10 facts about Notre-Dame Cathedral
UPDATE: our guestbook for Notre Dame
On April 15, 2019 the spire and the oak room collapsed after a spectacular fire that destroyed a large part of Notre Dame. This catastrophic fire burned for several hours and it took more than 400 firemen to contain the blaze. A very sad day for France.
However, Notre Dame is not dead and a plan to renovate our national symbol has already been announced by the French government. Only two days after this tragic event, more than €800 million were already raised to rebuild the Church.
Its beginnings took place more than 850 years ago, in the heart of a much smaller Paris. Towering at a height of 69 meters (226 feet), the Notre-Dame Cathedral – fully called Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) in French – remains today one of the most important landmarks of the French Capital.
If millions of visitors walk through its portals every year, only a few take the time to care about the details.
Here are ten interesting facts about this religious and architectural masterpiece in Paris.
1. The Cathedral is the most visited monument in Paris
France is the most visited country in the world. Surprisingly enough, its most visited monument is not the Eiffel Tower.
If Disneyland Paris is the number one tourist destination in France, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is the most visited monument within the Paris city limits.
More than 13 million visitors pass through the grand gate of Notre-Dame every year. This means the Cathedral welcomes around 35 thousand visitors a day! In France, 99% of towns have a smaller population than this!
If you wish to avoid the crowds, I recommend you arrive early at Notre-Dame. The gates open at 7:45AM but most visitors arrive a bit later, so take advantage of the early hours to visit the grandiose monument without thousands of people around.
2. The Cathedral is built on a sacred location
Notre-Dame de Paris is built on the Île de la Cité (City Island) in the very center of Paris. It is quite hard to imagine the Île de la Cité without the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Standing here since the 12th century, the Gothic masterpiece seems to have been here forever.
However, the Île de la Cité was here long before the Cathedral. After the Gauls were defeated by the Romans in the Battle of Lutetia (52 BC), the new Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia settled and developed on the Left-Bank and on the Île de la Cité. The common and popular neighborhoods were located on the Left-Bank along current Rue Saint-Jacques.
Since the origins, the Île de la Cité was divided in two parts: the westernmost half was dedicated to the matters of the City and was home to the Palace were the rulers could reside during their visits in Lutetia; the easternmost half, on the other hand, was dedicated to worship and hosted several altars (at least, if not temples – this remains unclear). This island division, with one half dedicated to justice and ruling and the other one dedicated to religion – survived through times. During the Middle-Ages, the Roman Palace was replaced by the Royal Palace – which later became the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie – and the altars were replaced by successive catholic churches.
Notre-Dame was later built on the remains of these churches.
3. The Cathedral is a measurement reference : the overlooked “Point Zéro”
If you already stood in line in front of Notre-Dame, chances are you looked at the sculpted façade, or towards the Seine riverbanks… but you probably didn’t look down to the ground very much, did you?… Well, if you didn’t, this was a mistake, because you missed an important detail: the official reference point representing Paris.
Indeed, on the square in front of the church, a much overlook tiny plate, engraved with a compass, and known as “point zéro des routes de France” (Point Zero of French Roads), indicates where all distances to and from Paris are measured from.
4. The Cathedral’s bells have had a life of their own
Like often with churches, the bells of Notre-Dame bear names. In Notre-Dame, they are called Marie, Emmanuel, Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice, and Jean-Marie, for the main ones.
But what is more interesting is the tumultuous lives of these bells. If Quasimodo, the famous hunchback created by Victor Hugo to ring the bells of the great Cathedral was an invention, the two-to-three ton pieces of bronze have had a life on their own. The bells we now hear are no longer the ones installed upon completion of the Cathedral, six-hundred years ago.
Indeed, after the French Revolution, in 1791, most bells were taken down from Notre-Dame and melted to make cannon balls. New bells were only installed during the mid-19th century and contributed to a recognizable chime which sounded in the skies of the French Capital for 150 years. In 2013, to celebrate the 850th anniversary of Notre-Dame, the bells were replaced in a much mediatized ceremony and the chimes renewed.
5. The Cathedral’s chimeras are not so-Medieval
A typical element of Gothic art, chimeras and gargoyles are well represented on the walls of Notre-Dame. Gargoyles are hollow statues located at strategic locations to ensure water drainage. Chimeras are purely decorative.
On the towers of Notre-Dame, famous chimeras allow tourists to take well known perspective pictures with the tower chimeras in the foreground and Paris in the background.
People often think that these chimeras are representative of the medieval style of the Cathedral. However, the decorative chimeras of the towers panorama are not medieval at all!
First of all, almost the entirety of gargoyles of the Cathedral have been replaced since de Middle-Ages : indeed, gargoyles in particular, due to their function, are not designed to last long. Most have to be replaced every century or 150 years.
Most chimeras have also been replaced. The most famous ones, in the Galerie des Chimères on the towers have simply been added during the renovations performed by Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century.
6. The Cathedral was saved by Quasimodo
After the French Revolution, Notre-Dame de Paris was much damaged. Some statues had been destroyed and the bells had mostly been melted.
