
- Musée d'Orsay : Le quai Saint-Michel et Notre-Dame, en 1901, Maximilien Luce
- Kunstmuseum Basel : La flèche de Notre-Dame (Vue de Paris, Notre-Dame), Robert Delaunay
A TIMELESS AND TUTELARY MONUMENT
With a universally familiar silhouette, Notre Dame de Paris is one of the city’s emblematic monuments. Whenever it appears in a work, whether in the foreground or as part of the background, it immediately identifies Paris. One of the oldest representations of the city can be seen on a Flemish painting from the sixteenth century that is kept in the Carnavalet Museum. On it, the cathedral is the key element that enables identifying the city where the scene takes place. It appeared on the one-franc bill from the Banque de Commerce in 1920, next to the famous ship from the Paris coat of arms. In a satirical drawing by Jospin on the value of the franc, it symbolizes Paris all by itself, just like the Tower Bridge symbolizes London. The print of picturesque Paris made by Jules Perrichon in 1897 shows that a mere suggestion of the apse enables us to recognize the cathedral.
Artists used it in allegories as a representative of the city: Adolphe Willette painted an allegory of Paris, who wears her crenellated crown, in a melancholy pose with her elbows nonchalantly placed on Notre Dame. The two other elements in this composition are the July Column topped by the Spirit of the Bastille and a barricade in the foreground, symbols of rupture that counterbalance the solidity and stability of the venerable cathedral. Although it is merely a dark and far-away contour in the allegory of the city of Paris by Louise Abbéma, Notre Dame does not lose its evocative power.
VICTOR HUGO AND THE REDISCOVERY OF NOTRE DAME
Firmly set in the heart of Paris for centuries, immutable Notre Dame could have turned into a sleeping beauty. But in the nineteenth century, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo revived interest in the cathedral, from the French and the entire world alike.
The novel was published by Hugo in 1831 as part of his fight to safeguard the remains of “Old France” that he felt to be endangered. Relying on his intimate knowledge of the building, he paid tribute to the Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece and, above all, highlighted the genius of those who built it. “Time is the architect,” he wrote, “the people are the mason.” It is more than merely a church; the poet reveals it to be a “monument of national heritage” and the soul of a city.
The cathedral is inhabited by the main characters: the one-eyed and deaf hunchback Quasimodo, who is its monstrous soul, and Esmeralda, whom he secretly loves. She is the feminine aspect of the novel, the incarnation of beauty, freedom, and innocence, but also the plaything and victim of violent rival loves.
The novel was a great success. When it was published, it provoked an abundance of images—paintings, engravings and, later, photographs—that would make the cathedral known worldwide. The novel was translated into many languages and adapted for opera, theater and film, an animated cartoon and a musical comedy. It has become the edifice itself: for many, the cathedral is unfailingly associated to Victor Hugo and his characters.
FROM A HIGH POINT OF VIEW
For centuries, Notre Dame was the highest monument in the capital. From the top of its 69-meter-tall towers and after climbing some 422 steps, visitors have a broad view of the city. It is the preferred point of observation, extraordinary and central, for admiring one of the most beautiful panoramas of Paris.
Mostly forgotten today, stereoscopic photography was a popular technique in the second half of the nineteenth century. It enabled in-depth vision and was the first type of 3D shot!
A stereoscopic view is made from two photos that appear to be the same but are not quite identical. There is a slight change in angle between them that corresponds to the angles seen by our eyes, which are separated by a few centimeters. This enables us to perceive depth and distance. When inserted into a stereoscope, which is a special device for viewing, the stereoscopic view appears. The two images become one and we see the scene as if were in three dimensions.
Since we do not have a stereoscope, we have animated these views of Notre Dame to give you an idea of depth. It is a novel way to discover Notre Dame seen from Quai de la Tourelle and the former Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame, a view of the top of the cathedral around 1930, or progress on a renovation undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc. This renovation also provides us with chronological markers. Statues are gradually restored to the Gallery of Kings, and a new spire appears only toward the end, in 1860.
Pour prolonger cette exposition virtuelle
Cette exposition a été conçue et rédigée par la Direction des collections (Hugo Cador, Lise Mész et Charles Villeneuve de Janti) avec la participation des équipes des musées et mise en ligne par le Service numérique.
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