What Is Notre-Dame?
Before we delve into the history of Notre-Dame, we should probably get a knowledge baseline. First off, it’s a Catholic cathedral, and “Notre-Dame” isn’t the full name. The cathedral’s actual name is “Notre-Dame de Paris,” or “Our Lady of Paris.” So the common name Notre-Dame really just means “Our Lady.”
Located on the Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame cathedral began construction in the year 1163 under King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III. It’s a little up in the air as to when specifically it was finished (it was damaged and reconstructed a lot, as we’ll see later).
For those wondering about who owns Notre-Dame cathedral, the French state does (specifically the French Ministry of Culture). However, despite being owned by the state, the Catholic Church has the exclusive right to use Notre-Dame for religious purposes indefinitely. As for paying for amenities within the cathedral, those responsibilities lie on the archdiocese (an archdiocese is a region that a given archbishop has responsibilities over, for those wondering).
The Construction of Notre-Dame
Notre-Dame was constructed over a roughly 200 year period, and was initiated in 1163 by bishops Maurice de Sully and Eudes de Sully (no relation). Notre-Dame was built atop the ruins of two other churches, one of which was Roman, dedicated to the God of the Sky, Jupiter. Maurice de Sully’s intention was to take the two already ruined churches to make a single building (what we now know as Notre-Dame).
By 1250 the famous two towers would be completed. Later that century, there would be incorporation of the Rayonnant style, which would mark a shift from High Gothic French architecture to French Gothic. Similar changes would be extended to the southern transepts of the cathedral shortly afterwards.
The 13th century would also see Notre-Dame gain its prominent flying buttresses (this was also around the time the flying buttress was incorporated into architecture around Medieval Europe). These would not only act as art pieces, but also serve to distribute the weight of Notre-Dame’s roof. They would be replaced by even larger buttresses in the 14th century.
Before moving on, now would probably be a good time to address the architectural Frankenstein Notre-Dame is. The cathedral is largely French Gothic in construction (and remains a symbol of that architectural style), but if you know your medieval architecture, you’ll see some Renaissance architecture and more, a reflection of the cathedral’s long history.
Notre-Dame Goes Through Decline
In the 16th century, the Huguenots (persecuted French Protestants) considered parts of Notre-Dame idolatrous, and decided to destroy many statues within it, as idolatry ran counter to their philosophy. It was during this time that Notre-Dame would also receive renovations to comply with more current Renaissance architecture.
Then there was this little thing in 1793 called the French Revolution, during which time Notre-Dame would be pirated of all its treasures. After all the revolting settled down, Napoleon gave Notre-Dame back to the Catholics (it changed hands a few times during the Revolution).
Notre-Dame Gets Renovated
By the 19th century, Notre-Dame remained in service, but it wasn’t in very good shape. For those who like books, this would inspire Victor Hugo to write The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris in France). Hugo’s novel would be a huge success, and bring Notre-Dame cathedral mainstream attention. This prompted a 25-year renovation of the cathedral shortly after the book’s publication.
As recently as 1991, numerous renovation programs for Notre-Dame have been executed. Some of those were to touch up the place, and some to modernize things (adding electricity and the like). A renovation program had begun under the French state in 2018, but was interrupted by the Notre-Dame cathedral fire in April 2019.
The History of Notre-Dame
Being an 800+ year old building, Notre-Dame has seen a lot over the years.
It’s served as the location for the crowning of kings. It was where the Third Crusade was made official in 1185. Napoleon was crowned and married there. And one will find a lot of priceless art stored within the walls and underneath this storied cathedral.
Unsurprisingly, Notre-Dame also has a lot of ties to Joan of Arc. It was within Notre-Dame’s walls that her mother attempted to appeal and overturn the rulings of heresy against her.
So, at the end of the day, it’s no wonder that Notre-Dame de Paris is such an icon and tourist attraction today, whether you’re Catholic or not.
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