Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, West Facade, Towers and King gallery (2011)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)
From its history to its artwork, not all is as it seems!
Work began on the towering Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1160, only to be finished after many revisions and design changes in the 1260s. Throughout the next eight centuries of its life, this architectural marvel would see destruction, praise, remodels, and restorations.
While you may think it’s 100+ years of construction or its unique architecture are the most interesting facts about the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, there are actually deeper mysteries hidden in its history and beneath its foundation.
Notre-Dame de la Chapelle church, Brussels (1210/1210) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
1. It was saved by a Parisian playwright
You may be familiar with modern adaptations of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but did you know the original novel by Victor Hugo played a pivotal role in saving its namesake from ruin?
Throughout the centuries, Notre-Dame Cathedral has served many purposes, and was once even used as a food storage facility in the 1790s. Enter Victor Hugo, whose passion for architecture actually helped save this medieval landmark. Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, not only served as a tribute to the nearly forgotten cathedral but became so popular among the French public that a 25-year restoration project was launched, and Notre-Dame Cathedral was transformed into what we see today.
2. There’s a (once) Pagan City beneath its foundation
Notre-Dame Cathedral wasn’t always the Catholic icon we see it as today. In fact, it’s built on the ruins of a once pagan city.
Built where the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia once stood, the foundations of Notre Dame changed hands a few times before construction of the famous cathedral began. It started as a temple to Jupiter before being transformed into a Romanesque church. Ultimately, the old structure was taken down and its foundation (along with a few of its sculptures) was reused in the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Chapel from Notre-Dame-du-Bourg at Langon Chapel from Notre-Dame-du-Bourg at Langon (after 1126)The Metropolitan Museum of Art
3. The gargoyles aren’t from medieval times; they’re modern
Just like it’s flying buttresses weren’t a part of the original design, the infamous gargoyles of Notre-Dame are a more recent addition as well.
Paris, Notre-Dame (1880s) by Léopold Louis MercierThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Technically known as chimeras (the true gargoyles are the animal-headed rain spouts decorating the sides of the cathedral), these statues were the gothic brainchild of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the lead architect during the cathedral’s 19th-century restoration project. They were inspired, much like the restoration itself, by the description of gargoyles in Victor Hugo’s fictional version of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Of course, this wasn’t Viollet-le-Duc’s only unique touch; he also modeled the face of the statue of Thomas the Apostle on himself.
Presentation of Notre-Dame Towers (2015)Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN)
4. It Inspired an (appropriately named) Édith Piaf song
French singing icon, Édith Piaf was just as inspired by the grand Notre-Dame Cathedral as Victor Hugo.
Her song, appropriately named “Notre-Dame de Paris”, was one in a long line of famous songs she wrote and performed throughout her life (most famously, “Non, je ne regrette rien"). “Notre-Dame de Paris” talks about the beauty of the cathedral, the hard work that went into its creation, it’s long history, and its future as a Parisian icon. In many ways, she seems to sing about the cathedral as a metaphor for herself; both come with a complex history as well as a beautiful future.
Edith Piaf & Amolia (1952-09) by Allan GrantLIFE Photo Collection
5. A rooster protects a piece of Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns
Gargoyles, a literary history, and popular portrayals aside, one of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s most unique features is the rooster sitting atop its tallest spire.
At first glance, this bird probably seems out of place, but it’s actually a sort of “spiritual lightning rod”, meant to protect worshipers inside the cathedral from harm.
Towers of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral (2011) by Jean-Pierre DelagardeCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)
In fact, the metal rooster contains a piece of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, as well as relics of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, both patron saints of Paris. With such powerful protectors, visitors to the grand cathedral can enjoy their time there with peace of mind.
Holy Face (1513) by Joan GascóMuseu Episcopal de Vic
While it’s easy to love its architecture and artworks, it’s just as easy to become fascinated and enchanted by the cathedral’s history, unique design, and modern reception. There’s its restoration thanks to a Parisian playwright, its foundation built upon a Pagan temple, its (not so) historical gargoyles, its place in popular songs, or its uniquely religious lightning rod. What’s your favorite fact about Notre-Dame Cathedral?