Two years ago, when I was on the way to my sixth visit to Paris, I met a couple on the boat who were going for a visit to Norway, but had generously allowed themselves a two-day stop-over in Paris. For a hotel they had picked out one of the kind generally designated as “Rockbottom” in the travel guides. My own, at which I had been staying over a period of many years, was merely designated as “Inexpensive-Comfortable.” Both of them were in what is known as the Opera section. They had promised to come and see me at my hotel before they left Paris, and they did finally find me in late the next afternoon when there was a light drizzle. Naturally, I asked them how they had employed their time, and this is what they told me.
They had seen the big dark church (The Madeleine) at the end of the Boulevard de la Madeleine and wondered what made it look so dirty; then they had walked down another street (The Rue Royale) and come to a huge square (The Place de la Concorde) which they thought a pretty big square. Of course, they had also seen the Opera since they were living right behind it. They had had one meal at Pam-Pam’s and a cup of coffee, for which they had brought their own rolls, at one of the little caf6s near their hotel, and that was all they had seen of Paris.
I asked them whether they had not seen Notre-Dame and they said they hadn’t. So, since they were scheduled to leave early the next morning, I bundled them into a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Place St. Michel. After we alighted from the cab and the woman saw the church, the front elevation of which is in full view from this square, she made a downward movement with her clenched fist and exclaimed: “You know, that’s just like the church we have at home!” But, what are you going to do with people like that? So in this article I would like to tell you why Notre-Dame is not just like the church we have at home.
To begin with, when we look at an edifice that was started almost eight hundred years ago, we do not just look at a building, we also look at the centuries during which it stood there. And eight hundred years is a long time, especially when it concerns a building that is still in use and not just a ruin. But there is still another aspect to Notre-Dame, and that is that it has been so intimately connected with the history of Paris that we simply cannot think of Paris without also thinking of Notre-Dame. For, like so many other splendid cathedrals of France that were built at about the same time, Notre-Dame-de-Paris represents the religious spirit of an age when men thought of the hereafter a great deal more realistically than we do today. In order to insure that, they were not only willing to risk their all to go on crusades, but they were also willing to spend vast sums of money to build churches to their particular saints, and of these none was more venerated than the Virgin Mary. Nearly all of the great cathedrals of France-Chartres, Rouen, Reims, Amiens -are dedicated to her service, and the prefix for all of them is Notre-Dame. But only the cathedral of Paris seems to have been sufficiently distinguished to have become universally known by its first name-Notre-Dame Our Lady.
Part of this is, no doubt, due to its location in the capital of France where, for eight hundred years it had to withstand all the storms of its turbulent history. But a large part of it is also due to its splendid design, especially its fa~.ade. We are told that in comparison with the Cathedral of Chartres, the cathedrals of Paris, Reims and Amiens are but handmaidens, and that may be so. But that certainly isn’t true when we consider their fa~.ades only. In the Chartres Cathedral the towers are of unequal height and in different styles; and in both the Cathedral of Reims and of Amiens the facades are so loaded with detail that one cannot see the woods for the trees. Only in Notre-Dame-de-Paris will you find a faSade that will leave you spellbound. There is, therefore, from the very outset, something special about Notre-Dame and that something special is, let us make no mistake about it, the exquisite balance and harmony of its facade. But there is something else that is special about this cathedral, as well as about all the others, and that is this: Where did the medieval craftsmen obtain the skill to raise such daring structures to heights never before attempted by man? The sheer beauty of them we can see and feel. The technical details, such as the question what holds up those vaulted ceilings—-and every one of them pure masonry-those are questions that might be a little more difficult to explain.
As we are now at the Place St. Michel, let us take a walk along the Quai St. Michel, as far as the next bridge, which will be the Petit-Pont. Actually, I have stolen a little march on you here because when you crossed the Pont St. Michel, I assumed that you came from the Conciergerie, so that you are now already on the Left Bank of the Seine. However, when you walk along this quai you will have the Cathedral constantly before you until you get right up in front of it. Only to get directly in front of it you will have to get back on the Cite again, and this time by way of the Petit-Pont. When you reach the end of this bridge, you will be at the far end of what is officially known as the Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame, at the other end of which the Cathedral stands. When you face the Cathedral from this position, the huge expanse of buildings at your back will be the Prefecture de Police and the building at your left will be the Hotel-Dieu or the City Hospital. These two buildings, together with the Palace of justice and the area occupied by Notre-Dame and its two squares-one in front of it and the other in the rear–occupy more than three quarters of the Cite. So, now, let us take a look at Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame-de-Paris, to give it its full name, owes its inception to one Maurice de Sully at whose order the cathedral was started in the year 1163, three years after he had become Bishop of Paris. The foundation stone is supposed to have been laid by Pope Alexander III, who was then living in exile in France. Guide books sometimes tell us that Saint Bernard was opposed to the building of such a large church. This is the same Saint Bernard of Clairvoix who gave Abelard such a hard time. But if that is true, Notre-Dame must have been in the planning stage for some years because Saint Bernard died in 1153. In the same manner we must also guard against confusing the present church with the Notre-Dame referred to in the accounts of Abelard and Heloise, for all that took place many years before anyone thought of building a new cathedral. The Notre-Dame referred to in that story was the old Romanesque cathedral which the present cathedral replaced. And now, let us get back to Bishop Sully.
