Notre-Dame de Paris – A Gothic Inspiration in Paris’ Heart
After the tragic fire that struck Notre-Dame de Paris on the 15th of April of this year, my heart is filled with sadness and my mind seems to constantly question why? Why did this awful incident have to happen? Centuries ago, a devastating fire in a cathedral was a sign that God wanted a better cathedral yet in our times I wonder what God had on his mind as man couldn’t possibly build a more beautiful and loved cathedral than Notre-Dame de Paris. I guess we’ll never fully comprehend the reason but use it as an excuse to unite and be reminded that every living person must have faith in good and humanity and that life and even structures are fragile and doomed to decline if not given love, care and attention. Even though I am not Catholic and an Australian , who would give anything to be a citizen of France as well, my love for the culture, history and beauty of Paris and my intense passion for it makes it difficult for me not to have such upsets and concern when tragedy strikes in the city of my dreams. Many years ago, Paris captured my heart and soul and a first time visit to Notre-Dame de Paris left an unforgettable impression in my mind – one that will forever remain in the depth of my treasured vault of memories forever. This blog entry, I wish to dedicate to the heart of Paris – the Gothic beauty, our lady Notre-Dame, that has graced the river banks and the island Ile de la Cite on which she has stood for 850 years since the very first cornerstone was laid in 1163. Notre Dame has since been an iconic symbol of Christianity – a symbol of faith, hope, promise and endurance to Parisian’s and a reminder of the marvelous achievement, divine craftmenship and dedication of mankind.
Before visiting Notre-Dame de Paris for the very first time, I felt as though I already had known her well after having read countless travel articles and of course Victor Hugo’s famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in my university years. My expectations were at an all time high as I imagined how it would be to finally see the bell towers, spire, flying buttresses, rose windows and the hauntingly beautiful interiors the cathedral was most famous for. Parisian’s have Victor Hugo to thank for the survival and revival of the grand cathedral as he wrote this brilliant novel in order to draw attention to it and to remind people of the importance of the preservation of historic treasures like it. Hugo also started a petition to save Notre-Dame which ultimately contributed to rescuing her from further decline and even demolition. Napoloean the Emperor also played a role in drawing attention to Notre Dame by having his infamous corenation ceremony there where he unabashedly took the crown from Pope Pius’ hands and crowned himself emperor of France. Shortly after Victor Hugo’s influence in the matter, funds were raised to restore the cathedral and Paris’ famous architect and city planner – Baron Haussmann, entrusted by Napolean III, later built a magnificent public space around it called Place du Parvis so that locals and tourists could admire the glorious cathedral in a proper and well planned situation.
It was a crisp Autumn day in November when we arrived at Place du Parvis and stood in front of the great Gothic beauty arriving at the iconic brass compass star with the words Point zero des routes de France marked on a stone template that surrounds it. This little star marks the centre of Paris and is called the kilometre zero – the point from where all distances in France are measured and is by the entrance of Notre Dame. Mon mari and I stood in awe as we gazed up at the 69 metre high bell towers (where 387 steps take you to the top from within) which is the western façade from where the magnificent and symbolic spire could once be seen rising from behind through the central gap between the towers at a distance. It is heartbreaking to contemplate the spire no longer gracing the structure after collapsing during the fire. We stood for a long while admiring the three grand scale portals with intricate carved stone depicting stories of the bible. The central portal depicts the last judgement where angels weigh the good and bad deeds of souls while demons lead a chain gang of sinners doomed for hell and just below panels show the resurrection of the dead, Christ and the apostles. If you look closely at the central portal, the cheeky demon tries to unfairly tip the angel’s scale in order to steal additional souls to the flames of hell. One can imagine the impact these statuary depictions of heaven and hell must have had to the faithful on entering the cathedral for service. The portal dedicated to Saint Anne to the right side of the cathedral depicts the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne with baby Christ in her arms – this being the oldest and most beautiful statuary that has survived since the 12th century. The left portal depicts the Virgin Mary, a coronation scene and an astrological calendar while above the portals is a statuary display of the 28 kings of Israel which were replaced after having been destroyed by ignorant and enraged Revolutionaries mistaking the biblical kings for the kings of France. The central part of the façade is where you will notice an impressive and intricately detailed circular structure which is actually the exterior of the western rose stain glass window 10 metres in diameter and striking from outside as well as on the inside. This remarkable rose window was in fact a marvel of its time and was the grandest and largest rose window in a cathedral ever conceived in its day and if you take the time to look closely you will discover statuary that depicts Adam and Eve on the outer rim of the rose window exterior. Above that an almost lace like bridge structure connects the two bell towers from where the famous bells toll to mark the hour of the day and to announce special holidays or occasions. Menacing gargoyles (who acquired their names from the sound of “gargling” they made as water drained from their throats) glance down from their elevated vantage points from the twin towers and can also be seen in all directions of Notre Dame especially the sides of the structure and act as rainspouts while scurrying away evil spirits. The other famous and commanding statuary demon and carrion bird figures, called chimeras, stand atop the bell towers overlooking the city of Paris like menacing guards protecting the cathedral and frightening away any ill intended spirits or people.
