A visitor’s guide to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Photograph by Barnyz
Notre-Dame de Paris, Saint-Séverin, Île de la Cité, Paris on June 5th, 2013

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame makes a grand first impression. From its splendid location on the Île de la Cité, the Cathedral’s towers, spire, and flying buttresses seem to magically spring forth from the Seine River and soar ambitiously towards heaven. The seventy-meter high cathedral was, for centuries, the tallest building in Paris. A masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the greatest monuments of the Middle Ages. Although it may look archaic when compared to modern landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the cathedral features a revolutionary medieval scheme. The innovative Gothic technology of “flying buttresses” (support beams) was used to reinforce the massive structure.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral was founded in 1163 by King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and Bishop Maurice de Sully, who wanted to build a church that rivalled the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis. It took almost two hundred years and countless architects, carpenters, and stonecutters to erect the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The result is a completeness of Gothic architecture. Visitors marvel over the fabulously detailed facade and are awestruck by the enormous nave. The serene sanctuary is a soul-inspiring space. Ethereal light filters through magnificent stained-glass windows, and in the evening, the illuminated votive candles add to the spiritual ambience.

One of the best views of this popular tourist attraction is found on the Île Saint-Louis around the Pont Saint-Louis. This area proposes an enchanting view of the towers and flying buttresses at the Cathedral’s east end (rear). Another fantastic way to approach the back of the Cathedral is from the Quai de la Tournelle reached via Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue des Bernardins in the Latin Quarter. Continue across the Pont de l’Archevêché, where the Square Jean-XXIII is located. This charming garden is the perfect place to enjoy a tranquil moment away from the crowds and relish the flying buttresses up close.

The exceptional view of Notre-Dame’s front is from the Petit Pont, a small bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk. Arrive here from Mont Saint-Michel métro station, walk along the Quai Saint-Michel, and cross the Petit Pont bridge to the Rue de la Cité. Another opportunity is to arrive from Maubert – Mutualité station, walk down the Quai Montebello via Rue Frédéric-Sauton and cross the Pont au Double, a graceful pedestrian bridge that connects to the Rue d’Arcole, which runs into the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, the esplanade in front of the Cathedral’s facade. Another wonderful panorama is from the Quai du Marché-Neuf along the Seine River.

In the thirteenth-century, flying buttresses were a rebellious new technology of Gothic architecture, an innovative solution to provide reinforcement for heavy cathedral walls. The flying buttresses support the structure and prevent it from collapsing despite its enormous weight. On the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the flying buttresses are seen on the east facade (rear) of the building. These fifteen-meter arched pillars resemble long spindly spider legs bent at the knee, surrounding the building like a scaffolding.

Notre-Dame was one of the first medieval cathedrals built with this special architectural technique. The cathedral was not incipiently designed with flying buttresses when it was constructed in the twelfth-century. However, stress fractures in the walls called for an architectural solution in the late thirteenth-century. The architect Jean Ravy designed the flying buttresses to support the building from the outside, without obstructing any of the stained-glass windows. The flying buttresses are an attractive structural characteristic. Though they were not designed to embellish the building, they have a certain harmonious tone. Take a moment to admire the flying buttresses from the viewpoint of the Place Jean-XXIII behind the cathedral.

The monumental west front of Notre-Dame Cathedral reveals the painstaking work of medieval stone cutters, who crafted finely detailed sculptures in the High Gothic style around 1210 to 1230. After admiring the elaborate overall design with its five horizontal sections, take the time to appreciate the sculptures. The long row of figures above the doorways is the Gallery of Kings, which includes twenty-eight figures of French Kings, from Childebert I (511-588) to Philippe Auguste (1180-1223). The heads were struck off during the Revolution and are now on exhibit in the Musée National du Moyen Âge.

Visitors are awed by an entourage of biblical figures in the portals above the doorways. The Portail Sainte-Anne above the right-hand doorway depicts the story of the Virgin’s parents, the Annunciation, and Nativity of Christ. The Portail du Jugement Dernier above the central doorway illustrates Christ the Judge and Archangel Michael directing the righteous to heaven and the damned to hell. Above the left-hand doorway, the Portail de la Vierge shows the Assumption of the Virgin and Ark of the Covenant. The archivolts feature angels, patriarchs, and prophets. On the side walls are apostles and the figures of Saint Dionysius (Denis), John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, and Saint Genevieve.

The cathedral’s twin towers are open to the public for visits. The entrance (with admission fee) to the towers is to the left of the front doorways on the Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame, and then there’s a climb of three hundred and eighty-seven steps. Admission allows visitors to see the two towers and the balcony of gargoyles. The famous Bell Tower that Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo frequented the North Tower. Visitors can see the cathedral’s largest bell, the Emmanuel Bell, up close.

Tourists are ultimately rewarded by the spectacular views from the top, one of the great experiences of a visit to Paris. Unlike other famous Paris viewpoints (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur), the seventy-meter-high towers of Notre-Dame offer a close-up view of the historic centre of the city. From this location, the panoramic outlook includes Paris’ most famous neighbourhoods and monuments: the Île de la Cité, the Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre, the Sorbonne, the Panthéon, and the Île Saint-Louis. The view even elongates to the modern part of Paris with the skyscrapers of La Défense in the distance. From the towers, there is also an impressive perspective of the cathedral’s roof, spire, and the gargoyles.

