This story was originally published in 2018 and updated by Mental Floss employees in 2019.
Notre-Dame de Paris was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and has built centuries of French history into the stone. The gothic cathedral reflects the outstanding role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminiscent of the long association with the monarchy – a connection that almost brought to an end. Thousands of tourists enter the doors every day to photograph the rosette windows and flying struts.
On April 15, 2019, a fire broke out in the cathedral surrounding the iconic spire and much of the roof. The tower has collapsed and the firemen are still working to contain the flames. It is unclear what triggered the fire, although it may be related to ongoing renovations. (Live updates from CNN can be found here.)
As we appreciate the historic Parisian structure, here are 1
. 1 Under the cathedral is a pagan city.
The Île-de-la-Cité, on which Notre-Dame de Paris is located, was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The Cathedral may have been built directly over the remains of a temple: around 1710, during an excavation under the choir, pieces of a carved altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered (though it is still unclear whether this is an ancient temple) or if the pieces were recycled there from another place). Other architectural ruins from the 60s and 70s, many dating back to that time, are located in the archaeological crypt below the square just before Notre-Dame.
. 2 There are some recycled architecture on its facade.
On the west facade of Notre-Dame are three portals, all of which are laden with statues of saints and holy scenes. However, it does not seem to fit – the Sainte-Anne portal has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central maiden and the child, look stiffer and less natural than the other statues. This is because this tympanum or semicircular decoration surface was recycled from an earlier Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 showed that it was not originally created for this room and was adapted to the Gothic structure.
. 3 There is a "forest" in his roof.
The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-and-timber frames in Paris, involving about 52 hectares of trees felled in the 12th century. Each bar consists of a single tree. For this reason, the lattice of historical woodwork is called "forest".
. 4 His flying buttresses were Gothic trendsetters.
The cathedral was one of the first buildings built with external buttresses. They were built around the nave in the 12th century to support the thin walls, after the incredibly tall church needed more light and larger windows and larger supports were needed. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and though there is some debate as to whether Notre-Dame was the first church she had, they certainly determined the trend in sacred architecture.
. 5 Twenty-eight of their kings lost their heads in the French Revolution.
In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings were torn down in the cathedral with ropes and beheaded by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was attacked.) The mutilated stones were finally thrown into a pile of rubbish that the Home Secretary dealt with by ordering the material to reuse for the construction. Only in 1977 were the heads of 21 of these kings rediscovered while working in the basement of the French Foreign Trade Bank. Now they are in the nearby Musée de Cluny.
. 6 The towers are not twins.
At first glance, the two towers of Notre-Dame seem like identical twins. A closer examination shows that the North Tower is actually slightly larger than the South. As with all elements of the cathedral, they were built over time and reflect that the cathedral is more a collage of architectural trends and guides than the culmination of a person's vision.
. 7 His bells were once melted down for artillery.
The kings were not the only part of Notre-Dame that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Like other churches in France in the late eighteenth century, the cathedral was converted from a Christian space and rededicated to the new cult of reason. All 20 bells – with the exception of the colossal Bourdon of 1681 – Emmanuel were removed and melted into cannons.
While the bells of Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as refined as the older versions and made an unpleasant noise in the clink. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells returned the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still in attendance on special occasions.
. 8 Napoléon and Victor Hugo rescued it.
When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to organize his 1804 Coronation as Emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in poor condition. Centuries of decay, as the city developed and changed around them, and the vandalism of the French Revolution had left them in abeyance. For years it was little more than a warehouse. When Napoléon declared his return to the Church and held his great ceremony in its walls – an event in which he was known to have crowned himself – Notre-Dame was elevated to a new prominence.
However, the coronation failed to fix the structure's deterioration. The author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris . (The name of the book is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame but the humpbacked hunchback Quasimodo is not the main character, the main character is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly called out the ruined 19th century state :
"But as noble as it is, as it grows old, one can not repent, can understand the countless demolitions and mutilations that arise in the venerable heap, both through time and through the hand of man, feel as indignant as Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, one scar is always found next to each fold. " Tempus edax, Homo edacior ", which I would like to translate: "Time is blind, but man is meaningless."
The book was a success and the momentum led to a major restoration under the supervision of the architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
. 9 His monsters are modern and not medieval.
Some of Notre-Dame's most popular images come from the perspective of their gargoyles or chimeras (the carved monsters that do not serve as faucets). Few visitors suspect that the fantastic creatures that are now on the cathedral were not there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the Radical Restoration supervised by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.
Hugo had described extensively gargoyles in Notre-Dame de Paris and Viollet-le-Duc, reports reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building that is stronger than what we know today, with no animals on its towers. The medieval gargoyles have long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the gargoyles from the 19th century expire. PVC pipes have replaced those that were demolished for safety.
The gargoyles were anything but the only imaginative addition to the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the twelve apostles he had installed around the new tower, he included himself as the face of St. Thomas.
10th His tower was a holy lightning rod.
If you look at a photograph of the cathedral in front of the fire, you spy on a rooster on the tower (which unfortunately seems to have collapsed during the fire). This rooster was not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics – an alleged piece of the crown of thorns and some pieces of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (patron saint of the city) – were secured in the metal bird's body. The idea, according to the story, was to create a kind of spiritual lightning rod to protect the church members in it.
. 11 The organ is considered the largest in France.
The Notre Dame organ is made up of nearly 8,000 pipes (some from the 18th century) played with five keys, making it the largest pipe organ in France (though some say this is the case). Saint -Eastache has a bigger one). Although there are some slashes on the wood of the organofar – damage caused by the French Revolution when its symbols of lilies were cut off – it was restored in 2013 for the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.
12th All roads lead to Notre-Dame de Paris.
Most overlooked among the tourist crowds that run around Notre-Dame is a small circular marker with a cobbled eight-pointed bronze star. It is engraved with the words Point zéro the route de France and is the point from which distances from Paris to other cities in France are measured. It was erected there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily removed in the 1960s during the excavations for an underground garage designed as an underground car park. These blueprints were thwarted when workers unearthed architectural ruins – now kept in the archaeological crypt.
. 13 Bees live on its roof.
A small beehive stands on the sacristy Notre-Dame adjoining the cathedral. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast Bees, a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam known for its gentleness, living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in the surrounding gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. After The New York Times the sweet stuff is given to the poor.