An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Notre-Dame has come to embody a range of meanings in the cultural imagination: a major religious structure, a masterpiece of medieval architecture, a repository for important relics and art, a symbol of Paris, and a French landmark.

When a fire ravaged the 850-year-old cathedral on April 15, 2019, the fate of the building became uncertain. In recognition of this historic event and its aftermath, the J. Paul Getty Museum organized an exhibition with paintings, photographs, and engravings, a selection of which is presented here.

Notre-Dame was built on the Île de la Cité, the largest island on the Seine River, in the center of Paris, the capital of France. Since 1769, a milestone on the square in front of the cathedral has served as the point zéro for calculating distances between other French cities and Paris.

A View of Paris with the Ile de la Cité (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

This panoramic view painted from the Louvre captures the western end of the Île de la Cité, with the Pont-Neuf, the “new bridge,” finished in 1607.

The prominent towers of Notre-Dame dominate the island, standing 226 feet high and rising well above the roofs of the surrounding buildings.

The original spire of the cathedral—erected in about 1250 and more than 100 feet high—appears discreetly behind its left tower. It was smaller than the spire of the nearby Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel), visible on the left. Notre-Dame’s original spire was dismantled around 1797 because of its threatening decay.

Chevet de Notre-Dame-de-Paris, vue prise du Quai de La Tournelle (detail) (1860s) by Charles SoulierThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Notre-Dame fulfills its original mission as a religious center for the city of Paris and has welcomed countless visitors for Mass and holy days such as All Saints’ Day, Easter, and Christmas. Its construction, started in 1163, was carried out over many centuries.

Chevet de Notre-Dame-de-Paris, vue prise du Quai de La Tournelle (detail) (1860s) by Charles SoulierThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The April 2019 fire destroyed the spire, erected in the mid-1800s. It also ravaged the complex roofing system designed in the 1200s, made of two thousand oak trees and supporting a lead roof weighing over 200 tons. The stained-glass windows, the relics, and many other treasures were luckily preserved.

[Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris] (about 1855) by Bisson FrèresThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Notre-Dame is at once a magnificent work of architecture and a repository for masterpieces of art. The cathedral’s exterior portals preserve exquisite examples of sculptural ensembles from the 1200s. The façade’s left portal, Portal of the Virgin, dating from the 1210s, has long been celebrated for its incomparable sculptures.

The portal appears here before its restoration, with niches left empty after they were destroyed during the iconoclasm of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

The open door, the seated boy, the standing man reading, and the Easter 1855 poster on the left evoke Parisian life.


The imposing statue of the Virgin Mary is a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture and dates to the mid-1300s. Seen here on the pier between the doors, it was later moved  inside to the choir, where it became the most venerated sculpture in the cathedral. It survived the 2019 collapse of the spire, which crashed to the floor close by.

“Te Deum” Sung in Notre-Dame (1662) by Jean MarotThe Getty Research Institute

Though French kings were traditionally crowned in Reims cathedral (northeast of Paris) and buried in the Saint-Denis abbey (north of Paris), major royal celebrations also took place in Notre-Dame.

On August 26 and 27, 1660, French king Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain celebrated their recent marriage in the South of France with an elaborate “joyous entry” into the capital city and a religious service within Notre-Dame, as seen in this etching commemorating the event. 

Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1714) and his wife Maria Theresa kneel on a podium in the middle of Notre-Dame’s choir, which is richly decorated with tapestries, while the Latin Christian hymn “Te Deum” (“To you God”) is sung in their honor.

The small figures of the royal couple, clergymen, invitees, and soldiers enhance the majestic character of the columns, vaults and windows of the soaring cathedral.

The Coronation of Napoleon (1825) by Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet after Jacques-Louis DavidThe Getty Research Institute

Given its scale and location, Notre-Dame has served as the ideal setting for significant events in French history, and not exclusively during the Ancien Régime. After he declared himself Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte staged an elaborate coronation ceremony in Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804.

He asked his official artist, Jacques Louis David to commemorate the event in a painting now in Paris at the Louvre Museum, astonishing for its number of figures and large size (621 x 979 cm; 20.3 x 32.12 feet). David also made a replica of the painting for a group of American business men now preserved in the castle of Versailles. The engraving was produced after this latter painting.

In the richly decorated choir of Notre-Dame, Napoleon (1769–1821) is about to make his wife Josephine de Beauharnais (1763–1814) empress by touching her head with his imperial crown. A moment earlier, he had crowned himself with a gold laurel wreath and briefly put the imperial crown on his own head. 

Seated behind him at the right is Pope Pius VII (1742–1823), who was forced to come from Rome for the ceremony.

 In the balcony, in the middle of the first row, sits Napoleon's mother Maria Letizia Ramolino.

In its interior, the cathedral houses many treasures, including important paintings. From 1630 to 1707, the Parisian goldsmiths’ guild presented a large-scale painting to the cathedral every year on the first of May to honor the Virgin Mary, who is celebrated during this month in the Catholic calendar. These so-called “Mays of Notre-Dame” were entrusted to the most celebrated French painters, including Charles Le Brun, the most famous of Louis XIV’s rule.

