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A Brief History of Paris’s Notre-Dame

26 June, 2019 6 min reading

A Brief History of Paris’s Notre-Dame

In April, a structure fire broke out beneath the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The fire was extinguished, but the consequences were devastating. Three emergency workers were injured and the building’s spire and most of its roof had been destroyed. The upper walls of Notre-Dame were severely damaged and extensive damage to the interior was prevented by its stone vaulted ceiling, which largely contained the burning roof as it collapsed.


Although many works of art and religious relics were moved to safety early in the emergency, there were others that suffered some smoke damage. Some exterior art was also damaged or completely destroyed. Luckly, the cathedral’s two pipe organs, and its three 13th-century rose windows were not damaged.

The French President Emmanuel Macron said that the cathedral would be restored, and launched a fundraising campaign which brought in pledges of over €1 billion as of 22 April 2019. Several of France’s wealthiest families will donate millions to help rebuild the Cathedral. The group of French billionaires includes Bernard Arnault, one of the world’s richest men and Francois-Henri Pinault, the head of the group that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, who is married to famous actress Salma Hayek.


At this moment, the sad prediction is that a complete restoration could require twenty years or more.


SEE ALSO: The Fire in Barcelona’s Santa Maria del Mar 


Notre-Dame – Before the fire
Notre-Dame – After the fire

History of Paris’s Notre-Dame

Paris’ Notre-Dame is one of the most recognizable and popular monuments in the whole world. 


The fire this year was particularly sad, because Notre-Dame is so loved by so many people, and because this imponent building has been so resilient through history.  This gothic cathedral survived centuries of France’s turbulent past. It emerged in the 19th century from near ruin, thanks to a massive restoration project inspired by a great writer and a story you’ll find it familiar.


Before the construction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris was gaining a reputation as a spiritual center. A saintly cult had been developing around its local martyr, St. Denis. It’s said that St. Denis was beheaded on the hill of Montmartre in the mid- to late-third century A.D., after which he ran six or so miles while carrying his severed head. In a spot north of the city, alleged to be where he stopped running, a basilica was built in the 12th century in his honor.


The 12th-century Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, was one witness of the construction of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. He admired so much the work of the pioneering architects, who were building in the new Gothic style of soaring ceilings and abundant light, that he decided to create a rival structure in the heart of Paris itself. He dreamed of a cathedral that would be the wonder of Christendom and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The timing for this project couldn’t have been better. This stage of the high Middle Ages was marked by an economic boom in Europe, especially in France. With the generous financial backing provided by the crown, Sully contracted an architect (whose identity is unknown) to design the new church in 1160. Its construction required demolishing various houses in the cramped medieval neighborhood and two existing churches on the Île de la Cité that had, in their own day, been built over an ancient pagan temple. The first stone was laid in June 1163, in a ceremony attended by Pope Alexander III.


“From the first stones of construction to the last of restoration, the history of this Gothic cathedral tells the story of France itself.National Geographic 


Building Notre-Dame turned out to be a lifelong project for Maurice de Sully, with its construction works taking nearly two centuries from start to finish. In 1182, under the reign of the new king, Philip II, the high altar was consecrated. Sully was able to celebrate the first Mass in the cathedral but would die in 1196, nearly 150 years before the main structures of the cathedral would be finished in the 1300s.


Curiously, Notre Dame never occupied a central role in the French culture during the monarchy. That role was fulfilled by the Catheral of Reims, some 80 miles northeast of Paris, where kings were crowned. Basilica of Saint-Denis was as important, because many kings were buried there. And meanwhile, what was happening with Notre Dame? – you might ask. Notre Dame was busy with a different role, becoming the landmark around which the intellectual life of France began to develop.

The first “attack” to the Notre Dame came in the form of a architectural taste shift, in the 18th century. In the middle of the reign of Louis XIV, the venerable cathedral faced a radical and controversial  “restoration” that was later considered to has cause more damage to the building than the passage of time itself.


The second “attack” came in 1789 and was massive. Considered a symbol of the power and aggression of church and monarchy, the building was ransacked during the French Revolution. The heads of the 28 statues in the Gallery of Kings on the main doorway were struck from their bodies, the crowd believing them to represent the hated royal lineage of France—in fact, they depicted the ancient kings of Judea and Israel. Also destroyed were the sculptures adorning the doorways, and the reliquaries and bronze statues inside. Lead from the roof was pillaged for bullets. The bronze bells were melted down to make cannon. Only the enormous Emmanuel bell, in the southern tower, was spared.


During the revolutionary period, the cathedral was de-Christianized, and the firebrand Robespierre dedicated the church to the cult of the Supreme Being. Only when that era was over, the cathedral resumed its former role, but it was a shadow of its former splendor. Many of its windows had been shattered and its treasures ripped out or desecrated.


Finally, in 1801, the government of Napoleon Bonaparte signed a concord with the Holy See under which the Catholic Church would take back control of Notre Dame. Work began immediately to clean up the building and repair the windows so that, in 1804, it was in an acceptable enough state for Napoleon to be crowned there as emperor.


After all the attacks and indifference, a bright future was becoming a reality for our beloved Notre-Dame in the mid 19th century. 


This is where it starts the fascinating story of how a talented writer can drastically transform the importance of a historical construction.


The Notre-Dame was rediscovered by the hand of the famous novelist Victor Hugo. A leading light of French romanticism, Hugo spearheaded the resurgence of interest in the medieval past and Gothic art. Writing in his 1831 blockbuster novel – later published in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – the author imagines the medieval turmoil of Paris, “mingled, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame” .


With the Cathedral in the center of the incredibly well written story of Quasimodo, the cathedral’s hunchbacked bell ringer, and the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda, Victor Hugo was capable to made all the France look at this historical building with new eyes.


After the success of Victor Hugo’s book and with the Gothic style now in fashion, Parisians and the city authorities rallied around the decaying building as a treasure worth restoring. Hugo wrote: “It is difficult not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer”.


A restoration of the cathedral was launched in the 1840s. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was tapped in 1844 to lead the work. For nearly 25 years, he strove to restore Notre Dame back to its beauty and imponence.

Since that time, Notre Dame has become a symbol of the city of Paris and has inspired several films. Now everyone seems to see what Victor Hugo saw first: the unique magic of Notre-Dame!

Paris’s Notre-Dame Timeline

by National Geographic 


The first stone of the cathedral is laid with Pope Alexander III in attendance.

Bishop Maurice de Sully celebrates the first Mass after the high altar has been consecrated.

Incorporating Gothic elements, several different builders guide the cathedral to completion.

French revolutionaries cause major damage to the building, especially the statuary.

Publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame sparks a campaign to restore the cathedral.

Viollet-le-Duc is appointed to lead a complete restoration of Notre Dame.