Notre Dame of Paris, Under Reconstruction and the Cluny Museum

No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to Notre Dame, which simply means “Our Lady” in French, and as such, there are perhaps thousands of churches in the Francophone world with that name. Our Lady obviously refers to the Virgin Mary. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the cathedral was devastated by a major fire that nearly destroyed the historic building except for the intervention of brave firefighters.

It’s an impressive structure and is not one of those tourist attractions that is famous despite itself. Notre Dame really is an important moment in the development of the Gothic style and also quite frankly the Gothic Revival. It was heavily meddled with by the famous Nineteenth Century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whom I wrote about along with two other famous architects from that era when “fixing” historic buildings was not considered problematic. Let’s start at the top and go left to right and down, like reading the page of a book. Much of the sides and the back are concealed by scaffolding for obvious reasons, and since the cathedral sits on an island, it was nearly impossible to photograph those sides.

The front façade faces west, as most Roman Catholic cathedrals do (but not all), and the northwestern tower survived the fire intact. It is actually slightly larger than its partner to the south, which is evident in person.

Here is the southwest tower. You can see the little conical building which caps the staircase. The wire cage that is visible was where it was once open to visitors and surely will be again. I think the plan is to be done with reconstruction in time for the return of the Olympics in 2024.

Notre Dame was built fairly early in the High Gothic period starting in 1163, and even had the distinction of having its cornerstone laid by a pope, Alexander III.

I suspect, but am not certain, that the little holes in the front façade were left by the builders for the attachment of scaffolding, which is a common technique you can see in Roman architecture.

The sculptures in the arcade below are Old Testament kings, who suffered badly in the French Revolution when they were mistaken as French sovereigns. They probably would have been attacked anyway when the cathedral was turned into a storehouse and also a “Temple of Reason.”

We can see some of the flying buttresses, which are some of the most elegant built in the world but largely obscured due to construction fences and scaffolding.

Here’s a photograph of the west façade at night from a boat in the Seine River.

But the history of the ground upon where the cathedral has a rich history that began before the earlier Romanesque church that the current sanctuary replaced. The ancient Roman city of Lutetia Parisii sat on what is now known as the Île de la Cité (many major capitals in Europe started on or near islands in rivers) and its ruins still survive under the square in front of the cathedral.

Merchants’ houses and quays have been excavated under the ground and it’s a must-see museums missed by most tourists.

South of the cathedral on the Left Bank is the Cluny Museum, where excavations revealed the battered sculpture left in a dump by Revolutionaries from the façade of Notre Dame.

It’s fascinating to see the original work, and also to see how it was damaged. A similar dump was found on the Acropolis in Athens of the former Parthenon.

The noses always get knocked off first!

It’s interesting to see how even before the “official” start of the Renaissance there was already a renewed interest in classical drapery.

The Cluny Museum is located in a former abbey that made use of the Roman thermae, or public baths of ancient Lutetita.

I sort of chuckled at the rather provincial nature and craftsmanship of the vaulting, having seen masterworks such as the Baths of Caracalla or Diocletian in Rome.

But I can’t imagine that master masons of the Medieval period didn’t use these ancient vaults as teaching tools as they embarked on the construction of the great Romanesque and later anti-classical vaults of the Gothic era.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Stephen Slattery says:

    Chris, thank you for the information / architectural history of Notre Dame cathedral. We visited the cathedral in 2012 and I was pleasantly surprised by the archeological treasures in the basement museum . ( including artifacts of the ancient celtic Parisii.). Hope to see the completed restoration some day

    1. cnaffziger says:

      I was also pleasantly surprised by the underground excavations, as well!

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