The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, Charles Le Brun, 1646–1647, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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This small painting is a finished study Le Brun prepared before executing the large canvas presented to the cathedral in May 1647. Fortunately, his large canvas, together with the other twelve that still belong to the cathedral, survived the 2019 fire.

Among the most magnificent stained glass from the medieval period, the cathedral’s rose windows were erected around 1250 for the North one and around 1260 for the South one. With an incredibly large diameter of about 42 feet, they illustrate characters and scenes of the Old and New Testaments. These masterpieces were luckily not destroyed by the fire.

Souvenirs de l'antiquité et du Moyen Âge à Paris (1935) by UnknownThe Getty Research Institute

In a journal dated around 1935, a girl chronicles a field trip to the cathedral with her teacher and classmates. In admiration of its luminous colors she drew the South rose window, her favorite.

Victor Hugo (1884) by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon)The J. Paul Getty Museum

At the start of the 1800s, the cathedral was in terrible disrepair. During the French Revolution when the “Cult of Reason” replaced Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the edifice was looted and damaged. Many of its sculptures, associated with the despised monarchy, were deliberately destroyed. The writer Victor Hugo (1802–1885) played a critical role in its restoration with his iconic novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in the English edition), first published in Paris in 1831. The book sparked such enormous renewed interest in the cathedral that authorities were pressured to address its decrepit condition.

Notre-Dame de Paris 1482 (1900) by Victor HugoThe Getty Research Institute

Among the greatest French writers, Hugo gained international fame with Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables (1862). The plot of Notre-Dame de Paris takes place in 1482, with many scenes set in or just outside the cathedral. For the 1832 edition, Hugo added the chapters “Notre-Dame” and “Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” which praise the cathedral and medieval art while decrying the vandalism and indifference the building had endured. 

The Spire (1884) by After a Drawing by Eugene Viollet le DucThe Getty Research Institute

A decade after the publication of Hugo’s famous novel, the commission responsible for French historical monuments organized a competition for Notre-Dame and, in 1844, selected the architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus to oversee the huge restoration effort. After the death of his collaborator, Viollet-le-Duc completed the immense project on his own, finally finishing in 1864.

The spire that collapsed during the April 2019 fire counted among the masterpieces of Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879). This print is made after his 1857 drawing, with his signature visible at right.

Viollet-le-Duc based his recreation of the original spire dismantled in the late 1700s on old drawings, engravings, and experts’ statements. 

Built between 1858–59, his spire’s complex framing was made of oak from Champagne, in eastern France, and covered in lead.

Viollet-le-Duc’s design included copper figures of the twelve Apostles of Christ decorating the spire’s base; their sculptor, Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1816–1892), even represented Saint Thomas with the features of Viollet-le-Duc himself. Luckily, all twelve statues had been removed for conservation just days before the fire in April 2019. 

The stone creatures known as gargoyles were designed by Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus in the 1840s and ‘50s as part of the cathedral’s restoration. Most were intended to serve as drain pipes—the name is derived from the French term gargouille (“throat” or “mouth”)—although some, such as these ones (called chimera) sculpted by Victor Joseph Pyanet (1796–1759), were purely decorative.

Hugo evoked the medieval ones in his novel: “The griffins of stone, which keep watch day and night, with outstretched neck and open jaws, around the monstrous cathedral, were heard to bark and howl.”

Paris, Notre-Dame, Léopold Louis Mercier, 1880s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Gargoyle, Notre-Dame, Paris, France, Léopold Louis Mercier, 1880s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Viollet-le-Duc’s dictionary on French architecture, which embodies all his knowledge of medieval buildings, devoted eight pages to the gargoyle. He praised these drain pipes—found in profusion on monuments of the Middle Ages—as “masterpieces of sculpture. It is a complete world of animals and figures composed with much energy…(which) gives the building’s silhouettes a particular character.”

Above in the left photo, the spire and some of the Apostles statues are visible behind this gargoyle.

[Notre-Dame de Paris] (1850s) by Édouard BaldusThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus commissioned many gargoyles from the sculptor Pyanet, such as these, during their restoration campaign of the cathedral. Perched on the façade’s balustrade, gargoyles soon became inextricably linked to the image of Notre-Dame, playing major roles in the illustrated editions of Hugo’s novel and in film adaptations and cartoons.

The fire that ravaged the cathedral in 2019 destroyed the medieval trusses supporting the roof, toppling the famous spire and severely damaging the building. All the historic relics and works of art—including the celebrated rose windows—were saved by the rapid response of emergency workers and the cathedral’s staff, as well as experts charged with preservation of the art and architecture.

Currently, the West facade looks like this photograph taken just before Viollet-le-Duc erected his spire. A major restoration campaign is in progress to secure the building. Included on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites since 1991, Notre-Dame will hopefully return to its majestic beauty.

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© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2019 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral, July 23, 2019–October 20, 2019, at the Getty Center. 

For more on Notre-Dame, see the following resources:

A live broadcast with Curator Anne-Lise Desmas on Getty's Facebook
Notes From a 1930s School Trip to Notre-Dame de Paris on the Getty Iris
Notre-Dame’s Centuries of Survival, Captured on Art on the Getty Iris
Notre-Dame of Paris: Photographs and images from the Conway Library

To cite these texts, please use: "An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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