Up until this point we had only admired Notre Dame from a distance while having breakfast in the Latin Quarter, while walking along the bridges with a view of the cathedral, river banks and the left bank along the famous bouqiniste stalls that line the walls. As we stood on the threshold waiting in a line to enter the cathedral I remembered reading that an estimated 13 million tourists visit the cathedral annually which is more than even the Eiffel Tower and Paris’ Disney Land considered the most popular theme park in Europe. As we entered Notre-Dames incredible threshold we were enthusiastically and grandly welcomed by the glorious tolling of the old, historic five bells – 4 that sit in the northern tower and the most prominent and famous 13 ton Emmanuel bell that sits in the southern bell tower. It’s hard to believe these massive and extremely heavy bells were once manually operated whereas today they are tolled by a computer program which perhaps is not as romantic a notion but certainly much safer. Of course my mind immediately conjured thoughts of Quasimodo the crippled, hunchbacked hero of Victor Hugo’s novel by the sound of the Emmanuel bell that especially can be heard through the city of Paris and recognized by its deep and somber tones. Being in such close proximity to Notre Dame while the bells tolled is an incredible experience and also so overwhelmingly magnificent that it stops people passing by in their tracks commanding them to halt and admire the serenading and divine calling of the bells.
Once inside Notre Dame my expectations were surpassed and the emotions I felt were overwhelming to say the least. The interior of Notre Dame is French Gothic architecture in its finest glory and the medieval architects vision of grand, ethereal scale and reaching divine heights is evident here through the structure that is at once grandiose and breathtaking. Lighting has always been the most important element in design, especially in the construction of cathedrals where light was and still is considered divine. The biblical phrase – light is divine and so let there be light was crucially important in the design of Notre Dame to emphasise the divinity of the Catholic faith and the holiness of the cathedral. Not only are the magnificent stain glass windows incredibly beautiful to behold they tell the stories of the bible and were important to reinforce the stories of the bible to the illiterate faithful who were unable to read the bible. The soft lighting produced by the windows of Notre Dame together with the soft lighting of the many candles on display provide the interior with a hauntingly beautiful ambience that together with the sounds of the oldest and largest of the three organs in Notre Dame and in France referred to as the Great Organ and a chance procession taking place is an unforgettable experience indeed.
The interior beauty of Notre Dame is difficult to express in words and the countless features and intricacies inside would take thousands of words to describe. Having said that, make sure you devote at least an hour if not two to wander inside the cathedral and take your time to absorb all the details which will delight and inspire you for years to come. Take the time and pleasure, as we did, to admire the apse, nave and choir from the western end of the cathedral as you enter and look up to appreciate the magnificent vaulted ceiling with its endless arches and columns that support them reminiscent of ancient trees in a forest. In fact, Notre Dame de Paris is given the nickname the forest because of all the thousands upon thousands of trees it required to build the structure of the cathedral especially the columns and ceiling. This makes the fire even more difficult to bear knowing that thousands of ancient trees used to construct the cathedral have been lost forever. The most spectacular feature of the cathedral, of course, are the famous three stained glass windows found on the west, north and south walls of the structure. The north rose window, a marvel for its time of creation in the 13th century, is the most striking and mesmerizingly beautiful giving the impression of a curtain of light and depicts the image of Mary holding an infant Christ surrounded by kings and prophets of the old testament. The south rose window, with its depiction of Christ in the company of heavenly angels with sixteen pencil like panels underneath it depicting the sixteen prophets of Parisian significance is simply mind blowing in scale, colour and detail. The scale of the south and north rose windows was made possible by the flying buttress design which provided the structure with greater strength and support making the construction and installation of the grandiose rose windows possible. The incredible flying buttress creation and design was also a marvel for its time and is one of the most significant features of the Gothic cathedral that can be appreciated and seen externally.
