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Construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral Through Time

Today, Notre-Dame Cathedral consists of a choir, apse, transept and a nave flanked by double aisles and square chapels. The central spire that was destroyed in the 2019 fire was added during restoration in the 19th century, replacing the original, which had been completely removed in the 18th century because of instability.

The cathedral has gone through many changes in the past centuries. Have you ever wondered how Notre-Dame de Paris came to be the iconic building it is today? Watch below to discover the different phases of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s construction, from the 12th century through today!

18th Century

Important changes to Notre-Dame Cathedral took place during the 18th century. The cathedral’s choir was completely renovated and decorated in the Baroque style of the period, updating its initial medieval appearance, and then came the French Revolution, which pillaged the already badly damaged building.

18th Century Modifications

King Louis XIV began renovation work on Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1699, the most significant changes to the cathedral since the Middle Ages. Robert de Cotte took charge of the works from 1708 to 1725, appointed architect of Louis XIV, a position he held under Louis XV as well. Today he is recognized as one of the most brilliant representatives of 18th century French architecture. 

The renovation works were financed by Cardinal de Noailles (1651-1729), who was appointed archbishop of Paris in 1695 and then cardinal in 1700. The works included:

  • Gables, roses and bell towers on the south side of the cathedral
  • Flying buttresses, galleries and terraces
  • Reconstructing the arch of the bay
  • Renovating the roof’s frame and drainage system
  • Reorganizing the choir, including destroying the rood screen (the element of a church in the Middle Ages that separated the choir (the area around the altar) from the nave (the area for the laity); opening a vault intended for the archbishops of the cathedral; creating a new high altar decorated with a monstrance (an open or transparent receptacle in which the consecrated Host is exposed for veneration), a crucifix and six candlesticks; covering the columns with marble; creating a wrought iron gate to close the choir, replacing the stalls.

The choir was also redecorated. In 1723, the painting The Vow of Louis XIII was placed in the choir, along with the Pieta sculpted by Nicholas Coustou. Above the new choir stalls hung tapestries that illustrated the life of the Virgin, woven in 1657 from paintings by Philippe de Champaigne. These tapestries were sold to Strasbourg Cathedral, where they are found today. Eight large-format paintings by popular painters later replaced the tapestries. 

In 1756, the canons considered the building too dark, and so they whitewashed the walls and removed the 13th century stained glass to replace them with white glass. Fortunately, they left the Notre-Dame’s three great rose windows intact.

In the late 18th century, Notre-Dame Cathedral’s original 13th century spire was removed. It was extensively damaged and unstable, and posed a risk to passersby in the street below.

Notre-Dame & the French Revolution

Until the French Revolution, Notre-Dame Cathedral was owned by the Archdiocese of Paris. On November 2, 1789, the building and the property of the clergy were made available to the nation. Since the French Revolution, the building is the property of the French State.

In February 1798, Notre-Dame Cathedral became the seat of the city parish through a series of decrees that transferred the prerogatives exercised until then by the ten small churches on the Île de la Cite, created by Maurice de Sully in the 12th century.

In 1793, Catholic worship was banned in Paris. Notre-Dame Cathedral was looted and vandalized. The west façade, adorned with statues of 28 Kings of Judea dating back to 1230, were pulled down and decapitated in the square in front of the cathedral by a mob who thought they were French kings.

The revolutionaries established the “Cult of Reason” around the themes of freedom and equality, and many buildings were transformed into “Temples of Reason”, including Notre-Dame. During this period, the cathedral was also used as a wine warehouse.

The cathedral was sold at auction to a building-materials merchant. Napoleon I came to power in time to annual the sale, and he ordered that the edifice be redecorated for his coronation as emperor in 1804.

19th Century

In the 19th century, architects Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc completely restored Notre-Dame Cathedral, which had degraded greatly over the centuries. 

Following the French Revolution, in 1801, the Concordat re-established Catholic worship in the churches and the cathedral returned to the diocese of Paris. However, the damage sustained during the Revolution endangered the cathedral, which threatened to collapse. In 1804, during the coronation of Napoleon, the very dilapidated building was adorned with a portico made of wood, cardboard and stucco, silk and velvet draperies and the walls were whitewashed to dress it up for the occasion. 

