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Notre-Dame de Paris
Professor Murray

Why, then, look at Notre-Dame of Paris? The principal reason is that it is there.

France, Paris, Ile de la Cité, aerial view

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, west facade

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, exterior view of the south flank

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, exterior view of the east end

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, interior view of the nave looking east

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, view of the nave vault

With more than fifty thousand visitors a day this is probably the most-visited Gothic cathedral—and it is one of the least understood and most difficult to teach. Unlike Saint-Denis where we are forced to speculate about the upper choir or Suger's nave, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, although substantially modified and restored, exists in its entirety. A careful program of looking at the existing building, combined with the most limited consideration of the written and graphic sources, can provide an exciting new conclusion about the origins of "Gothic." Was it at Notre-Dame that a paradigm shift took place? Viollet-le-Duc thought so. Yet recent scholarship relegates it to the status of a structurally compromised and backward-looking building that spawned no progeny and only caught up later with trends from elsewhere. Can we cut through this dilemma? As we look at the building, we can create a kind of puzzle—to engage the interest and sharpen the wits. Even during the completion of the west facade and the upper nave a program of modifications was begun. (1.) And the edifice was radically rebuilt during the nineteenth-century restorations of Viollet-le-Duc. How can we ever be sure about what belongs to which phase? How can we learn to "read" the building?

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, view showing Viollet-lDuc's restoration of the original four story elevation in the last bay of the nave.

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, ground plan

The construction of Notre-Dame was begun in the middle years of the twelfth century. (2.)That we do not have an exact date is of no great importance.

The great construction project marks the response of the Metropolitan clergy to at least three kinds of challenge. First, the increasing power of the king of France—translating in turf wars over control of urban topography. Second, the vigorous propagation on the part of the monks of Saint-Denis of the cult of the saint who had become synonymous with Parisian identity. And third, the architectural challenge inherent in the other great churches recently built or under construction: in Normandy and Flanders; and closer at hand, at Senlis where the galleried elevation refers so specifically to Norman sources. We should also look at the cathedral of Sens, seat of the province of which Paris was a part and, of course, the new church of Saint-Denis itself.

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, view of the nave from the crossing looking west

France, Senlis (Oise), Cathedral, General view of west facade

France, Senlis (Oise), Cathedral, General view of nave & choir, towards east

The city of Paris rang with the sound of hammer against chisel as dozens of churches were built—including, the new choir of Saint-Germain-des-Pres—as well as a host of smaller churches like Saint-Magloire.

France, Paris, St. Germaine-des-Pres, Exterior view

France, Paris, St. Germaine-des-Pres, Exterior view of choir from the south

France, Paris, St. Germaine-des-Pres, Interior view of ambulatory and hemicycle

Was this a framework in which great inventions might result? Or did Parisian architecture respond only in a belated way to innovations made elsewhere? What was the role of architecture in forming the urban identity of what was becoming a "capital" city, seat of the kings of France and the most populous center in northern Europe? (3.)

The site of Notre-Dame, at the east end of the Ile de la Cité, had been occupied by two principal basilicas, aligned axially: to the east, the church of Notre-Dame and to the west Saint Etienne. Construction of the new church began at the east end. The work of Clark and Bruzelius has nuanced our understanding of the sequence which did not advance simply from east to west, but which probably started in the hemicycle and generally moved from the exterior envelope inwards. (4.)

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, plan of east end

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, east end

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, ambulatory

One flank might advance before the other and the nave was begun around 1170 with the choir still half-completed. By 1177 the choir was nearly complete but not covered ("...iam perfectum est, excepto majori tectorio.") The choir was consecrated in 1182. The west facade was probably reached by around 1200: the right portal (Saint Anne) incorporates sculptural elements carved around 1150. (5.)

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, exterior of south flank


1.   It is best not to bog down initially with an extended catalogue of modifications. Nave chapels built from west to east starting probably around 1220/30; transept facades rebuilt to align with the new chapels, 1240s–1260s. Choir chapels then, extending into the fourteenth century. Simultaneously the clerestory window were extended downwards and equipped with tracery.

2.   The starting point traditionally given is 1163 when Pope Alexander III was said to have laid a cornerstone. This date has been challenged by W. Clark, "The Early Capitals of Notre-Dame-de-Paris," Tribute to Lotte Brand Philip, New York, 1985, who points to close links with the sculptural forms of Saint-Germain des PrÚs and the choir of Saint-Denis.

3.   R.-H. Bautier, "Quand et comment Paris devint capitale?" Bulletin de la Société de Paris et de lÍIle-de-France, 105, 1978, 17–46.

4.   W. Clark and R. Mark, "The First Flying Buttresses: A New Reconstruction of the Nave of Notre-Dame of Paris," Art Bulletin, 66,1984, 47–64, and C. Bruzelius, The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris," Art Bulletin, 69, 1987, 540–569.]

5.   Branner's suggestion that the level of the rose window was reached by around 1225 is probably a bit optimistic—the rose could belong to the 1230s. The dendrochronology of the roof has generated dates that are a bit later than anticipated. [Etude dendrochronologique de bois provenant de la charpente de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Besançcon, 1997. Much of the wood for the choir roof was felled just before 1177 with signs of modification around 1220.The nave roof embodied timber from around 1220, but has tie beams felled as late as 1275m indicating significant work of repair.]

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