Notre Dame de Paris

A Celebration of the Cathedral


By Kathy Borrus

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On April 15, 2019, the world looked on in horror as the Notre Dame Cathedral was nearly destroyed in a devastating fire. Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedraloffers a fascinating look back at nearly nine centuries of this landmark building that has stood as silent witness to some of the most important events in human history.

A marvel of Gothic architecture, the cornerstone of Notre Dame Cathedral was laid in 1163, and construction was completed in 1345. For almost nine centuries it has served as a house of worship and refuge-a stalwart soldier that has survived wars and revolutions, hosted royal weddings, coronations, and funerals, and inspired Victor Hugo’s literary classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With the cathedral wounded but still standing, the world now watches as the rebuilding process gets underway. Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedralchronicles the history of this landmark building, from its impressive architecture and collection of priceless artifacts to its presence during major world historical events. Through gorgeous, striking, and sometimes rarely seen archival photographs, Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedralreminds us all why this building has become an unofficial wonder of the world, lodged in the hearts and minds of people around the globe.


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An electrical short circuit most likely ignited the fire at Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019, the cause of which is still under investigation as of this writing. The surrounding dust and debris may have contributed to the rapidity with which the fire spread. Once sparked, it roared through the triangular lattice structure that framed the attic of the cathedral—a “forest” of dry oak beams from medieval times.

With no firewall or sprinkler system to halt them, the flames flashed across the attic, engulfed the roof, scaled the spire, and blazed into the early evening sky. As dense smoke swirled and intermingled with raging flames above, tears flowed on the streets below.

Shocked onlookers saw the roof crumble and the splendid 300-foot spire disintegrate into the thick night air while the conflagration continued to incinerate the interior. Working late into the night, firefighters wrestled for control of the inferno that consumed Our Lady, Notre Dame. As smoldering ash and flame billowed into the sky and water soaked the limestone exterior—quarried more than eight hundred years ago—emergency workers managed to salvage most of the structure. They formed a human chain to rescue much of the art and religious relics.

Among the objects saved were the Crown of Thorns and a thirteenth-century tunic worn by Saint Louis, former king of France. The devastation partially damaged the cathedral’s eighteenth-century pipe organ and definitively destroyed many priceless paintings and artifacts. The remains of Saint Denis, a Christian martyr who died circa 258 CE, and Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, that had been previously installed in the cathedral’s famous spire are now missing. A gilded cross still stands behind the pietà in the cathedral’s chancel; charred walls are the church’s only decoration.

Fortunately, human tragedy was averted and no lives were lost. When the first fire alarm sounded, though no fire was evident, the cathedral was evacuated and evening Mass cancelled. Twenty-three minutes later, Notre Dame was ablaze.

In the days that followed, distress and disbelief lingered. But as the clouds of dust and smoke dissipated into the spring air, President Emmanuel Macron declared, “We will rebuild.” Parisians would clear the debris and start over. Rebuilding and reconfiguring Notre Dame will not be a first. In fact, renovation had been underway when the fire started. Notre Dame’s history is one of construction and destruction, alteration and restoration, reconstruction and renewal. Its detailed architecture is as complex as its storied past.

Conceived in 1160 when Gothic architecture was the style du jour, Notre Dame is a testament to humanity’s artistic ingenuity, a landmark of spiritual majesty, and a striking lesson in architectural modifications made over the centuries. Many of Paris’s other famous churches, such as Saint-Sulpice, were also constructed over hundreds of years. Their mismatched proportions are the evidence. But Notre Dame has an elegance of transformative design that the others lack.

In 1345, almost two hundred years after it was conceived, the finished cathedral soared over the Île de la Cité in the midst of a medieval warren of narrow, twisted streets and crowded markets. From its origins in the twelfth century, Notre Dame grew to became a model of religious architecture and Gothic exuberance. Notable for the structural symmetry of its famed flying buttresses, Notre Dame, though massive, feels at once lofty and weightless as if prepared to ascend to the heavens.

The site of the building itself, straddling the middle of the river Seine on the Île de la Cité, is central to Parisian history. Celtic seaman (aka the Parisii, or “boat people”) in search of lucrative commerce settled on the island and both banks. Two hundred and fifty years later, in 53 BCE, Julius Caesar tamed the tribe of Parisii and took control, enlarging his empire. Under his direction, the Romans reconstructed the town, enclosed it with a wall, and built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the future Notre Dame Cathedral.

Centuries of conflict and combat ensued, as did foreign occupation. Change was constant. The region dealt with strife from the Franks, benevolence from Charlemagne, and sackings from the Vikings. Religion and politics mixed with trade and commerce, ruin and repair. Rulers came and went. The French monarchy developed along with Christianity. Hugh Capet, king of the Franks, ascended the throne and ruled from 987 to 996. In the early Middle Ages, around 1100, before there was an actual cathedral of Notre Dame, there were cathedral schools that promoted education, one of which was the cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris. One of its famous students was Pierre Abélard—one half of Héloïse and Abélard, the famous tragic lovers.

In 1139, the Knights Templar—Catholic military fighters—assumed religious control in Paris. From 1137 to 1180, King Louis VII ruled France and worked to create an alliance between his monarchy and the church, often supporting Pope Alexander III. A fan of French Gothic architecture, and desirous of a symbol worthy of his city, Louis VII largely financed the construction of Notre Dame.

In 1163, Bishop Maurice de Sully broke ground over Roman ruins where four previous churches had stood. The original designers and architects of Notre Dame are unknown, but the earliest workmen were stonemasons and craftsmen. From about 1250 to 1258, architect Jean de Chelles designed and built the cathedral’s northern transept and began the southern transept. Pierre de Montreuil added the rayonnant rose windows in the second half of the thirteenth century, and Pierre de Chelles and Jean Ravy put finishing touches on Notre Dame from 1296 to 1345, reworking the apse and choir, completing the lofty buttresses, and building the rood screen. At this point, almost two hundred years after conception, the main construction was complete, but additions and refinements continued throughout future generations. From 1699 to 1715, Robert de Cotte created the choir decoration. In 1728, Germain Boffrand rebuilt and restored the crossing vault. And still there was more to come.

