Notre Dame Series Pt. 4 - Architecture and History

6 May 2021

Notre Dame Series Pt. 4 - Architecture and History

Notre-Dame—no surprise—is regarded as one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in existence. Many have pointed to its innovative use of rib vaulting and flying buttresses, its huge rose windows, and the naturalism and abundance of its statuary. Giant bells and an historic pipe organ also set the cathedral apart.

What was there before

It’s likely that a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood on Notre-Dame’s site. Evidence for that was the discovery in 1710 of the Pillar of the Boatmen, a huge Roman column erected in first century AD by a boat-owner’s guild. (It’s also the oldest monument in Paris.) 

An early Christian basilica dedicated to St. Stephen and located 40 meters west of Notre-Dame followed the temple, and it was followed by several other churches, the last a Romanesque cathedral. In 1160, Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, demolished this structure and recycled the building materials to create a much larger church in the then-new Gothic styler. Construction of Notre-Dame was largely complete by 1260, but, like Camelot, remodeling and renovation efforts have never really stopped.

The flying buttress and architectural innovation

It appears that the first flying buttresses were installed at Notre-Dame sometime in the 13th century. Before they were added, the weight of the cathedral’s roof pressed outward and down to the walls and their supporting abutments.  

With buttresses, however, the weight was transferred by the ribs of the vaulted ceiling to counter-supports outside the structure that were topped by heavy stone pinnacles. This meant that that the walls could be made higher, thinner, and with larger windows. 

Art historian and self-proclaimed tacklehead Andrew Tallon begs to differ with the 13th century date of installation. Instead, he says, buttresses were part of the original design. He has put together detailed laser scans to create a point cloud of data that proves his point. According to Tallon, buildings move and how they move reveals the original design and choices a master builder had to make “when construction didn’t go as planned.” The upper part of Notre-Dame, he says, has not moved one smidgeon in 800 years.” This, even with the addition of larger, stronger buttresses in the 14th century.

Yesterday and today

It sounds clichéd to talk about Notre-Dame’s rich history. And yet, what other expression really fits?

The cathedral was desecrated during the wild days of the French Revolution and many artifacts were destroyed or lost irretrievably. It was the site of Napoleon’s coronation. (And yes, Napoleon did place the crown on his own head, symbolizing that he was becoming emperor based on his own merits and the will of the people.) And The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo in 1831 spurred popular interest, which led to a major restoration from 1844 to 1864.

Next week’s post brings this series to a conclusion with a snapshot of where restoration efforts stand.

Buttress photo: Lusitana Creative Commons License
Window photo: James Stewart