This autumn, I found my new favorite niche of Notre Dame Cathedral…
During past journeys to Paris, I’ve visited the Gothic masterpiece in varying seasons. I once rang in a new year on the edge of the Seine while the magnificent cathedral towered over revelers with her exquisite and graceful silhouette. On the chilliest of winter days, I strolled through her drafty interiors to see her chapels dressed up for the holidays. I’ve also meandered past her towers on warm summer afternoons as fluffy clouds glided by.
Until recently, my favorite Notre Dame memory was of the sun pouring through the jewel-toned Rose Window just as a musician dramatically tickled the ivories of the thunderous organ. The happenings were perfectly choreographed as we passed through the immense front doors.
I now love the views from her platform the best, for it is there that I can commune with Viollet-le-Duc’s gargoyles and grotesques and imagine the history that Notre Dame could share if only she could speak. High above Paris’ rooftops, I think of all the chapters of history the magnificent cathedral has hosted – from the crowning of Napoléon, to numerous royal marriages, to dramatic and damaging attacks during the French Revolution.
As the bells tolled on the hour, I pondered how Paris’ skyline has changed through the centuries, how Sacré Coeur and La Tour Eiffel sprouted from the landscape in the nineteenth-century and how Notre Dame’s platform looked before the extensive restoration, long before the gargoyles took residence in the 1840s. At times, I thought Quasimodo might even emerge from around the bell tower’s corner!
Many know Notre Dame largely because of her fictitious tie to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was published in 1831. It might come as a surprise, though, that the author is actually credited with helping garner support for Notre Dame’s restoration in the 1840s.
Thanks to the novel’s popularity, Parisians came to realize that the cathedral was very much in need of some restorative attention, which it eventually received over the course of two decades, starting in 1845. Even today, some wonder if one of the chief architects, Viollet-le-Duc, somehow drew his gargoyle inspiration from Hugo’s Quasimodo. Regardless of the source of the architect’s motivation, Notre Dame’s restoration eventually motivated the French government to take more interest in its ailing monuments, thus helping to preserve the nation’s rich architectural heritage.
“Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,” Victor Hugo once said. Indeed, Notre Dame is one great structure.
In 1163, Bishop Maurice du Sully laid the first stone for the cathedral’s foundation. The construction would take almost 200 years to complete. Once the 226-foot (69-meter) towers were in place, Notre Dame was crowned the largest religious building in Western Europe. It would hold this title until the mid-thirteenth-century.
As I admired Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, imposing towers and beautiful flourishes, I found myself disappointed visualizing the majority of buildings that contemporary architecture. Whereas builders of centuries past created structures that have stood the test of time (using only rudimentary building tools and poor scaffolding), many of today’s builders shoddily construct flimsy and characterless architecture, despite their access to sophisticated equipment. Perhaps the latter could also gain some inspiration from strolling about Notre Dame’s platform.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.