The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

The fire that engulfed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was a terrible tragedy—though not an unusual one.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris, begun 1163. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker (recorded before the fire)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] The ancient Romans founded the city of Paris in the middle of a river, on an island called the Île de la Cité. That’s where we’re standing, in front of one of the great Gothic cathedrals, Notre-Dame de Paris.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] We’re really in the heart of Paris — the theological center of Paris with the Church of Notre-Dame, but also the political center. We’re right near the Louvre, which was the palace of the king.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] Before the Louvre, the king’s palace was even closer to this cathedral. The cathedral is a potent symbol both of theological power but also of worldly power.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] It makes sense that the church was attacked during the French Revolution. We can see it in the background of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” that image of a revolution.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] That’s right, from 1830. In that painting, we can actually see the symbol of revolutionary France, the tricolor flag, flying from one of the towers.

[0:56] Of course before that revolution in 1830, Napoleon had been crowned here as emperor of France. There really is this powerful historical tradition that begins in the medieval world, but goes right up to the modern.

[1:09] Notre-Dame de Paris was the tallest Gothic cathedral when it was built. It outstripped all of the previous Gothic churches and was taller even than the largest church in the world at that point, which was at Cluny.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] The Gothic architects employed a number of methods to achieve that verticality. The most obvious among them are the flying buttresses.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] These are beautiful external skeletal forms that help take the lateral weight that is produced by the massive vaulting, the massive stone roof, and draws it outside the church so that the inside of the church, the walls of the church, can be opened up and as much light can be brought in as possible.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] The Gothic architects wanted to open up the walls to windows.

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] Of course, glass is not weight-bearing. Glass can’t support the weight of, especially, the vaulting. Here’s the important issue, is they can’t bring the weight straight down because it actually pushes out. Therefore, you need to have fairly massive walls, or in this case, buttresses and flying buttresses.

[2:08] The difference between a buttress and a flying buttress is pretty straightforward. A buttress is a solid masonry wall perpendicular to the walls of the cathedral that’s meant to keep the walls themselves from being pushed outward.

[2:20] A flying buttress is not a solid wall. Really, it’s just a rib that allows for the thrust to be brought down into the more solid mass of the buttress below.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] We can see that all around Notre-Dame.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] Now, much of this was restored in the 19th century, but it’s important to understand that the church has been under construction and renovation since it was begun.

Dr. Harris: [2:41] Well, there were several building campaigns just in the 12th and the 13th century.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] And moving up to the 14th century and onward, a series of changes.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] It’s really not unusual for a Gothic church to have such a long building campaign. And then they were often restored later in the 19th and in the 20th century.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] This church looks spectacular though now, doesn’t it?

Dr. Harris: [3:03] It does, and clearly a lot of people today are enjoying it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] When you first walk in and you look down the length of the nave, you’re in this long, narrow, very tall space. That’s in part because the three-part elevation is closed off to you from that angle as one looks down the length of the church. But as you walk down, especially the aisles, the full width of the church in its complexity open up.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] The way that this shrinks the walls of stone and replaces it with walls of glass felt miraculous.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] If you look up at the clerestory, you have these panes of glass, these sheets of light that seem to almost float. There is really a sense of the miraculous.

[3:47] Then, as you move down to the gallery, you’ve got an unprecedented delicacy in the columns that seem to miraculously support everything above it, including the vaulting. Of course, in truth, the weight is borne outward.

[4:02] Then, as you move down to the first level — the part of the church that’s doing the real work — you can see those huge buttresses that had been made into separate chapels in the 13th century. If you look at the giant piers, that are really a series of bundled columns, many of which soar all the way to the roof.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] In their bundling together all of these narrow elements, one loses sight of just how massive those piers are.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] That’s the brilliance of this masking and this emphasis on verticality, this emphasis on line, all of these key characteristics of the Gothic.

Dr. Harris: [4:34] That soaring quality that almost feels as though it’s lifting you up toward the heavenly.

April 2019 Fire at Notre Dame de Paris (Photo: Milliped, CC BY-SA 4.0)

April 2019 fire at Notre Dame de Paris (Photo: Milliped , CC BY-SA 4.0)

The fire

The blaze that engulfed the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the small Island known as the Île de la Cité in Paris in April 2019 was a terrible tragedy. Though it may not give us much comfort to learn that the total or partial destruction of churches by fire was a fairly common occurrence in medieval Europe, it does provide some perspective. For example, a fire destroyed most of Chartres Cathedral in 1020 (and again in 1194), in the city of Reims, the cathedral was badly damaged in a fire in 1210, and at Beauvais, the cathedral was rebuilt after a fire in the 1180s. The list goes on and on.

