It is believed that before the period of Christianity in France, a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood on the site of Notre-Dame. Evidence for this is the Pillar of the Boatmen, discovered in 1710. This building was replaced with an Early Christian basilica. It is unknown whether this church, dedicated to Saint Stephen, was constructed in the late 4th century and remodeled later, or if it was built in the 7th century from an older church, possibly the cathedral of Childebert I.[b] The basilica, later
cathedral, of Saint-Étienne was situated about 40 metres (130 ft) west of Notre-Dame's location and was wider and lower and roughly half its size. For its time, it was very large—70 metres (230 ft) long—and separated into nave and four aisles by marble columns, then decorated with mosaics.
Four churches succeeded the Roman temple before Notre-Dame. The first was the 4th century basilica of Saint-Étienne, then the Merovingian renovation of that church which was in turn remodeled in 857 under the Carolingians into a cathedral. The last church before the cathedral of Notre-Dame was a Romanesque remodeling of the prior structures that, although enlarged and remodeled, was found to be unfit for the growing population of Paris.[c] A baptistery,
the Church of John the Baptist , built before 452, was located on the north side of the church of Saint-Étienne until the work of Jacques-Germain Soufflot in the 18th century.
In 1160, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, decided to build a new and much larger church. He summarily demolished the Romanesque cathedral and chose to recycle its materials. Sully decided that the new church should be built in the Gothic style; two other Gothic cathedrals were already under construction at Sens and Senlis, and the Basilica of Saint Denis had been redone in the new style.
Jean de Saint-VictorMemorial Historiarum that the construction of Notre-Dame began between 24 March and 25 April 1163 with the laying of the cornerstone in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III. Four phases of construction took place under bishops Maurice de Sully and Eudes de Sully (not related to Maurice), according to masters whose names have been lost.
recorded in the
Cross-section of the double supporting arches and buttresses of the nave
, drawn by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
as they would have appeared from 1220 to 1230.
The first phase began with the construction of the choir and its two ambulatories. According to Robert of Torigni, the choir was completed in 1177 and the high altar consecrated on 19 May 1182 by Cardinal Henri de Château-Marçay, the Papal legate in Paris, and Maurice de Sully. The second phase, from 1182 to 1190, concerned the construction of the four sections of the nave behind the choir and its aisles to the height of the clerestories. It began after the completion of the choir but ended before the final allotted section of the nave was finished. Beginning in 1190, the bases of the façade were put in place, and the first traverses were completed. Heraclius of Caesarea called for the Third Crusade in 1185 from the still-incomplete cathedral.
The Crown of Thorns was placed in the cathedral in 1231 by King Louis IX, during the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle.
The decision was made to add a transepts at the choir, where the altar was located, in order to bring more light into the center of the church. The use of simpler four-part rather than six-part rib vaults meant that the roofs were stronger and could be higher. After Bishop Maurice de Sully's death in 1196, his successor, Eudes de Sully oversaw the completion of the transepts, and continued work on the nave, which was nearing completion at the time of his own death in 1208. By this time, the western façade was already largely built, though it was not completed until around the mid-1240s. Between 1225 and 1250 the upper gallery of the nave was constructed, along with the two towers on the west façade.
Another significant change came in the mid-13th century, when the transepts were remodeled in the latest Rayonnant style; in the late 1240s Jean de Chelles added a gabled portal to the north transept topped off by a spectacular rose window. Shortly afterward (from 1258) Pierre de Montreuil executed a similar scheme on the southern transept. Both these transept portals were richly embellished with sculpture; the south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and of various local saints, while the north portal featured the infancy of Christ and the story of Theophilus in the tympanum, with a highly influential statue of the Virgin and Child in the trumeau. Master builders Pierre de Chelles,
Jean Ravy , Jean le Bouteiller, and
Raymond du Temple succeeded de Chelles and de Montreuil and then each other in the construction of the cathedral. Ravy completed de Chelles's rood screen and chevet chapels, then began the 15-metre (49 ft) flying buttresses of the choir. Jean le Bouteiller, Ravy's nephew, succeeded him in 1344 and was himself replaced on his death in 1363 by his deputy, Raymond du Temple.
