The History of Notre Dame Cathedral

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

There are many different structures that have made their mark on history over time. From the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal to the Colosseum, the list of impressive human construction projects is a long one, to be sure.

One of the most famous buildings to ever grace the European continent, in particular, is the remarkable structure known as Notre Dame de Paris or “Our Lady of Paris.” The extraordinary Catholic cathedral has remained a focal point in the midst of the City of Lights for nearly a thousand years.

It is the seat of the Archdiocese of Paris and has had many historic events take place within its hallowed halls.

Tragically, on April 15, 2019, just a few short years after the church’s 850th birthday, a fire broke out in the structure and, within hours, large portions of the wooden part of the cathedral, including its roof and spire, had been consumed in the conflagration.

The main portion of the structure escaped permanent destruction and a push to rebuild, which could take as long as two decades, was begun at once. While the interest in preserving the historic building bodes well for the future of the cathedral, we thought it would be interesting to take a quick look in the other direction and learn some of the Parisian landmark’s history over the previous centuries.

Why has the medieval wonder made such an impression over time? What is it, exactly, about the imposing architectural masterpiece that draws 13 million visitors each year? Let’s head back to the beginning to find out what there is to know about the Notre Dame Cathedral.


The Notre Dame Cathedral

Breaking Ground

The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163 A.D. This was during the reign of King Louis VII of France and the heart of the Middle Ages. The laying of the foundational stone was a high-profile event, with no one less than the Pope, Alexander III, on the scene to put the first piece in its place.

The idea for a cathedral on that particular spot had been thought up a few years earlier by the bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully. The location was a good one, occupying the eastern end of the small island of Île de la Cité in the midst of the Seine River. That river ran through the heart of the city of Paris, which was rapidly becoming an important part of the relatively new kingdom of France.

Interestingly, Notre Dame wasn’t the first religious building constructed on the river island. Before Christianity, it had served as the home to a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Since then, not one but two different churches had stood on the same spot in the past, with the second church having been ravaged by fire.

By the mid 12th century, the ruins of the two churches stood on the spot, and Maurice de Sully dreamed of a structure that would bring the remains of both together in a single massive cathedral for the city.


Over a Century of Construction

Coming up with the idea of a cathedral on the Seine River was by far the easy part. Even in the modern day, a project as big as the Notre Dame Cathedral would have been years in the building. In the Middle Ages, though, it turned into a decades-long affair ...and in some ways even centuries!

As with most large structures built before the days of modern machinery, Notre Dame was slowly completed in stages. For example, the high altar of the cathedral was consecrated less than thirty years after Pope Alexander III laid the first stone. But he, along with the rest of the founders of the project, didn’t live to see the entire structure completed. Not by a long shot.

The choir, western facade, and the nave — the central part of the building — didn’t come together until halfway through the 13th century. It was during this time that the iconic pair of Gothic towers was also erected.

Even then, the structure was far from complete, though. Things like chapels, porches, and various other decorative elements continued to be added over the century that followed. While a date for the completion of the project is difficult to pin down, many historians choose 1345 A.D. as the “official date” that the construction came to a close. All future projects became mere maintenance or “restorations” at that point.


Notre Dame Cathedral: Facts and Figures

While the story of its building is interesting all on its own, breaking down some of the Notre Dame Cathedral facts is another eye-opening way to showcase just how impressive the project really was. When complete, the base of Notre Dame Cathedral was 427 feet long and 157 feet wide. The walls rose to an imposing 115 ft, while the iconic pair of bell towers in the front continued on up to nearly twice that height.


The Towers

The bell towers were roughly 223 feet tall and contained an exhausting 387 steps. Each tower was originally meant to showcase a further spire on top, but these were never added.

While many bells were housed in the towers over time, the most famous one is called Emmanuel. This musical marvel weighs 13 tons and is housed in the South Tower.


Flying Buttresses

No, it’s not a punchline for a joke. Flying buttresses are the thin stone supports on the outside of the cathedral that help brace the walls and support the roof.

They were a fairly new architectural invention at the time, and their successful use allowed the cathedral to have taller walls and more windows without the need for supports to clutter up the interior of the building. Naturally, this let in an impressive amount of light when compared to previous designs.

The video below provides a fascinating breakdown of how flying buttresses work and why they were such a huge breakthrough in medieval building design.



That Gothic Style

Gothic architecture was just gaining popularity in Europe, and especially in France, when plans for the structure were being made.

The style used masonry, which is one of the primary materials used to build the Notre Dame Cathedral. It focused on the use of techniques like rib vaults and flying buttresses to allow for features like enormously cavernous spaces within the buildings themselves.

Buildings of this style were often filled with natural light and capitalized on the use of stained-glass windows.

While the incredibly long time that the cathedral took to construct meant that other styles like the Renaissance and Naturalism began to influence the later designs, the building itself was still overwhelmingly a product of the Gothic style popular in France at the time.


In Rough Shape

While the bulk of the features of the beautiful Notre Dame facade remained true to the original design over the years, time has exacted a toll on the structure nevertheless.

The French Revolution, in particular, saw the building reach a low point as the revolutionary disdain for the religious building led to damage and disrepair for some time. However, once the revolution ended and Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, the situation stabilized once again.

While the building was in quite a discouraging state at that point, the new ruler of France had an interest in the structure and saved it from destruction. By 1804 it had been repaired enough for Napoleon himself to desire to be crowned emperor in the cathedral, bringing an even greater amount of attention to the already venerable piece of French history.

However, it would still be a few more decades before the building would be brought back to the full state of its original architectural glory.

It was none other than the famous author, Victor Hugo, who brought about the final push to restore Notre Dame. This came via the publication of his book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831.

The famous story made a point to highlight the building’s ailing condition. This led to a fresh level of public awareness, and it wasn’t long before the building saw a growing interest in its preservation. As a result, repairs and improvements took place throughout the mid-19th century.

It was at this point that the chief architect overseeing the restoration, Viollet-le-Duc, added the famous wooden spire that perished in the 2019 fire. The spire wasn’t the original, but it replaced an older version that had been removed in the 18th century when it became a hazard.


An Iconic French Landmark Forever

While there are numerous iconic buildings throughout history, there’s no doubt that the Notre Dame Cathedral deserves its place in their midst. From its role as a centerpiece of Medieval Gothic architectural style to the sheer impressiveness of its size and scope, the French landmark will continue to captivate hearts and souls for a very long time to come.

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  • Great information here and the clip from Engineering models is an excellent resource. Thanks for this post!

    Maria on
  • Thank You for this special post. It will be rebuilt. Wishing you and yours Easter Blessings.
    Marilyn and Family

    Marilyn on
  • I was curious and sad about the news. The video is really helpful to understand the importance of the architecture and those seemingly unusual features. Now that I understand why those flying buttresses are there and why the pointy spires are useful, then I can appreciate the structure even more as an architectural marvel rather than just a historic landmark.

    Suzanne A. Harris on

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