During the medieval periods of the Romanesque and the Gothic (c. 1000-1400), church fires were less frequent than they had been previously due to the development of stone vaulting (which began to replace the timber ceilings commonly found in European churches). But even a stone vault, as we saw at Notre Dame in Paris, is itself protected by a timber roof (sometimes rising more than 50 feet above the stone vaulting and pitched to prevent the accumulation of rain and snow), and this is what caught fire.

Île de la Cité, Paris

Île de la Cité, Paris

Art historian Caroline Brazelius, who has worked on the building for years said, “between the vaults and the roof, there is a forest of timber” — old, dry, porous, and highly flammable timber. Still, photographs of the interior show at least some of the stone vaulting survived the recent fire. The builders of Notre Dame used Parisian limestone, but, as Brazelius notes “when it’s exposed to fire, stone is damaged. It doesn’t actually burn….It becomes friable. It chips, and it’s no longer structurally sound.”

Built, modified, rebuilt, and restored

Churches are often an amalgamation of architectural styles, the result of building campaigns and modifications undertaken at different times, some due to fire, some due to the desire for what a new style represents, and some due to (often inaccurate) restoration efforts. And on a single site, churches were often built and rebuilt — and this is the case with Notre Dame in Paris. Before the Gothic-style church was built, a Carolingian church occupied the site (it was destroyed during the 9th century Viking invasions), and before that, a 6th century Merovingian Church stood on the site.

Léonard Gaultier, View of Paris, 1607, engraving (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Léonard Gaultier, View of Paris, 1607, engraving ( Bibliothèque nationale de France )

If we go back further, to the pre-Christian era, Julius Caesar’s armies famously conquered much of what we call France today (Roman Paris dates back to 52 BCE). Archaeological evidence suggests that a pagan temple and then a Christian basilica were built on this site. The ancient Romans also built a palace for the emperor on the Île de la Cité, and after the Roman empire collapsed, Clovis I, King of the Franks (who converted to Christianity) established his palace there as well. The Île de la Cité would remain the location of a royal residence until the 14th century. As one historian has noted, “Notre Dame … was not only a religious but also a royal monument that displayed the might of the church and the monarchy, each enhancing the power of the other.” [1]

Crossing, Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1163-1250

Crossing, Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1163-1250 (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris took nearly 100 years to complete (c. 1163-1250) and modifications, restorations, and renovations continued for centuries after. The early Gothic style employed at the beginning of the campaign became outdated and the later Gothic style, the Rayonnant, became fashionable and can be seen in the transepts. The crossing spire that the world watched fall while engulfed in flames was a reproduction created during a 19th-century restoration campaign.

In the following centuries, the church (and its sculptural decoration) survived multiple episodes of intentional destruction: during the Protestant Reformation (due to Protestant objection to religious imagery), and during the revolutions of 1789 and 1830 (because of the church’s close association with the monarchy). It remained in a neglected state until Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) revived popular interest the building.

View of Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1163-1250 (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

View of Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1163-1250 (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

As of this writing, just a few days after the April 15th blaze, evaluation of the damage caused by the fire is only just beginning, but a reported one billion dollars has been already been raised to support the reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris.

[1] Avner Ben-Amos, “Monuments and Memory in French Nationalism,” History and Memory , volume 5, number 2 (1993), pp. 50–81 .

The Cathedral’s construction (official website of Notre Dame de Paris)

Art Historian (Caroline Bruzelius) Discusses The History Of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, April 15, 2019 (NPR)

Avner Ben-Amos, “Monuments and Memory in French Nationalism,” History and Memory, volume 5, number 2 (1993), pp. 50–81.

Caroline Brazelius, “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris,” The Art Bulletin, volume 69, number 4 (1987), pp. 540–69.

Stephen Murray, “Notre-Dame of Paris and the Anticipation of Gothic,The Art Bulletin, volume 80, number 2 (1998), pp. 229–53.

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris," in Smarthistory, April 24, 2019, accessed July 18, 2024,