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Notre-Dame from the Seine │© alexandrecosta80 / Pixabay
Notre-Dame from the Seine │© alexandrecosta80 / Pixabay
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A Brief History of Paris' Notre-Dame

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 27 October 2017
Of all of Paris’ famous monuments, and of these the French capital is in no short supply, Notre-Dame has the longest and richest of histories. At 130 meters long, 48 meters wide and 35 meters high, this vast Gothic cathedral has commanded most views of the Île de la Cité for more than 850 years.

Between the 11th and the 12th centuries, Paris emerged as the center of power in France, politically, economically, and intellectually, and the largest island in the Seine was the city’s beating heart. On October 12, 1160, Maurice de Sully rose to the office of Bishop of Paris and stated his intention to demolish the Church of Saint-Etienne and erect in its place a monument to the Virgin Mary that reflected the new status of the capital.

Notre-Dame and the Île de la Cité │© Danny Leung / Flickr
Notre-Dame and the Île de la Cité │ | © Danny Leung / Flickr

The first stone was laid three years later in the presence of King Louis VII Le Jeune and Pope Alexander III. The first period of construction in the building’s history lasted for almost 200 years, during which numerous architects such as Jean de Chelles, Pierre de Montreuil, Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy, and Jean le Bouteiller contributed to its new Gothic style. It was finally completed in 1345.

Notre-Dame gargoyle │© Jiuguang Wang / Flickr
Notre-Dame gargoyle │ | © Jiuguang Wang / Flickr

One of the first momentous events in Notre-Dame’s story came in 1431 when Henry VI, the King of England, was also crowned the King of France on December 16 amid the Hundred Years War. Earlier that year, the conflict had claimed the life of one of the most discussed figures in French history, the 19-year-old Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake as a heretic. On July 7, 1456, an inquiry found her innocent of all crimes and declared her a martyr. In 1909, she was beatified in Notre-Dame by Pope Pius X, and made a saint 11 years later.

During the 16th century, the condition of the cathedral deteriorated significantly, with tombs and stained glass windows destroyed in the name of modernization and external features removed or vandalized due to claims of idolatry. However, Robert de Cotte led renovation works in the 1600s under the wishes of Louis XIII. It was in this period that it gained its famous organ, which still functions perfectly today.

West façade of Notre-Dame│© Michal Osmenda / Wikimedia Commons
West façade of Notre-Dame│ | © Michal Osmenda / Wikimedia Commons

Its fate turned downwards again when the French Revolution came to Paris. The church was turned into a food and wine store and fell into disrepair. Many of its statues also lost their heads, though due to hammer blows rather than the guillotine.

Galerie des Rois │© MOSSOT Wikimedia Commons
Galerie des Rois │ | © MOSSOT Wikimedia Commons

By the turn of the 19th century, the cathedral was on its last legs. But Napoleon saved it from ruin and was crowned Emperor there in December 1804. Further much-needed restoration took place between 1845 and 1870 under the government of King Louis Philippe I. The architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus oversaw the work, with the former continuing on alone after his partner’s death in 1857.

Thankfully, neither of the World Wars brought significant harm to Notre-Dame, though its 13th-century Rose window was removed for fear of Nazi vandalism or looting. More cautious modernization followed in the second half of the 20th century, including the mechanization of the 13-ton Emmanuel bell and the extensive cleaning of the façades and sculptures.

Stained glass windows│© Marie Swart Flickr
Stained glass windows│ | © Marie Swart Flickr

A year-long program of celebrations marked Notre-Dame’s 850th anniversary in 2013.