Historic events conspired to keep Notre Dame central to the goings-on of Paris. Among the many early events that took place there, Raymond IV, count of Toulouse, repented before the altar in 1229 and was flogged for his sins after being defeated in an early religious crusade; in 1422, a funeral Mass was sung for the Beloved and Mad King Charles VI; and, in 1431, Henry VI was crowned a child king at the age of ten. During the French Wars of Religion, from 1562 to 1598, the Huguenots defiled the cathedral. In 1572, Henry IV, who converted to Catholicism, celebrated his marriage to Margaret of Valois on the grounds of Notre Dame.

The French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century desecrated much of the cathedral’s religious monuments and renamed the building the Temple de la Raison (“Temple of Reason”) to promote the universal religion of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” They tore down the original spire, melted all but one of the bells to make cannons, and turned the cathedral into a wine warehouse. They also decapitated the twenty-eight medieval statues representing the kings of Judah on the western façade, mistaking them for depictions of the kings of France. Later restored to its religiosity, Notre Dame held the coronation of Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte and the Empress Joséphine in 1804 with Pope Pius VII presiding.

In 1831, author Victor Hugo alerted the nation to the cathedral’s precarious condition. After years of neglect, the building had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. So stripped bare and dilapidated was Notre Dame that at one point it was actually offered for sale. With the publication of his novel, Notre Dame de Paris (commonly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Hugo initiated a restoration committee that included the poet Alfred de Vigny and the celebrated painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among others.

Architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus eventually won the restoration contract and oversaw the refurbishment of the cathedral, which began in 1841 and lasted for about twenty-five years. Because Lassus died in 1857, much of the supervision and credit fell to Viollet-le-Duc, who believed that simply maintaining the structure had little validity. Historical accuracy be damned. Instead, he aimed to craft a new existence for the cathedral with the spirit of the place intact. Among other enhancements, he replaced the previous spire destroyed by revolutionaries in the 1790s. Viollet-le-Duc’s general overhaul meant that many of Notre Dame’s “medieval” treasures—interior furnishings, gargoyles, and statues—were now reproductions and reinterpretations, creatively inspired by medieval drawings but fabricated or revamped in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Though the cathedral appears ancient from a certain perspective, Charles Hiatt noted in his 1902 Notre Dame de Paris: A Short History that “a closer inspection proves to us that the hands of modern men have been at work on it. Indeed, one writer goes so far as to regret that it has been scraped and patched without, and bedizened and bedaubed within.” Hiatt refers to Victor Hugo, who wrote that “if we examine one by one the traces of destruction imprinted on this ancient church, the work of time would be found to form the lesser portion—the worst destruction has been perpetrated by men—especially by men of art.”

From the twentieth century to the present, Notre Dame has managed to survive and thrive while going through its various enhancements, cleanings, and reinforcements, the work of “men of art” seeming to do more good than harm. In August 1944, Parisians celebrated liberation from Nazi occupation with a Mass held inside the cathedral despite damage from stray bullets fired in the preceding conflict. To commemorate eight hundred years of existence, in 1964, Cultural Minister André Malraux initiated an exterior cleaning of centuries of grime. In 1970, a requiem Mass was held for former president and leader of the French Resistance, Charles de Gaulle. The following year, to the thrill of the crowds, Philippe Petit performed a death-defying balancing act, tiptoeing between Notre Dame’s two bell towers on a razor-thin piece of wire. From 1965 to 1972, an ongoing archaeological excavation took place below the large public square in front of the church, eventually leading officials to begin work on an underground museum.

Waxing poetic, Victor Hugo—despite certain misgivings—described the church’s celebrated western façade: “Assuredly there are few finer pages of architecture than this façade, in which, successively and at once, the three receding pointed portals; the decorated and lacelike band of twenty-eight royal niches; the vast central rose windows flanked by the two lateral ones, like the priest by the deacon and sub-deacon; the lofty yet slender gallery of trefoiled arcading, which supports a heavy platform upon its light and delicate columns; and lastly the two dark and massive towers with their eaves of slate—harmonious parts of an entirely magnificent whole—rising one above another in five gigantic stories—unfolding themselves to the eye combined and unconfused, with innumerable details of statuary and sculpture which powerfully emphasise the grandeur of the ensemble: a vast symphony in stone, if one may say so—the colossal work of a man and of a nation.”


  • "[Notre Dame De Paris] has a little something for everyone whether you're a lover of art, architecture, cinematography, the literary world or history... This book makes the perfect gift for yourself or family and friends who have an appreciation for Notre Dame and the beautiful city of Paris."—The Avid Pen
  • "[Notre Dame de Paris] is well-researched and chronicles the various ages of the cathedral from its birth to modern times. [Kathy Borrus'] prose is aided by excellent images, including some rarely seen photographs."—Je t'aime, Me Neither

On Sale
Oct 29, 2019
Page Count
128 pages

Kathy Borrus, Author

Kathy Borrus

About the Author

Kathy Borrus is an author and freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She is the author of multiple books including Five Hundred Buildings of Paris and One Thousand Buildings of Paris. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Washington Flyer, Art Business News, Bethesda Magazine, and FranceGuide among others. Before becoming a writer, Kathy was a senior buyer and merchandise manager for the Smithsonian Institution Museum Stores and traveled the globe in search of crafts to buy and sources to develop.


Author photo credit: Theodore D. Robinson

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