Victor Hugo & Notre-Dame Cathedral

During the July Revolution of 1830, rioters destroyed stained glass windows and damaged the cathedral further by setting fire to the neighboring archbishopric. In the aftermath, Parisian authorities considered completely destroying Notre-Dame de Paris.

However, in 1831, Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris in French). His novel which was hugely successfully, turning Notre-Dame Cathedral into a national icon and triggering a national movement to safeguard the cathedral as well as renewing interest in the restoration of the Gothic art form.

Viollet-le-Duc’s Restoration of Notre-Dame

In 1842, the Minister of Justice and Worship decided to carry out a major restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral. In 1844, architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus were selected to carry out the work. 

In 1845, the French government voted to allocate a sum of 2 million francs to the restoration, which proved insufficient, and an additional 3 million francs was allocated to allow work to resume.

Following Lassus’ death in 1857, Viollet-le-Duc continued to manage the restoration alone through 1864. From his office in the south tower, he led project management and coordinated the various trades of craftsmen, stonemasons, sculptors, glassmakers, goldsmiths and carpenters. 

Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration notably includes:

  • Building the spire, replacing the original which was removed in the 18th century
  • Replacing damaged stones
  • Creating a gallery of 100 statues on the façade, inspired by the cathedrals of Amiens, Chartres and Reims
  • Restoring the cathedral’s portals and gallery of kings to its 13th century appearance
  • Restoration of the southern rose window and sacristy
  • Inserting high windows that imitated the style of the Middle Ages
  • Reorganizing the choir, keeping in place the painting The Vow of Louis XIII

Viollet-le-Duc’s personal interpretations of medieval art and the creation of the spire and stone grotesques were the subject of harsh criticism. However, his tenacity gave a certain notoriety back to medieval architecture. 

20th Century

The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905 confirmed the French State as the owner of the monument and the Church as the perpetual tenant of the cathedral. 

During this period, additional restoration work is carried out on Notre-Dame Cathedral. Glassmaker and decorative artist Jacques Le Chevallier had twelve high windows and twelve rosettes in the stands adorned with stained glass, replacing the white glass of the 18th century. In 1989, sculptor Jean Touret created a new, more contemporary altar, which was placed at the crossing of the transept. Then, in the 1990s, a stone treatment campaign cleaned the stones of the façade and restored the cathedral’s ivory color. 

Notre Dame Cathedral – A Historical Monument

After the devastation of monuments during the French Revolution, beginning in 1810, prefects drew up a list of monuments to be preserved for cultural heritage. In 1837, the Commission des Monuments Historiques (Commission of Historical Monuments) was created to register or classify the most remarkable buildings. The city of Paris created its first list in 1862, and Notre-Dame Cathedral appeared on this list.

In 1991, UNESCO declared Notre-Dame Cathedral a World Heritage Site, stating this “architectural masterpiece” constitutes “a definite reference in the diffusion of Gothic architecture”. 

In 2018, Notre-Dame Cathedral was the most visited tourist site in France with around 13 million visitors per year, or an average of 30,000 visitors per day. 

The 850th Anniversary

In 2013, Notre-Dame Cathedral celebrated its 850th anniversary after the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. For the jubilee occasion, the cathedral’s Great Organ and lighting were renovated.

April 15, 2019 Fire

Notre-Dame Cathedral had not had a major restoration since Viollet-le-Duc’s work in the 1860s. Pollution, rain and time weakened the cathedral structure, and an ambitious campaign was planned to save Notre-Dame de Paris.

On April 15, 2019, the scope of that campaign dramatically changed when a fire broke out under the eaves of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s roof. Fire engulfed the spire and most of the roof. Thankfully, firefighters were able to control the blaze, saving the main structure including the bell towers and rose windows. Nobody was injured, and most of the Catholic relics housed in the cathedral and priceless works of art were rescued and brought to safety. 

However, Notre-Dame Cathedral sustained serious fire and water damage and needs extensive reconstruction to rebuild and restore the cathedral

After the fire, there was an overwhelming outpouring of support from the international community, including the U.S. and more than 50 countries outside France.