Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Notre-Dame Cathedral

Image: Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

Notre-Dame de Paris, also known as Notre-Dame Cathedral, is a Gothic, Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité (City Island). Notre-Dame is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe. The name Notre-Dame means "Our Lady" in French, and is frequently used in the names of Catholic church buildings in French speaking countries.

During my nine day stay in Paris, I went to Notre-Dame Cathedral on four occasions, not because I’m Catholic, and not because I am religious in the usual sense of the word, but because I am fascinated by the design and construction of large structures that in many ways excite my imagination and sense of wonder. And Notre-Dame Cathedral certainly does that, as did the Eiffel Tower.

Construction of Notre-Dame began in 1163, during the reign of Louis VII, under the guidance of Bishop Maurice de Sully, then Bishop of Paris. The cathedral was effectively complete by around 1345 – meaning construction continued for a period of almost 200 years.

Two hundred years! I can’t even imagine a construction project lasting that length of time, and can’t help wondering how many stonemasons, carpenters, architects, designers and other people might have spent their whole working lives engaged in the construction of Notre-Dame.

Image: Choir members take a bow following a Cathedral recital

The position of "head" or "chief" organist at Notre-Dame is considered one of the most prestigious organist posts in France. I don’t know if the current chief organist was at the pedal board during one of my visits to the cathedral but the organs 7,800 pipes (900 of which are classified as historical), were pumping out a sound guaranteed to bring down the walls of any modern Jericho if need be.

Organ recitals are held on a regular basis at Notre-Dame, and I imagine they are well attended. A detailed program of events can be found on the official website for the cathedral, so if you are planning a visit, check the site to see if you can fit in a concert performance of any type. The organ is also used during Mass, so if your visit coincides with one of the numerous services taking place at the cathedral, you may have an opportunity to hear the organ in full ‘voice’ then as well.

Image: Exterior side view of Notre-Dame Cathedral

The cathedral was not as I imagined it to be. From the outside it doesn’t look all that large or dare I say it, spectacular, but once inside it is clear just how high the roof rises above the floor. One can only marvel at the workmanship that went into building Notre-Dame Cathedral, and shake their head in awe at the challenges the builders and designers must have faced during the construction phase.

Notre-Dame de Paris was one of the first Gothic cathedrals, and it was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress (arched exterior supports). The building was not originally designed to include the flying buttresses around the choir and nave, but after construction began and the thinner walls (popularized in the Gothic style) grew ever higher, stress fractures began to occur as the walls pushed outward. In response, the cathedral's architects built supports around the outside walls, and later additions continued the pattern. [Source: Wikipedia… ]

Image: Intricate stone columns helping to support Notre-Dame’s roof

As you might imagine, many historic events have taken place under the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral over the course of almost 800 years, including the crowning of Henry VI of England as King of France (1431); the marriage’s of James V of Scotland to Madeleine of France (1537): and the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots to the Dauphin François in 1558 (later François II of France); and the coronation ceremony of Napoléon I and his wife Joséphine, on 2 December 1804.

The Coronation was the subject of the monumental painting by Jacques-Louis David (1807), now hanging in the Louvre Museum, Paris. A painting I saw (along with several other massive Jacques-Louis David paintings),during my visit to the Louvre.

Image: The Coronation of Napoléon I, now hanging in the Louvre, Paris

One more interesting historical moment of note occurred in 1239, when The Crown of Thorns that was said to have been worn by Jesus, was placed in the cathedral where it is obviously one of Notre-Dame’s most treasured historical artifacts.

Unfortunately, The Crown of Thorns is not on display in The Treasury, a section of the cathedral displaying numerous historical objects and artifacts from the cathedral’s long history. A fee of three euros applies for visitors wanting to enter the Treasury, and while the collection is not exactly awe inspiring, it does give visitors something else to see and do during their visit to the cathedral, apart from just wandering through the main building.

An additional fee of eight euros will get you into the bell tower, where good views of Paris may be had, although to be honest, I didn’t bother joining the long line waiting to climb the several hundred steps required to complete that journey.

Image: Interior view of Notre-Dame Cathedral

Catholic Church First – Tourist Attraction Second

Non-Catholics who visit the Cathedral should at all times remember that Notre-Dame de Paris is a working Catholic church first and foremost, and a tourist attraction second. Therefore, your visit is likely to coincide with one of the numerous daily services that take place Monday to Saturday, and especially during one of at least seven services taking place every Sunday.

Remember too, that even if no Mass is taking place, members of the Catholic church will almost certainly be attending confession during your visit, or trying to spend time in quiet reflection, prayer, meditation or some other aspect of the Catholic faith. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that your visit should be as quiet and as unobtrusive as possible – which may seem like an all but impossible request given the hundreds of visitors passing through the Cathedral’s doors every hour.

Image: Parishioner deep in contemplation at Notre-Dame Cathedral

Because Notre-Dame de Paris is a working church, entry to the building is free, although as noted, there are fees for visiting the Treasury (three euros) and for climbing the bell tower (eight euros). However, I would encourage visitors to make a donation at one of the numerous collection points placed throughout the cathedral to help maintain this magnificent building. I’m sure your donation will be greatly appreciated.

I enjoyed each of my four visits to the cathedral, especially when they coincided with one of the daily services. It was during these visits that I had an opportunity to hear the massive organ, as well as to enjoy the singing of the choir and soloists during Mass. A truly sublime sound, whether or not you are of the Catholic faith, another religion, or even of no religious persuasion.

You can see more of my Notre-Dame Cathedral images here at my Flickr page…

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