It is impossible to overlook Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris). Unlike other iconic landmarks scattered over Paris its rising spire and twin towers beckon visitors like a shining beacon.
But then, that was its intention when Notre Dame first began groundbreaking in 1163 A.D. (finishing completion in 1345). The Paris of that era was of course very different. Notre Dame stood by itself for many, many years.
During this time a tremendous number of religious relics had been discovered during the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries. While it seems a bit crass to say there was money to be made from those whose daily lives were filled with famine, plague and a low life expectancy. Often a peasants only hope in life was with God and His heaven. Church officials built churches upon known sacred sites, some recognized for their healing influence, and placed religious relics within the high altars and reliquaries (containers for relics). The grander the church and its relics the more pilgrims it would receive. A staggering number of Christians made pilgrimages during the late medieval period of the 12th to 15th centuries.
Notre Dames relics include the Crown of Thorns, a fragment from the true Cross and one of the Holy Nails.
To be able to see such a place of hope from a great distance gave encouragement to weary travelers who often spent months making their journey.
The twin towers rise approximately 223 feet into the sky. There are 387 steps in the South Tower.
Today of course those who visit Notre Dame have many other reasons for viewing this French Gothic architectural wonder. Advances in travel allow millions to enter through its large wooden doors (known as portals) each year.
The Red Door which is under the window of the third bay on the north side of the choir.
I can remember my first visit to Notre Dame as if it were yesterday, although it was close to 15 years ago. It was winter and the crowds with their accompanying long lines so prevalent in the summer months were not present. In my eagerness to see the glorious interior rose windows I bypassed the exterior as if it were just a simple shell. It was not until subsequent visits that I began to appreciate the true beauty present on the outside of this stunning building.
It is hard to believe that the gargoyles, whose main design was for water run off, were once painted in bright colors.
Upon study I found that the richness of the layers of carved limestone and plaster were completely and utterly unlike anything my eyes had ever beheld… once I chose to open them to all of its glory.
A portion of the 28 Kings of Judah is shown although soon after they quickly became representations of the kings of France.
The height of the cathedral is staggering and purposeful. The church is designed to make one feel small in the presence of God.
The height also encourages viewers to look up towards the heavens.
The South tower is home to the 15th century Emmanuel bell which was recast in 1681.
The spire is over 315 feet tall. The rooster at the uppermost top holds three relics to include part of the Crown of Thorns, one of Saint Denis’s (the first bishop of Paris) relics and one of Sainte Genevieve’s relics.
Here you can more clearly see the verdigris copper statues of the twelve apostles at the base of the spire.
Each design element has symbolism. The square represents created, limited space. The circle stands for the perfect shape without beginning or end, the image of God. Together with each sculpture biblical stories were told. This was necessary as the first pilgrims were illiterate. During the era of the pilgrimage mass amounts of people would wait outside until the time came to view the interior. (Some things never change.)
The North tower is home to four bells which were cast in 1856.
On the western façade there are three main entrances known as portals. On the left side (also referred to as the South side) is the trumeau known as the Portal of the Virgin built between 1210~1220. The canopy above Mary represents the Arc of the Covenant. On either side of the Arc (referred architecturally as the lower lintel) are three prophets on the left and three Old Testament kings on the right. The upper lintel shows Mary on her death bed surrounded by Jesus and the 12 Apostles. Two angels are at her head and feet. The top of the tympanum shows Mary in heaven seated on the same throne as Jesus.
The largest entrance is in the center. It is known as The Portal of the Last Judgment and was built between 1220~1230. The lower lintel shows the dead being resuscitated from their tombs. On the upper lintel the archangel Michael is weighing their souls according to the lives they led on earth and the love they showed to God and to men. The chosen people are led to the left towards Heaven (to Christ’s right) and the condemned are lead to the right, to hell, by a devil.
On the tympanum, Christ is seated on His throne. He is showing the wounds on his hands and his side while the two angels next to him bear the instruments of the Passion: the angel on the left holds the spear and the nails of the Cross and the angel on the right holds the Cross itself. Mary is to the right of Christ and John the Baptist to His left.
The door on the right side (also known as the North side) is The Portal of Saint Anne. The tympanum was installed around 1200. It had been made fifty years earlier for Saint Stephen’s cathedral which was torn down to make way for Notre Dame. On the left side of the trumeau left there is a king, the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and Saint Peter. To the right Saint Paul, King David, Bathsheba and another king.
The lower lintel features a frieze that tells the story of the marriage of Joachim and Anne and the marriage of Mary and Joseph. The upper lintel shows scenes from Christ’s arrival on earth, from the Annunciation to the Epiphany.
Above the lintel in the center is the Virgin with Child done in the Romanesque style. She is seated under a canopy, on a throne, bearing a crown and a scepter and holding her Son, who holds the Book of the Law. There is an angel on either side of Mary and on the left is the bishop of Paris and perhaps his treasurer. On the right is a king of France. The bishop could possibly be Saint Germain and the king might be Childebert if one goes by the historical timeline when this was created.
The rose window was created in 1225 and measures approximately 31 feet in diameter. When viewing the window straight on the center forms a halo for the Virgin and Child sculpture below it.
If you happen to be traveling with children and have to wait in a long line you can play games such as “Who can spot headless Saint Denis first?” For some reason boys in particular love this game.
Bonus points can be given for naming Emperor Constantine on the far left. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and was influential in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which decreed religious tolerance throughout the Roman empire.
Notre-Dame lies at the eastern end of the Île de la Cité (Island of the City) in the 4th arrondissement. It is open every day of the year from 8:00 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. (7:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). Entrance is free and it is best to arrive early if you wish to avoid the crowds. Towers tours are run separately and information can be found HERE. The address of the cathedral is 6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris, France.
A must read is Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris more commonly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” ~ Luke 1:38