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History of Notre Dame in 60 Seconds

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 25 May 2017

While it might be strange to think of Paris as anything other than the center of power and culture in France, this has only been the case for around 900 years, less than half its lifetime. When the city finally achieved this status, it was celebrated with a glorious new cathedral named Notre-Dame.

The Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, announced on October 12, 1160, that the Church of Saint-Etienne on the Île de la Cité would be demolished and a grand monument to the Virgin Mary erected in its place. Three years later, in the presence of King Louis VII Le Jeune and Pope Alexander III, the first stone was laid.

Sully saw much of it completed before his death in 1196, including the apse, choir, altar, and nave. The famous rose windows and towers were installed between 1200 and 1250 and in the next decade, the transepts were remodeled in the Rayonnant Gothic style by Jehan de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil. The rest of the building works, including the enlargement of the clerestory windows, were gradually wrapped up over the following century with the help of architects like Pierre de Chelles, Jean Ravy, and Jean le Bouteiller, each of whom brought their own take on the style. France’s finest piece of Gothic architecture was completed in 1345.

At 130 meters long, 48 meters wide, and 35 meters high, the cathedral was one of the first to have flying buttresses. Far from being an integral part of the original design, these distinctive arched exterior supports were added when stress fractures began to appear in the thin upper walls caused by the weight of the vault. This additional reinforcement, and that from numerous statues and gargoyles, made the cathedral’s main walls non-structural which in turn meant that more of them could be given over to stained glass, which illuminated and inspired worshippers.

In its 850-year history, the cathedral has fallen into disrepair and been restored numerous times, but the words of Jean de Jandun in his 1323 Treatise on the Praises of Paris have always summed up its appeal: “[Notre-Dame] shines out, like the sun among stars.”

To this day, Notre-Dame is quite literally the center of France. All distances from the city or country are measured from the “Point zéro des routes de France” in the square to its fore. People also spin one-footed, kiss, and toss coins on the octagonal brass plate for good luck.