Philip the Fair opened the first Estates General in the cathedral in 1302.
An important innovation in the 13th century was the introduction of the flying buttress. Before the buttresses, all of the weight of the roof pressed outward and down to the walls, and the abutments supporting them. With the flying buttress, the weight was carried by the ribs of the vault entirely outside the structure to a series of counter-supports, which were topped with stone pinnacles which gave them greater weight. The buttresses meant that the walls could be higher and thinner, and could have much larger windows. The date of the first buttresses is not known with any great precision beyond an installation date in the 13th century. Art historian Andrew Tallon, however, has argued based on detailed laser scans of the entire structure that the buttresses were part of the original design. According to Tallon, the scans indicate that "the upper part of the building has not moved one smidgen in 800 years," whereas if they were added later some movement from prior to their addition would be expected. Tallon thus concluded that "flying buttresses were there from the get-go." The first buttresses were replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th century; these had a reach of fifteen meters between the walls and counter-supports.
Early six-part rib vaults of the nave. The ribs transferred the thrust of the weight of the roof downward and outwards to the pillars and the supporting buttresses.
The massive buttresses which counter the outward thrust from the rib vaults of the nave.
Later flying buttresses of the apse of Notre-Dame (14th century) reached 15 meters from the wall to the counter-supports.
John of Jandun recognized the cathedral as one of Paris's three most important buildings [prominent structures] in his 1323 Treatise on the Praises of Paris:
That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe, however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such multiple varieties of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circles, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact, I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.
— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius
On 16 December 1431, the boy-king Henry VI of England was crowned King of France in Notre-Dame, aged ten, the traditional coronation church of Reims Cathedral being under French control.
During the Renaissance, the Gothic style fell out of style, and the internal pillars and walls of Notre-Dame were covered with tapestries.
In 1548, rioting Huguenots damaged some of the statues of Notre-Dame, considering them idolatrous.
The fountainparvise was added in 1625 to provide nearby Parisians with running water.
King Louis XIV, on the insistence of his father, Louis XIII, decided in 1699 to make extensive modifications to Notre-Dame. He tasked Robert de Cotte with the renovation. Cotte replaced the rood screen with a sumptuous and gilded wrought iron fence, opened up the choir and ambulatory, and removed the tombs in the nave. New furniture was produced as well as the current high altar, depicting Louis XIV and XIII kneeling before a Pietà. In 1709, canon Antoine de La Porte commissioned for Louis XIV six paintings depicting the life of the Virgin Mary for the choir. At this same time, Charles de La Fosse painted his Adoration of the Magi, now in the Louvre. Louis Antoine de Noailles, Archbishop of Paris, extensively modified the roof of Notre-Dame in 1726, renovating its framing and removing the gargoyles with lead gutters. Noailles also strengthened the buttresses, galleries, terraces, and vaults. In 1756, the cathedral's canons decided that its interior was too dark. The medieval stained glass windows, except the rosettes, were removed and replaced with plain, white glass panes.
The cathedral was rededicated in 1793 to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. During this time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The twenty-eight statues of biblical kings located at the west façade, mistaken for statues of French kings, were beheaded. Many of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby, and are on display at the Musée de Cluny. For a time the Goddess of Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral's great bells escaped being melted down. All of the other large statues on the façade, with the exception of the statue of the Virgin Mary on the portal of the cloister, were destroyed. The cathedral came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food and other non-religious purposes.
The Cathedral at the beginning of the restoration work, photo from 1847 by Hippolyte Bayard
In July 1801, the new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, signed an agreement to restore the cathedral to the Church. It was formally transferred on 18 April 1802. On 2 December 1804 Napoleon and his wife Joséphine, with Pope Pius VII officiating, were crowned Emperor and Empress of France. The cathedral was also the site of Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.
The cathedral was functioning in the early 19th century, but was half-ruined inside and battered throughout. In 1831, the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had an enormous success, and brought the cathedral new attention. In 1844 King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored. The commission for the restoration was won by two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was then just 31 years old. They supervised a large team of sculptors, glass makers and other craftsmen who remade, working from drawings or engravings, the original decoration, or, if they did not have a model, adding new elements they felt were in the spirit of the original style. They made a taller and more ornate reconstruction of the original spire (including a statue of Saint Thomas that resembles Viollet-le-Duc), as well as adding the sculpture of mythical creatures on the Galerie des Chimères. The restoration took twenty five years.
