image index
home page
Gothic Architecture in France
image index Click images to enlarge.
Notre-Dame de Paris | Descriptioin of Cathedral
Professor Murray

Rather than continuing with the narrative of construction and modification, we will now begin to look with skeptical eyes—recognizing that what is seen is not necessarily what was originally built and that we should be suspicious about authorities who claim to know about what was originally there and what was not. The process of looking and describing will equips us as detectives able to discern that, for example, the tracery of the lateral chapels and transept facades provides evidence of later interventions.

We see an edifice resembling an up-turned boat with its eastward-pointing rounded prow seeming to cleave the waters of the river Seine and its flat west end facing the Ile de la Cité. (1.)

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, east-west longitudinal cross-section

If you like the simile, then by all means call the flying buttresses "oars." The plan is bounded by a smooth perimeter; the central vessel is flanked on each side by two aisles of the same height which continue around the east end as a double ambulatory. Fringing the double aisles and continuing as a crown around the east end are chapels—note the delicate forms of the tracery and articulation of the choir chapels. What does this tell us about dating? The chapels clearly do not belong to the original edifice—remove them and the appearance of the building will be transformed in the most radical and the most exciting way. There is no longer a smooth perimeter, and the blocks of masonry that had formed the divisions between the chapels now spring out as independent members. Protruding out to a depth of about five meters beyond the aisle wall, they formed deep pockets of exterior space and complicated the division between outside and inside. Projected upwards, the units form the massive supports of a system of flying buttresses sustaining the tall central vessel. Marching around the exterior of the edifice these units impose a vertical overlay upon the triangular section of the galleried edifice.

Rising upward from the lower spaces of the double aisles is a tall central vessel with vaults one hundred feet above the pavement—this was the first building in northern Europe to reach such a height. The target may have been the height of the old basilica of Saint Peters in Rome, which, of course, also had double aisles.

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, north flank of nave and north transept facade

Italy, Rome, Old St. Peter's Basilica

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, cross section

The tall vessel of Notre-Dame is arranged in three levels, the lowest—the arcade—corresponding to the height of the aisles, the middle, made up of a spacious gallery over the inner aisle, and at the top are long windows divided into two lancets topped by oculi. The main vessel is vaulted with sexpartite vaults that gather together double-bay units under great billowing stone canopies. Walls are very attenuated and the forms of articulation (mouldings and colonnettes) seem pencil-thin.

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

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

France, Paris, Notre-Dame, north transept looking west

Consider the tension between the smooth-edged plan and the boldly cruciform shape of the superstructure. A transept cuts across the main vessel with arms that do not project beyond the periphery of the edifice. The galleries turn at 90 degrees into the transept arms forming "L"-shaped corridors.

Paris, Notre-Dame, columns of the nave arcade

France, Caen, St. Étienne, North elevation of nave from southeast

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

The language of interior articulation is classicizing—unlike the compound piers of Saint-Etienne of Caen or Senlis, here in Paris we find massive cylindrical columns in the main arcade and slenderer columns dividing the aisles. In the choir these intermediary aisle columns are unarticulated. In the nave they are enclosed in a cage of detached (en délit) shafts.

1.   A great new road was cut through the densely populated central part of the city to facilitate access to the new work. To the west of the island was the royal palace.

back to Notre-Dame main

back to briefing main

back to top

briefing | image index | resources
home page | site image index | site resources

media center for art history and archaeology | columbia univeristy