At the heart of Paris stands the cathedral of Notre-Dame, once disparaged by the cultural elite, now inexhaustibly revered as a landmark of France. For over 850 years, Notre-Dame de Paris has mediated between Catholicism and the city’s urban secularity. Transcending its ecclesiastical foundations, which have remained a testament to the overarching omnipresence of the Church – for most, the cathedral is now a symbol of France itself, and if one could be so bold, a symbol of Western civilization.
Commissioned by King Louis VII during the 12th century, Notre-Dame de Paris was intended as a tangible representation of the city’s emergence as a significant economic, political, and cultural power in France. Ultimately, however, its monumentality and vast scale were to reinforce its position from the Royal Palace across Île-de-la-Cité; a dual jurisdiction shared between the episcopacy and the king. Over the following centuries, Notre-Dame would witness the crowning of both Henry VI of England in 1431 and of Napoleon in 1804, as well as the beatification of Joan of Arc in 1909, all indisputably affirming the cathedral’s prominence in European history.
Like all monuments of its kind, moving through Notre Dame can be likened to walking through a historical continuum. The massiveness of the smooth and composed Romanesque silhouettes, familiar references in these is subdued by the exposed verticals of the Gothic framing the heavens. Inside the cathedral, one is oblivious to the massive external buttresses, and thus, moving through the vast spaces of cascading light from the stained-glass windows, is to enter a transcendent realm, a symbolic manifestation of Abbot Suger’s evocation: “Deus est lux, God is light”.
It was through this aesthetic predilection that Notre-Dame grounded itself in an experience of “spiritual transport”, believed to elevate the soul. However, it was also this dematerialization of walls and lightness of composition, which embodied the paradoxical character of the sublime astonishment. This reaction soon came to denote 18th-century architectural thought in France, simultaneously repulsing and fascinating prominent architects, such as Jacques-Germain Soufflot. In 1741, Soufflot presented his lecture “Mémoire Sur l’architecture gothique” for the Lyon Académie des beaux-arts. It was here, after his own experience within Notre-Dame that he proposed Gothic cathedrals to be buildings “whose daring astonishes us so strongly” but were ultimately “monstrous” with “barbarian ornaments”.
Although the cathedral had inspired a new enthusiasm for the prodigious verticality and vastness of Gothic architecture, it was at this time that architectural taste had radically shifted. And as a result, the architectural forms and style of the Gothic remained inherently tied to their derisive preconceptions.
However, despite having survived a number of vicissitudes at the hand of mankind, the French Revolution in 1790 ultimately left the Gothic cathedral in a considerable state of disrepair and neglect. Consequently, in 1831 Victor Hugo penned the novel Notre- Dame de Paris (published in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), an act of historic preservation for an architecture that had fallen from its pinnacle to a now un-glorified vulgar monstrosity. Hugo’s novel invited a mass readership to intellectually engage with their own culture and past, and consequently, partake in defining the French identity. In doing so, his narrative became inextricably embedded within the architecture, a figurative and literal tale of “heroic inner beauty”. For Hugo, the Notre-Dame was an “edifice of transition”; a “complete” work of art culminating through conscious references to its predecessors and ingenious engineering.
Whilst the deafening success of the novel ultimately transformed the cathedral of Notre-Dame into the national symbol it is today; at the time, it ignited a resurgence in interest towards the medieval and the Gothic. Only a decade later would Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc strive to restore Notre-Dame de Paris to its former beauty. This included replacement of the west facade, construction of a new steeple, reconstruction of chapel and gallery vaults, and refitting of the interior. As a restorer, Viollet-le-Duc dictated the cathedral’s future, and yet as an intellectual, he reminded us that the cathedral was a powerful symbol of radical rethinking in architecture, one which did not accept the principles of those before as the ultimate ‘truth’.
Today, Notre-Dame de Paris is no longer merely a religious monument or an architectural exemplar, but rather a part of the national and individual identities of France. Just as the cathedral lends grandeur to the sacred activities it provides and embodies, so too does it derive meaning through its impression upon the city in general. Both inspirational and aspirational, the structure will always serve as a historical record for the generations of those who labored by hand to construct the cathedral. But perhaps, it is in every great monument that each generation seeks a reflection of itself; for those in the 19th century, the cathedral was a symbol of change and technological progress; for Parisians in the 21st century, Notre-Dame is kilometer zero, a measure for all distances across the city.
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Murray, Stephen. “Notre-Dame of Paris and the Anticipation of Gothic”. ART BULLETIN -NEW YORK- 80, no.2 (1998): 229-253.
Zarifopol-Johnston, Ilinca M. “NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS”: THE CATHEDRAL IN THE BOOK”. Nineteenth-Century French Studies13, no.2/3:22-35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23536549.