“Perhaps the church itself will soon disappear from the face of the earth,” wrote Victor Hugo in 1831, in a note that precedes his famous romantic novel Our Lady of Paris. In that preface he also tells that the inspiration of his work was a word written in Greek in one of the towers of the cathedral: “Anaikh”, which means “fatality”.
Far from being a prophet, the famous Frenchman made with his lines a profound criticism of the immobility of the Parisian people who showed themselves disinterested in the renovation of the cathedral that over the centuries was the victim of looting, plundering and the passage of time.
Indeed, when the author began to shape his novel, the cathedral of Notre Dame presented a very poor state, it was greatly degraded. In order to challenge the readers and thus save the monument, he devoted an entire chapter, entitled ‘Our Lady’, to enhance the artistic and heritage value of the mother of the French homeland.
This situation undoubtedly contrasts with the current one: thousands of people committed themselves to join forces to rebuild the part of the temple that burned on Holy Monday while carrying out maintenance tasks. The world’s interest lies in the fact that besides having a deep religious sense, it is a geographical and cultural point of reference for the City of Light.
The history of the temple
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Our Lady, in French) is the Gothic cathedral par excellence and one of the oldest in the world.
It was built between 1163 and 1245 on the Island of the City, an island on the Seine River, where the first inhabitants of the area began to settle, since around 200 a.C. the Celtic tribe of the Parisii settled down in the place to found the city of Lutecia. The town grew and prospered, until in the year 506 it became the capital of the kingdom and acquired the name of Cité.
Currently, the Île de la Cité is one of the most pleasant areas of Paris. There you will find some of the main attractions of the city, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sainte Chapelle or the Conciergerie.
After becoming a fortified city, the island had to endure the continuous attacks of the Norman troops. During the Middle Ages the city already had an important population center, and was the political, cultural and spiritual center of France.
The cathedral began to be built in 1163. The western façade was built around 1200, while the towers were completed in the middle of the 13th century. By 1260 most of the cathedral had been built and it continued to advance well into the fourteenth century.
During the reign of Louis XIV, mainly in the east area were destroyed graves and stained glass to be replaced by elements of the artistic style of the time: the baroque. Thus, for 77 years, the guild of goldsmiths of Paris commissioned a painting a year to renowned artists, obtaining 77 large-format paintings, which were then placed inside the temple.
Given that during the French Revolution there were many deteriorations perpetrated at the Cathedral of Paris, the radical restorations of the mid-nineteenth century, led by Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Viollet-Le-Duc, followed. In addition to rebuilding and restoring much of the lost sculpture (including the famous gargoyles), various parts were modified and added, including the famous needle of the dome.
Before the restorations and reconstructions, numerous sculptural elements of the cathedral were frankly destroyed or mutilated. Paris was the center of the Revolution and Notre Dame is located next to the Royal Palace and was also closely linked to the family of the French monarchs, for which it received important aggressions in that historic event.
In Notre Dame important events have been celebrated, among which we can highlight the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, the beatification of Joan of Arc and the coronation of Henry VI of England.
Coronation of Napoleon
It was a fact that he became an icon of the supremacy of the state over the clergy in France. Napoleon wanted to distance himself from the protocol of the monarchy of the Old Regime and to break with the legacy of the House of Bourbon.
So it was that on December 2, 1804, when everyone expected the proud Napoleon to bow before Pope Pius VII, he decided to skip all canons. Standing up, he snatched the crown from the Supreme Pontiff and placed it himself. Barely fifteen years after the revolution passed through the guillotine to the nobility, France already had an emperor.
Beatification of Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, now a saint, was a young French peasant who led the French Army in the Hundred Years’ War against England, making Charles VII crowned King of France.
She was captured and condemned for heresy. However, twenty-three years after his death, his family requested a review of the case. Pope Calixto III created a commission that fully rehabilitated the maiden. More than four centuries later, another pope, Benedict XV, elevated Juana to the altars by canonizing her. On May 30, the date of his death, his feast is celebrated.
Coronation of Henry VI of England
Henry VI’s is a unique case in History. He was the only person who was crowned simultaneously as King of England and France. However, his coronation had to be organized in a hurry; neither in one place nor in the other did he manage to govern peacefully; he ended up losing both crowns and died in suspicious circumstances when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
In architectural terms, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in a temple with a Latin cross plan, with five naves and side chapels.
It has three characteristic levels of early Gothic: arches, rostrum and clariterio with windows. In all you can appreciate the beauty of its arches.
The sculpture is of extraordinary quality given the importance of Paris in the thirteenth century as the center of the kingdom where the best teachers went. The court established there was able to attract the best artists, be they architects, sculptors, glassmakers, miniaturists.
As for the exterior of the temple, the three doors of the facade have different styles because they were built at different times. The door of Santa Ana (south) dates from 1210 and that of the Virgin (north) and that of the Last Judgment (center), of 1250.
Door of Santa Ana (south)
The door of Santa has the particularity that a good part of his sculpture predates the construction of the Gothic cathedral, since a construction was reused at the end of the XII.
It is presided over by a Virgin Theotokos, of Romanesque tradition for its frontality and location of the Child in the center of his lap. The Mother is solemnly seated on a throne under a beautiful baldachin with architectural structures that symbolize the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Central Gate or of the Final Judgment (center)
Here appears a Christ Man showing the sores in his hands. On both sides, two angels carry the instruments of the Passion, while Saint John and the Virgin intercede for humanity. We must remember that the representation of the humanized Christ in the scene of the Last Judgment is typical of the Gothic and reinforces the idea of Jesus’ human nature and his role not only as judge but as redeemer.