Take the time, as we certainly had to see the treasury within Notre Dame where the incredible Holy relics such as the crown of thorns and a nail from the cross, chalices, crosses, crowns of French kings are kept amongst other fascinating treasures and sacred religious objects. Here you will also discover the robe worn by Napoleon during his coronation. Another interesting, yet not very well known aspect of Notre Dame, is the crypt at the front of the cathedral where you will discover the historical ruins underneath the cathedral from the earliest periods of settlement in Paris dating back to the first Gallo-Roman period dating back to 27 BC and 14 AD. Ensure you leave time to explore the exterior of Notre Dame, if there is access post fire, where many of her fascinating features can be seen from her flying buttresses and side portals to the menacing gargoyles that give the unsettling impression that they are watching you from above as they protrude from the stone walls purposely so as not to allow rain water to damage the stone and mortar.
To the back of the Cathedral in Square Jean XXII mon mari and I enjoyed some time in the pretty little garden area with another impressive yet different view and perspective of Notre Dame where the copper statues of the twelve apostles could be seen along with the historic spire that could once be seen rising 300 feet alongside the flying buttresses that supported the now destroyed roof top. The gardens of Square Jean XXII were a wonderful place to sit and take in the view of a delightful fountain known as the Fountain of the Virgin or to simply enjoy the pretty flowers, many cherry and lime trees that blossom in spring and further enhance the beauty of this place. I recall fondly our first stroll along the left/northside and right/southside of the cathedral where the additional character provided by the street cafes are enchanting. On the northside façade of the cathedral a portal with the 13th century statue of the Virgin Mary stands solemnly minus the infant Jesus who was destroyed and taken from her arms by revolutionaries and never restored while the façade on the southside you will notice the Saint Etienne portal that portrays the life and deeds of this saint with impressive sculptures. Pop into the appropriately named café Esmeralda on 2 Rue du Cloitre-Notre-Dame (on the northside or the street to the left of the bell towers) who was Quasimodo’s love interest in the novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame. Here mon mari and I delighted in the ambience of the Ile de la Cite years ago on our first visit to Paris and from our outside table we admired the rear perspective of Notre Dame while enjoying delicious French fare to the lively tunes of a jazz band busking nearby.
For one of the best and most magical views of Paris, climb the nearly 400 narrow steps of the bell towers where the city unfolds in an unforgettable movie-like scene. From this incredible vantage point, Notre Dame’s grimacing chimeras will keep you company as you take in the magnificent roof tops of Paris and other great monuments such as the Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, the towers of Saint-Sulpice and of course the Eiffel Tower. This used to be the best vantage point to see the great spire, the twelve apostles and the many Chimeras and gargoyles standing guard and even though it is closed for the time being it will one day reopen again to reveal something just as remarkable and beautiful. While entrance to the cathedral was free, it cost around 9 euros to go up to the bell towers and is included in the Paris Pass which is a great idea to purchase when in Paris as it makes accessing monuments, museums and art galleries faster especially with the long queues you will encounter in every season but especially in spring and summer.
As the people of Paris recover from the horrific damage caused by the fire, one thing we must all believe is that Notre Dame will be restored more beautifully and stronger than before. Our lady is a survivor who has endured and recovered from neglect, destruction and pillaging caused by two revolutions, religious reform and other devastating chapters in French history including the German occupation of Paris. Many of her great and symbolic features have been replaced and restored especially much of the statuary seen in the western façade as well as the rose windows and many other features within her great stone walls. Knowing that she has been restored, revived, cleaned, groomed and polished over the centuries and has come out of it all looking as monumentally magnificent as ever should provide the people of Paris and lovers of Notre Dame all over the world a sense of comfort and reassurance. Even without her spire and roof top, which was completely destroyed by the tragic fire, Notre Dame de Paris still graces the river banks and stands tall and proud with her bell towers and structure in tact. The great cathedral continues to watch over the city of Paris together with the aid of her menacing gargoyles as the Emmanuel Bell continues to toll on the hour reminding us every time of a great Parisian hero – Victor Hugo whose novel ultimately saved this ethereal monument for us all to admire and appreciate today.