Gargoyles are fearsome sculptures typically found on medieval cathedrals, often designed for use as rainwater spouts. Some of the grotesque figures had no utilitarian purpose at all, and many assume that they were created to scare off evil spirits. Several of the gargoyles (called “Chimères” in French) on Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral served as rain water drains. During rainy weather, the monsters act like funnels, their mouths become the spouts of mini-waterfalls. Other Notre-Dame gargoyles are solely ornamental. There is a melange of figures, from frightening devilish characters to a graceful stork and fascinating winged creatures. To see these wondrous personages up close, go up the Cathedral Towers (entrance fee) and wander around the Galerie des Chimères, the balcony of gargoyles between the twin towers. The entrance to the towers is to the left of Notre-Dame’s front doorways on the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame.

Be sure to take a look at the Les Grand Mays series of paintings by Charles Le Brun, Sébastien Bourdon, Jacques Blanchard, and other artists. Illustrated in the chapels around the nave, these seventeenth-century paintings were created to honour the Virgin Mary and feature themes from Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Artistically, there were seventy-six painting in this series. The cathedral now possesses thirteen of these paintings; the rest are at the Louvre and other museums in France. Another masterpiece is the fourteenth-century Notre-Dame de Paris statue of the Virgin and Child.

Notre-Dame has a unique celestial aura thanks to its glittering stained-glass windows. The colourful windows filter jewel-toned light into the otherwise sombre space. Many of the windows date to the thirteenth-century and their intricacy exemplifies the finest medieval craftsmanship. The most glorious are the three stunning Rose Windows, considered among the greatest masterpieces of Christian art. The West Front Rose Window (created in 1255) represents the story of the Virgin Mary in eighty spectacular Old Testament scenes. The South Transept Rose Window (created in 1260) depicts Jesus Christ surrounded by apostles, martyrs, and wise virgins as well as the story of Saint Matthew. More than twelve meters in diameter, the South Rose Window includes eighty-four panes of exquisitely detailed and beautifully rendered scenes.

Also take the time to admire the neo-Gothic Cloister Windows on the south side of the choir. Created in the nineteenth-century, this gorgeous series of eighteen windows illustrates the Legend of Saint Genevieve, who was the patron saint of Paris. The cathedral also features contemporary stained-glass windows created by André Malraux in the 1960s.

The Treasury is located in the cathedral’s Sacristy, with an entrance (admission fee) through the choir on the right. There are many precious relics, including one of Jesus Christ’s nails and a fragment of the True Cross. Many of the liturgical objects are made of gold and exemplify exquisite craftsmanship. The most precious item in the Treasury is the gilded bronze and gemstone reliquary designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1862. This shrine holds the Holy Crown of Thorns, which has been an object of devotion for more than 1,600 years since it was removed from the Basilica of Zion in Jerusalem. The Shrine for the Crown of Thorns is venerated at Notre-Dame Cathedral the first Friday of the month, every Friday during Lent, and on Good Friday. Also on display in the Treasury are valuable medieval manuscripts, crosses, chalices, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation robes. The treasury is open daily Monday-Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Attending a mass at the Notre-Dame Cathedral is an inspiring spiritual experience for many visitors. Tourists will get a genuine feel for the mystical ambience of Notre-Dame. During mass, the beautiful music and myriad flickering prayer candles transform the sanctuary into an ethereal space. Mass is held Monday through Saturday at 08:00, 09:00, 12:00, and 18:15 (18:30pm on Saturday). Another chance to connect with Notre-Dame’s community of faith is by attending Vespers, which are held daily at 17:45. Sunday mass is held at 08:30, 09:30, 10:00 (Gregorian mass), 11:30, 12:45, and 18:30.

Notre-Dame also hosts frequent organ recitals and other holy music and classical music concerts such as Gregorian chants and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem. The cathedral’s renowned Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ is one of the largest and most powerful in France, with 8,500 pipes, offering truly sensational sound quality. Another interesting way to discover Notre-Dame is by enjoying the cathedral’s audiovisual show. Every Saturday and Sunday at 21:15, the cathedral offers a breathtaking show of images projected onto a screen of tulle, accompanied by music. Entrance is free.

Located underneath the cathedral, the crypt now houses an archaeological museum. The below-ground museum is an actual archaeological excavation site, where the foundations of Roman-era structures were found. During Roman times, the city was known as Lutetium. By exhibiting ancient ruins, archaeological findings, maps, drawings, and historical information, the museum tells the story of the city from antiquity through the medieval era. To access the museum (there is an entrance fee), take the stairs opposite the cathedral’s facade.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the very earliest locations of interest that we have chosen to be highlighted on our travelling guide, and we are planning to introduce in the near future, other intriguing and cultural places such as haunted castles, houses, mythological ruins, and temples across the world. As always, your viewpoints are more than esteemed by leaving your response, suggestions for further articles, or constructive criticism in the comment section. Plus, you may prefer to subscribe to our newsletter by filling out the form below in order to keep yourself refreshed with our most contemporary publishings.

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