Like the Abbe Suger, the talented man who built the Basilica of St. Denis, Maurice de Sully was the son of poor parents, his father having been a wood-gatherer, and that was probably as poor as one could get. It would be interesting to know just what kind of church Bishop Sully had in mind when he decided to replace the old Romanesque church by a new one, or to know to whom he turned to draw up the plans. But of all that we know nothing. The Basilica of St. Denis, which happened to be the first church to be built in the Gothic style, was started in 1135 and finished in 1147, which was a rather short time in which to build a church of that size in those days. No doubt, both Bishop Sully and the architect, whoever he was, knew of this church, since the town of St. Denis was only seven miles out of Paris. What could, therefore, be more logical than that they should want to surpass it in both size and beauty, but that is exactly what they did. And that is how it came about that Notre-Dame-de-Paris grew to be the largest Gothic structure that had been built up to that time and no doubt one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world today.
No one could describe all the details of Notre-Dame, or, for that matter, of any other of the Old World cathedrals, without writing a catalogue. Nevertheless, the design of Notre-Dame, and, especially the fa~ade of it, is comparatively plain. No one could ever stand in front of this cathedral and exclaim, as you might of some: “What an incredible amount of detaill” Instead of that, one is much more apt to exclaim: “What simplicityl But at the same time, how utterly charming.” But things are seldom charming without some very good reasons. In the case of the facade of Notre-Dame the things that make it look so charming are partly its restraint, but mostly its perfect proportions. Take the base with its three portals, for instance. It is a solid base, as you might expect from what it has to carry, but outside of the decorations on its three Gothic portals, a central one and two slightly smaller ones on each side, there is nothing unusual about it at all. Immediately above these portals, all the way across the facade, there is a continuous gallery of twenty-eight niches, known as the Gallery of the Kings, with a statue of the Kings of Judah in each. This gallery is surmounted by a balustrade and the distance between the base of this balustrade and the base of the balustrade that runs across the very top of the facade is almost exactly the same as the distance between the ground and the first balustrade. But the width of the church also has something to do with this feeling of balance and harmony, for it is exactly the same at the top as the facade is high, though it spreads out a little at the base on account of the spread of the buttresses.
The area above the Gallery of the Kings and the top of the facade is divided into two parts again. First comes the central rose window, thirty-one feet in diameter. This was the largest rose window up to that time, but the rose window in the south transept, which was not finished until some fifty years later, is forty-three feet in diameter, and that facade too, is something to marvel at. Already, the builders were becoming more daring. Directly in front of this rose window is a statue of the Virgin, flanked by two angels. But this is already so high up that you might not recognize it from the ground. On each side of the rose window there are two arched windows in a large, recessed arch, and immediately above these comes the Grand Gallery, an open gallery of twenty-three slender columns which unite the base of the two towers. But the two towers, which rise above the grand gallery, are in a certain proportion too, for they are just about the height the Gallery of Kings is from the ground. The top of these towers are pierced by two fifty-two-foot-high vertical openings, which imparts to them an unusual lightness. Since the lines of these towers are carried right down the front of the church in the way of buttresses, they also divide the fa~ade into three equal vertical sections. Well, all this may sound like a fixed and rigid, though perfectly balanced edifice, but actually, it isn’t. It is fluid. It is, in fact, so fluid that there are few people who have ever noticed that the north tower is quite a bit wider than the south tower, and that the two side portals are not exactly alike. But who could possibly think of looking for unbalance in a facade that seems to sing. Nevertheless, the facade of Notre Dame is only a small part of this tremendous edifice, but this is as far as I am going to go in my description of this fourhundred-twenty-seven-foot-long edifice.
And now, just a little something about how long it took to build this cathedral. The first thing to be built was the choir, for in all of these cathedrals the choir was always built first so that services could be held there long before the church was finished. This took fourteen years to complete and was finished in 1177. Then came the transept and the nave, and this took twenty years to complete and was finished in 1200. Then came the facade and the two towers-built one at a time and by different architects-and this work took fifty years to complete and was not finished until 1250. After that came the north and south portals and these were not completed until 1270. Well, this makes a grand total of one hundred seven years of continuous building without apparently deviating from the plans of the original architect. To put this in slightly different words, Notre-Dame was started during the reign of Louis VII (1137-1180); it was still under construction during the reign of Philippe-Auguste (1180-1223) and, as I shall relate in a little while, it was still only partly completed in 1270, the year in which Saint Louis died. In point of history that means that Notre-Dame was in the building all the way from the Second to the Eight Crusade.
