Notre-Dame - History

Notre-Dame - History (4A)

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is more than just a church, it is the authentic heart of Paris. You cannot imagine it without the mythical Quasimodo hanging from its gargoyles or ringing the bells. Thanks to Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, this cathedral has become one of the symbols of Paris and of all France. Although it is not the biggest cathedral in the country it is one of the best representatives of European Gothic art.

Situated right in the heart of the geographic and historical centre of the capital, its façade faces west and looks out over the Place Notre Dame, where the precise centre of Paris is, marked by a bronze star, which is also the centre of France. It is the zero point from which all the distances in France are measured. 

Religion had a presence here long before Notre Dame was built. Of course, it was not the same religion that the cathedral represents. The Celtic tribe of the Parisii was the first to inhabit the current Ille de la Cité and consecrated the spot on which Notre Dame stands for their spiritual and ritual affairs. Later, the Romans built a temple in honour of Jupiter. An early Christian church would be built later in honour of Saint Etienne, and over this a Romanesque church. This one lasted until 1163, the year in which Bishop Maurice de Sully decided to build the biggest church in Christianity.

Notre Dame was built in a period of great prosperity in Paris. Its first construction coincided with the choice of Paris as capital of France. So there was no economic problems involved in completing the works. Nevertheless, the cathedral was not completed until the 14th century, after various modifications and the intervention of different architects.

But time, and above all, historic events, affected and deteriorated Notre Dame, making diverse restorations necessary. The most important was undertaken after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. It seemed that these revolutionaries loved to go round breaking things, and the cathedral was seriously damaged. They saw the cathedral as a symbol of power and oppression to which the Church and the monarchy had subjected the people.

In fact Notre Dame was also a great centre of power, where trials and executions were held.

In the middle of the revolution the Jacobins turned the cathedral into a temple honouring the Goddess of Reason, and Robespierre instituted there the Cult of the Supreme Being.

It was a turbulent stage that left many marks on the cathedral: sculptures pulled out, stained glass windows destroyed... all in all a sorry appearance.

In 1801 the government of Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement with the Holy See for the Church to recover control of Notre Dame. Cleaning-up work began immediately, so that in 1804 Napoleon himself could be crowned emperor in it.

It was in the mid-19th century when Notre Dame was reborn, and to a large extent thanks to the work of the famous novelist Victor Hugo, the main representative in France of romanticism, the cultural movement interested in recovering the medieval past and Gothic art. The publication in 1831 of the book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Quasimodo and Esmeralda as leading characters, gave Parisians the desire to recover their abandoned place of worship. So after mobilising the public in 1845, the full restoration of the cathedral began.

The work was entrusted to Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and the grand restoration took 23 years, returning to the cathedral all its past splendour. During the same period, the urban reform of Paris organised by Napoleon III and his trusted minister Baron Haussman, enhanced the cathedral even more. Knocking down houses and buildings and opening up a new square before the main façade made it possible to really appreciate its full grandeur.

In 1965, excavations below the cathedral revealed some catacombs from the Roman period and medieval rooms, which can currently be visited. 

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