Around the year 496, Clovis, the first King of the Franks established Paris as his capital. The city of Paris began on Île de la Cite, an island in the Seine which formed a natural rampart against enemies. As the city rapidly grew, it expanded to the left and right banks of Île de la Cite and two bridges connected the island to the new districts.
In the heart of Paris lies Île de la Cité, an island steeped in history and cultural significance. Before Notre-Dame Cathedral was constructed in the 12th century, the island was home to the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, an ancient religious structure built in the 4th century. This cathedral was a central place of worship for Christians on Île de la Cité for many years.
The island was not only a religious center but also a hub for political power. The Palais de la Cité, which served as the residence of French kings for centuries, was situated here, and its presence significantly influenced the course of French history.
Moreover, Île de la Cité was a crucial commercial hub. Its prime location along the Seine River made it a bustling center of trade and transportation, with merchandise from France and beyond passing through its markets and harbors.
An intriguing legend linked to Île de la Cité is that of the renowned French figure, Charlemagne. The legend tells of a dream in which an angel guided Charlemagne to construct a church on the island in dedication to Saint Etienne, the first Christian martyr. Consequently, the church became a vital religious site in Paris.
Throughout the centuries, Île de la Cité has significantly influenced the history and culture of Paris and France. Its prominence as a hub for religious, political, and commercial activities has left a lasting mark on French history, with numerous ancient landmarks and buildings standing as reminders of its intriguing past.
Nowadays, Île de la Cité is a popular destination for tourists, attracting millions of visitors each year who come to explore its streets and historical sites. From the awe-inspiring architecture of Notre-Dame Cathedral to the storied history of the Palais de la Cité, the island offers a unique glimpse into the captivating history of Paris and France.
Early Influential Bishops of Paris
In 360-361, Marcel, the ninth bishop of Paris, participated in the Council of Paris, which aimed to unify various factions of the Church. Around the same time that King Clovis named Paris as his captial, he converted to Christianity and began developing Christian worship in his kingdom. Over time as Christianity grew, the diocese of Paris became very influential.
In the middle of the 6th century, Bishop Germain hosted several religious councils in Paris. Two centuries later, Emperor Charlemagne and his successors granted the Church of Paris a privileged status. Subsequent kings strengthened the alliance between the monarchy and the Church, granting the Abbey of Saint-Denis and the Cathedral of Paris important roles.
Before the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral was constructed, Île de la Cité was home to another magnificent cathedral: Saint-Etienne Cathedral. This predecessor of Notre-Dame held significant importance in Paris’s history.
Saint-Etienne Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen (Etienne in French), was the original cathedral built on Île de la Cité. Archaeological findings during the 19th-century restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral revealed that Saint-Etienne was situated beneath the Parvis Notre-Dame, the square currently in front of the cathedral. The discoveries included remnants of column capitals and mosaics.
Close to the cathedral, the Church of Saint Jean le Rond contained a large water tank from the 6th to the 12th century, utilized as a baptistery. The former chapel of the episcopal palace, designated for the bishop of Paris, stood where Notre-Dame Cathedral’s choir is now. The eastern end of Île de la Cité hosted a group of buildings reserved for the diocese.
Constructed in the 4th century, Saint-Etienne Cathedral was one of Paris’s earliest cathedrals. Initially a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, it was later transformed into a Christian church. Over time, the church underwent numerous renovations and expansions, with each generation contributing their distinct touches.
In the 12th century, a pivotal change occurred when Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, resolved to erect a new cathedral to replace the aged Saint-Etienne. He envisioned a grander and more prominent cathedral befitting Paris’s increasing status. Thus, Notre-Dame Cathedral was built on the former site of Saint-Etienne.
Although eventually superseded, Saint-Etienne Cathedral remained an admired landmark in Paris for many years. Known for its remarkable architecture, such as its majestic nave and beautiful stained-glass windows, the cathedral also played a vital role in the religious and cultural life of the city, hosting numerous significant events and ceremonies.
An intriguing legend tied to Saint-Etienne Cathedral involves the renowned philosopher and scholar Pierre Abélard. A contentious figure in his day, Abélard was known for his unconventional theological views and a scandalous affair with his student, Heloise. According to legend, Abélard was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Etienne Cathedral, but his remains were later relocated to prevent his followers from congregating at his tomb and causing disturbances.
Presently, little remains of Saint-Etienne Cathedral, as it was largely demolished during the French Revolution. Only a few fragments of the original structure still stand. Nevertheless, the cathedral’s legacy endures in the splendor of Notre-Dame Cathedral, built on the same site. Visitors to Notre-Dame can view some remnants of Saint-Etienne Cathedral, including the crypt and the original foundations.
In summary, Saint-Etienne Cathedral was an essential part of Paris’s history, functioning as a spiritual and cultural hub for centuries. Although the cathedral no longer exists, its legacy persists through Notre-Dame Cathedral, one of the most iconic landmarks in Paris today.
Notre-Dame in the 12th Century
There is little writing from the 12th century on Notre-Dame Cathedral. From the available texts, we know that Etienne de Garlande, Archdeacon of Paris, commissioned major works to embellish the cathedral, including the Saint Anne portal, adorned with statue columns.
During the reign of King Louis VI, Thibaud II, who was Bishop of Paris from 1144 to 1158, was interested in new architectural trends. At the same time, the abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, oversaw the rebuilding of the abbey church of Saint-Denis, which was instrumental in the development of the Gothic style of architecture. Its key concept was to “bring the light” into the church, and it included using the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and extensive use of stained glass, including a rose window in the façade. These new techniques impressed contemporaries, especially the art of stained glass.
Suger offered a stained glass window to Notre-Dame Cathedral, decorated with images thematic to the triumph of the Virgin. Unfortunately, this window was destroyed in the 18th century.