French road system's Point Zéro
spot on the ground in front of the Notre Dame (since 1924).
During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the cathedral suffered some minor damage from stray bullets. Some of the medieval glass was damaged, and was replaced by glass with modern abstract designs. On 26 August, a special mass was held in the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris from the Germans; it was attended by General Charles De Gaulle and General Philippe Leclerc.
In 1963, on the initiative of culture minister André Malraux and to mark the 800th anniversary of the Cathedral, the façade was cleaned of the centuries of soot and grime, restoring it to its original off-white color.
Artwork, relics, and other antiques stored at the cathedral include the supposed crown of thorns which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion and a piece of the cross on which he was crucified, a 13th-century organ, stained-glass windows, and bronze statues of the 12 apostles.
East façade of Notre-Dame in the 1860s.
The stone masonry of the cathedral's exterior had deteriorated in the 19th and 20th century due to increased air pollution in Paris, which accelerated erosion of decorations and discolored the stone. By the late 1980s, several gargoyles and turrets had also fallen off or become too loose to remain in place. A decade-long renovation program began in 1991 and replaced much of the exterior, with care given to retain the authentic architectural elements of the cathedral, including rigorous inspection of new limestone blocks. A discreet system of electrical wires, not visible from below, was also installed on the roof to deter pigeons. The cathedral's pipe organ was upgraded with a computerized system to control the mechanical connections to the pipes. The west face was cleaned and restored in time for millennium celebrations in December 1999.
Medievalist Claude Gauvard claimed that not enough money had been spent on maintenance, saying: "The ongoing works finally got started – and it was high time, and perhaps even a little late. I went up to the foot of the spire (before the renovations began) and some of the brickwork was disjointed, held in place by a grate to prevent it falling."
The set of four 19th-century bells atop the northern towers at Notre-Dame were melted down and recast into new bronze bells in 2013, to celebrate the building's 850th anniversary. They were designed to recreate the sound of the cathedral's original bells from the 17th century. Despite the 1990s renovation, the cathedral had continued to show signs of deterioration that prompted the national government to propose a new renovation program in the late 2010s. The entire renovation was estimated to cost 100 million euros, which the Archbishop of Paris planned to raise through funds from the national government and private donations. A €6 million renovation of the cathedral's spire began in late 2018 and continued into the following year, requiring the temporary removal of copper statues on the roof and other decorative elements days before the April 2019 fire.
The 2019 fire nearly led to the cathedral's collapse; the cathedral was saved, albeit with major damage
On 15 April 2019 the cathedral caught fire, causing the collapse of the spire and the oak frame and lead roof. The extent of the damage was initially unknown, as was the cause of the fire, though it was speculated that it was linked to ongoing renovation work. According to French authorities, the cathedral barely escaped complete destruction, having been only "15 to 30 minutes" away from structural damage so severe it would likely have caused the building's collapse.
Firefighters were able to save the façade, towers, walls, buttresses, and stained glass windows. The Great Organ, which has over 8,000 pipes and built by Francois Thierry in the 18th century was also saved but sustained water damage. Because of the ongoing renovation, the copper statues on the spire had been removed before the fire. The stone vaulting that forms the ceiling of the cathedral had several holes but was otherwise intact.
Since 1905, France's cathedrals (including Notre-Dame) have been owned by the state, which is self-insured. Some costs might be recovered through insurance coverage if the fire is found to have been caused by contractors working on the site. The French insurer AXA provided insurance coverage for two of the contracting firms working on Notre-Dame’s restoration before the blaze which devastated the cathedral. AXA also provided insurance coverage for some of the relics and artworks in the cathedral.
President Emmanuel Macron said approximately 500 firefighters helped to battle the fire. One firefighter was seriously injured and two police officers were hurt during the blaze.
Macron vowed that Notre-Dame would be restored, and called for the work to be completed within five years. An international architectural competition will also be launched to redesign the roof and spire.