In the old days this square was surrounded by gabled houses, of which the Cité has preserved only a very few. Fortunately they have not torn down the Cathedral. The craftsmen and architects were more in accord when this was built in the 12th century than they are today; the stone-masons were masters; the builders had the secret of lifting the great stones into place without any of the mechanism that we now use, although the principles were the same.
Only by putting yourself into the age in which Notre-Dame was built can you realize its meaning. Think of the persistence, the skill, the faith that entered into it. Think, if you will, of the mere financial cost of it. Think of Jeanne d’Arc who came here and of Napoleon who was crowned here. And then know this: that upon a pagan altar found beneath the church, showing that the Romans worshiped here, they discovered the dedication to Jupiter of the Water Merchants (or River Corporations) of Gallo-Roman days. You can see that altar stone at the Cluny Museum, but the point is that the merchants who had it cut were the fore-runners of the merchants who formed the medieval Paris Hansa and of those later ones who were the rich importers of the Renaissance. The commerce of Paris was always her reason for existence! She did not depend upon kings; they depended upon her. She was a free city!
Here in front of the Cathedral flax spinners and linen weavers held their weekly market. Narrow, lively, and crowded streets poured themselves into the square, much smaller then than now. And it was a refugee Pope, Alexander III, who, in 1163, laid the foundation stone of Notre-Dame. The Phenicians could not have foreseen it, the Romans would have been amused at the thought of any other than their own temple; the church fathers who had put up a tiny chapel in the 4th century would have been amazed at the idea of so great a church. And even today we must bow before the marvel of the Gothic ideal, of which this is one splendid expression, although not as simple as that of the Sainte Chapelle, whose spire rises above the roof of the Palais de Justice almost behind us.
The spires of the original plan of the cathedral are lacking; the ultimate rise towards Heaven was never made by those square towers. That other spire, of wood covered with lead, rises one hundred and forty-seven feet. All the dimensions are greater than you might suppose, because the proportions are so perfect. Their full value is best felt on the rare occasions when the Cathedral is illuminated from outside by electric projectors: the details then stand out as if they had just been carved the finest lace-work, the most beautiful design.
Then, when the outer lights are turned off, and the only illumination is that which comes from within; through the rose window, you realize that we could convert much of our age into the beauty of the 13th century if we wished. Only the faith it expressed would be lacking; even electricity cannot bring that back!
The rose window is forty-two feet in diameter, the bell up there in the tower weighs twelve and a half tons; the other bell, brought here from Sebastopol, is never used. The archbishop’s palace alongside is new; the old cloister is gone. Charlemagne keeps guard.
But you must let your eyes rest upon the ground; you must look in the center of the parvis for that octagon with the Paris coat-of-arms: this is the zero point for measuring all the roads in France! You are looking at the very simple center of a system which proves perhaps better than anything else that Paris, although to the north and east of France, is its hub as well as its capital. And it is here, on the Cité, close to the Phenician path, that they have set into the pavement this pointed star with its bronze ship.