Door of the Virgin (north)
The north door is a typical cover of a Marian theme. Unfortunately, the original was mutilated during the French Revolution and later rebuilt.
You can see the scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, in which Mary appears sitting next to the Almighty.
Of 69 meters height, they are characteristic of the facade of the temple. You can access them to visit the belfry in which the mythical Hunchback of Notre Dame lived and appreciate the multiple gargoyles up close, as well as get fantastic views of the city.
To ascend is accessed through the entrance on the left side of the cathedral and climb 387 steep steps on foot, since Notre Dame does not have an elevator.
The stained glass
In the cathedral of Paris there are almost two stained glass windows of colors and magnificent designs. There are three rose windows that, according to official information, were saved from the flames. The one of the west dates from 1220 and the two symmetrical ones, of the north and south ships are of 1250 and 1270. The first one is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Child God; the north to the Old Testament; and the south, to the New. The stained glass windows below the two rosettes represent, one the eighteen kings of Judah; and to the sixteen prophets the other, of which the four in the center carry the evangelists on their shoulders.
Located in the basement of the Notre Dame square, the crypt contains ruins discovered during excavations in 1965. It was opened in 1980 and contains vestiges of buildings prior to 1750.
The largest organ of Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most famous in the world.
It has 113 games and 7800 tubes, some of which are from the Middle Ages. It can be heard every Sunday at five fifteen in the afternoon, when it is played by one of the titular organists of Notre-Dame; or in recitals that organists from different parts of the world normally offer one Thursday per month.
The history of the instruments of Notre-Dame de Paris begins around 1330. The first was suspended as a nest of swallows under a tall window of the nave.
By 1400, it was decided to install a second instrument on top of the west main cover, while the old organ continued its craft.
From 1473 and during fifty years numerous tubes were restored, which resulted in various modifications and improvements. In 1609 a second keyboard was added, suppressing, to install it, the pedals and their mechanics.
When the decision to make a new organ was made in 1730, France had entered the “century of lights” and medieval cabinetmaking had to disappear. A new large box was placed much higher, covering a part of the west rosette. The instrument was of the incipient Louis XV style and is called classical organ.
During the Revolution it was used for several parties, but despite being threatened by several revolutionary decrees, it suffered only from years of neglect like most of the organs of France. Anyway, the ornaments that remembered the “monarchy” and the fleurs de lis were destroyed with axes.
In the middle of 1800 the symphonic organ was inaugurated. This was played for the first time at Notre Dame on Christmas night of 1867, in the framework of the universal exhibition, and blessed and formally inaugurated in the following March.
In 1989, on the other hand, it was decided to incorporate contemporary technology to the instrument and combine computer and craft. The initiative was carried out by the French State.
We had the grace to know the Cathedral of Notre Dame during a period in which it was not in restoration. This allowed us to see her in her splendor.
Like many large temples and with history, it becomes another tourist visit, and many times it becomes a museum. One can see people wandering, talking, and few really praying. We only saw people praying in the relics of Our Lord.
However, one is blinded by the wonder created by man for the praise of God. It really is a very beautiful temple, but the large number of tourists lose a little the main meaning, that is, Our Jesus.
Currently there are three relics of Christ in the Treasure of Notre Dame de Paris: the Crown of thorns, a fragment of the Cross of Calvary and one of the nails that served to fix Christ on the Cross. All of them were saved from the fire, thank God.
Priests’ comments on what happened at Notre Dame
Father Adrián Santarelli, from the Santo Tomás Moro Parish of Vicente López in Buenos Aires, shared his experience in the Parisian temple and his vision of what happened on Holy Monday in 2019:
“A short time ago I had to go to Paris and visit the church of the Miraculous Medal and I was surprised by the atmosphere of prayer in the temple.
A few hours later I visited Notre Dame and unfortunately I did not live the same. It is true that this is a much more majestic and historical temple that awakens not only the faith but the curiosity of wanting to know it for all that it represents in the history of France and in so many ways.
Before the fire, unfortunate fact from all points of view, I had three words to share:
“Repair” while repairing a historical time and the memory of the past we are invited to repair the human temples that in the present are destroyed in so many ways, it is enough to think about those who die wanting to cross the Mediterranean.
“Temple” is a place that gathers, where believers come together to raise their gaze to the one God. It is an invitation to repair the bonds between the believers in France and the world of our time.
Macron asked to “cooperate” from all places. Let it be a call to cooperate for all the common problems we are experiencing, such as the climate change that burns the “Common House” on a daily basis.
The Temple always harbors the Word of God, which continues to speak to us. “
On the other hand, the experience of Father Luis Zazano was as follows:
“I was in 2015, just at the moment when the dads of Santa Teresita were canonized, that marriage that Pope Francis turned into Santos together.
As an experience I can highlight five points:
1. To go through the temple is to go through the history of the Church in France, to remember the events that took place there, such as the self-coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, initiating the separation between Church and State in France.
2. To think how many Saints have passed by, and to be able to concelebrate the Holy Mass in the same place where the relics of Our Lord were.
3. In my experience I had the gift of concelebrating during the Mass of the Lord of the Remedies of Peru, that is, a Creole Mass in France.
4. Contemplate the theological vision of Architecture, beginning with the apostles, passing through the Saints until they reach God.
5. Finally, grace and the Miracle of the Eucharist, live the presence of Jesus “