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.
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.
The first cathedral built on Île de la Cite was called Saint-Etienne Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen (Etienne in French). From excavations carried out during Notre-Dame Cathedral’s restoration work in the 19th century, we know that Saint-Etienne was located under the Parvis Notre-Dame, the present-day square in front of the cathedral. The excavations revealed the remains of capitals – the topmost part of columns – and mosaics.
Not far from the cathedral, the Church of Saint Jean le Rond housed a large water tank from the 6th to the 12th century, which was used as a baptistery. On the current site of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s choir, stood the old chapel of the episcopal palace that was reserved for the bishop of Paris. The eastern tip of the Île de la Cite was occupied by a cluster of buildings reserved for the diocese.
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.
During the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, various elements of the new Gothic style were introduced, including the Saint Anne portal and Suger’s gift of the stained glass window.