The builders

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Maurice de Sully & Notre-Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame Cathedral’s first stone was laid in 1163 by Bishop Maurice de Sully in the presence of Pope Alexander III. Maurice de Sully initiated this colossal project in coordination with the best architects and masons of his time. Together, these builders imagined a new religious art, known as “Gothic art” since the 16th century.

Maurice de Sully 

Maurice de Sully became Bishop of Paris in 1159. An influential bishop, he was famous for his sermons and enjoyed the trust of the French royal family. An ambitious builder, he founded several churches, abbeys and hospices in his diocese and reorganized their organizational and revenue structures. 

In 1160, Maurice de Sully conceived of the idea of converting Saint-Etienne Cathedral, which had fallen into disrepair, and the ruins of another church into a larger cathedral in the new Gothic style. Ambitious in its size and scope of its architectural innovations, construction on Notre-Dame Cathedral began in 1163 and continued until 1345. The high altar was consecrated in 1189.

Maurice de Sully himself passed in 1196 and did not see his creation completed. 

A building with extraordinary dimensions 

The original architect of Notre-Dame Cathedral, who remains anonymous, designed a building of exceptional dimensions: 420 feet long, 157 feet wide and 115 feet high. Thousands of artisans and workers worked for years building Notre-Dame Cathedral. Until the mid-13th century, the cathedral was the largest religious monument in the Western world. 

The novel construction techniques begun at the Saint-Denis basilica continued with the Notre-Dame site. The style was conceived in France, and a new structural development, the flying buttress, was introduced in the building of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The flying buttresses added to the beauty of the building’s exterior and allowed interior columns to soar to new heights.

Considered immediately as masterpieces, new religious buildings in this style served as a model in France and in Europe, before falling out of favor during the Renaissance. The Italians then renamed this style “gotico“, a pejorative name for the art of the Goths.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Radiant Gothic Art 

Following Maurice de Sully’s death in 1196, Bishops Eudes de Sully (1196-1208), Pierre de Nemours (1208-1219) and Guillaume de Seignelay (1220-1223) subsequently took charge of the building project. 

Maurice de Sully’s original project was reworked around 1220-1230 to bring more light into the nave, including: 

  • Modifying the upper parts of the cathedral
  • Adding a connector between with openwork towers 
  • Piercing high windows 
  • Repairing the entire building’s frame 
  • Integrating a complex rainwater drainage system into the roof

The choir, western facade, and the nave were completed by 1250, and porches, chapels, the original spire and other embellishments were added over the next 100 years.

This monumental style adapted to religious buildings is called “Rayonnant Gothic”, notable for its boldness and grace, like that displayed in Notre-Dame Cathedral’s single-arch flying buttresses. In addition to architectural arts, in Paris at the same time, music is developing with the invention of polyphony, for which the Notre Dame school gained fame throughout Europe.