But that is not all yet. Notre-Dame still was not what it is today. One of the major additions made to the cathedral consisted of the chapels you see around the sides of the cathedral. These were all added after the church had been already completed and took another seventy years to complete. It seems that after Notre-Dame was finally finished, the guilds, who had been heavy contributors to the cost of the church, were not entirely satisfied with the way their patron saints had been left out in the cold. So, in order to satisfy this desire, the Chapter of Notre-Dame later had the side elevations modified to add the chapels you see around the inside of the church now. This work was entrusted to the architects Montereau, the man who built Sainte-Chapelle, and Jean de Chelles, and was not completed until 1345.
There were a few other modifications made on the cathedral, notably by Louis XIV, but none of these affected the exterior. The last great change made on Notre-Dame, if change it can be called, for it consisted entirely of restoring the church to what it had been before, were the restorations made on it by Viollet-le-Duc during the years 1841-1856. After the fall of Napoleon, Notre-Dame had fallen into such a lamentable state of disrepair that nobody seemed to care what happened to it, and it was largely through the efforts of Victor Hugo, and his NotreDame-de-Paris which, for sex-appeal, we call The Hunch back of Notre Dame that the French Government ultimately appropriated two million six hundred fifty thousand francs for its restoration. It was at this time also that the fleche, the slender spire or arrow as it is called, that you see on top of it, at about its midpoint, was completely rebuilt. This fleche rises to a height of two hundred ninetysix feet above the ground, and like the fleche on SainteChappelle, it is built out of oak and covered with lead. This will be about all I shall have to tell you about NotreDame. Your guide book will tell you about the inside of it, about the gargoyles, and about the great bell, which is known as the Bourdon of Notre-Dame, and weighs nearly sixteen tons. On account of the vibrations set up by this monster, this bell is rung only on rare occasions; but there is a caretaker up there and madame will be only too pleased to tap it ever so gently with a hammer so that you can at least get an idea of its tone.
Strange to say, if we had come to Paris about a hundred years ago we would have had to come a lot closer to Notre-Dame than the Place St. Michel before we would have had a glimpse of it. For in those days the square in front of it was only about a quarter of its present sire, and where you now see the little park with the statue of Charlemagne, there was a long building right along the river which had stood there for many centuries and housed the city hospital, so that the ill could be brought right up to it in boats. If we would go back another hundred years we would have seen still less of it because in those days the houses came right up to the church, and past the Place St. Michel they also came right up to the river, so that the Rue de la Huchette was the first street in from the Seine. It was our old friend Baron Haussmann, who has sometimes been called the surgeon of Paris, who brought Notre-Dame out into the open when he started to demolish nearly everything on the island. The new hospital, for instance, which still faces the Place dui-Parvis-,Notre-Dame, but is now no longer on the river, but on the north side of the square, was not finished until 1878, and the Prefecture de Police in 1865.
As may be expected, Notre-Dame was severely damaged during the French Revolution also. Anything that could be torn loose was torn loose, and anything and everything that had anything to do with religion was wrecked or carted away. They also pulled down with ropes all the Kings of Judah, all twenty-eight of them, because they mistook them for French Kings. The ones you see there now are reproductions. And then, on November 10, 1793, came the great Festival of Reason, during which a dancer from the opera, dressed as the Goddess of Reason was enthroned upon the high altar or what was left of it, and citizen Clootz, who had just recently devised a brand-new System for Mankind, and all by himself too, was gleefully running around the church congratulating his Atheist friends on the advancements of mankind. Too bad, Clootz. What happened that your head was chopped off only four months after this celebration?
Well, as I said before, this is about all I have to tell you about Notre-Dame, but since you are going to find out from your guide books anyway, I might as well add that Notre-Dame was also the scene of two coronations, and neither of them of Frenchmen. The first one was of the well-intentioned, but hapless Henry VI of England who was crowned King of France here on December 16, 1431, when he was only ten years of age. He was already the nominal King of England then, but Joan of Arc later took the French crown away from him and gave it to Charles VII of France, who was also not very lucky. But all these things took place during the last stages of the Hundred Year’s War, which had been a hard time for everybody. The second was also a stranger to France, having been born in Corsica, who had himself crowned here-or rather crowned himself-Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804. After he had placed the crown on himself he placed a separate crown on his wife Josephine who, on this important occasion, could think of nothing better to do than to cry. She had been born Marie Rose Josephine Tacher de la Pagerie, one of the three daughters of a French officer of artillery in Martinique. In 1779 she had married a French Vicomte by the name of Beauharnais by whom she had two children, but by whom she was also left a widow. She had married Napoleon in 1796 when he was still an ordinary general and now, all of a sudden, she had become Empress of the French. So, I guess, that after all these ups and downs, she was entitled to cry a little.
Tomorrow, when we go back to the Left Bank again, we shall walk down the ancient Rue de la Huchette to a little square known as the Square Ren6-Viviani. It is from this square that you will have the best view of the southern fapde of Notre-Dame and its daring flying buttresses. You will not have seen Notre-Dame until you have seen it from this square.