It entered the 19th century in a much degraded state, and almost fell into oblivion, being used as a storage place instead of a religious one. In 1804, however, Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of the French in the Cathedral, propelling it back onto the front pages.
In 1831, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, set in mid-15th century Paris with Notre-Dame de Paris as its central location, brought an unprecedented fame to the long-forgotten church. Popular outcries to preserve it, and ministerial programs to preserve it lead to massive renovations directed by Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century, thus saving this jewel of Gothic art.
7. The Cathedral is home to a Forest
Notre-Dame de Paris measures 127 meters (length) by 48 meters (width) and the main nave is 43 meter-high under the roof.
With such dimensions, it may come as surprising that the roof structure is entirely made of wood, dating back from the 12th century. The wood-timber frame is made of more than 1300 trees, each beam being made from one tree.
The roof structure is commonly nicknamed “the Forest” due to its massive dimensions!
8. The Cathedral was a place of beheading
Not a real beheading though. During the Revolution, the people was so disgusted by monarchy that they even started to take down every symbol of royalty on the streets of Paris.
On the main façade of Notre-Dame, the revolutionaries took off the heads of twenty eight statues in a gallery, thinking they were statues of French kings. However, they were mistaken, for these statues were actually representations of the kings of Judah.
The statues are still missing their heads, but twenty-one of them have been found and can be observed in the Musée du Moyen-Âge de Cluny (Middle-Ages Museum of Cluny) on the Left-Bank.
9. The Cathedral follows the Golden Ratio
In architecture, the golden ratio is visible in any shape composed by a square and a rectangle whose combined dimensions roughly correspond to a 1:1.61 ratio. This ratio is known to be a dimension of perfection in art. In architecture, some of the most appreciated and acclaimed buildings follow this ratio, such as the Parthenon in Athens, or the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The western façade of Notre-Dame is clearly composed according to this ratio. The height of the cathedral divided by its width roughly equals to 1.61, the total height is roughly 1.61 times the height of the first two floors, the total width(central section + two towers) is roughly 1.61 the width of one tower plus the central section…
Many other decorative details follow the golden ratio.
10. The Cathedral is home to the Holy Crown
At last, Notre-Dame is home to a priceless treasure among which are the Holy Crown worn by the Christ, a piece of the Cross, and a nail. If the rest of the treasure can be admired year round, you may see the Holy Relics every first Friday of the month during the dedicated worship ceremonies, as well as for Lent and Good Fridays.
Guestbook: share your memories with us
After the terrible blaze that devastated Notre Dame, we’ve decided to open a guestbook for everyone to comemorate Notre Dame.
Here you can share your thoughts about Notre-Dame cathedral. If you have a picture, we will be pleased to publish it.
Read our guestbook
In August 2018, I had the privilege of seeing this masterpiece firsthand with my daughter by my side. Notre Dame was a sight of wonder and will always be special to me as a Catholic. I support the people of Paris and pray that one day the Church will be able to stand tall again.
Thank you for these wonderful facts about this beautiful masterpiece. They are especially important now, following the fire. Loved just sitting near the church watching people come and go
What does it mean to me, a holy place a masterpiece of gothic Architecture that was built to honor our blessed Virgin Mary . A place for all Christians to worship.
Our home away from home!
We live right down the street of Notre Dame on the Island and saw this devastating event take place! We walk by it every day!
Our hearts may be heavy but our minds are resolut to make good from something sad! I took this photo exactly one week prior to the fire! We have 10 more months of a total of 23 months here in Paris!
My most precious memory.
One grey July morning in 2013, I was staying in an apartment opposite Notre Dame. I had awoken earlier than usual that morning and stood at the window and stared at the beautiful Cathedral and the deserted square in front. Without thinking, I dressed quickly and left the apartment, and my sleeping husband, and crossed the bridge. I stood and looked up at the Cathedral and then I saw a man by the side door and walked over to him. Struggling with my pitiful French, I asked him if it would be possible to go inside, although I knew the Cathedral was closed to the public at that hour (7:10am). He opened his arms wide, smiled and told me I was very welcome!
I stepped inside that hushed, stunning Cathedral, devoid of people, and stood transfixed. The beauty, the peace, the magnificence of that hallowed building just overwhelmed me. I tiptoed around, afraid to make any noise (I don’t know why) and craned my neck upwards to admire the windows, the ceiling, the columns; somehow I felt this huge stone building was embracing my very soul. I sat on a chair beside one of the stone columns, unaware of how the time was passing and suddenly realized I was not alone any more; other people were walking quietly into the Cathedral to attend Mass. I did not move. The Priest, who must have been there all the time unbeknownst to me, began the Mass and I closed my eyes and listened to the muffled voices chanting the responses . Finally, I arose and crept out as silently as I could. Outside, blinking in the unaccustomed daylight, I saw that a line of tourists had formed.
My precious moment of solitude was over and I walked slowly and thoughtfully back to the apartment my heart soaring .
I will never forget the morning when I was alone inside that beautiful Cathedral and was overcome by peace, awe, and … sheer happiness.
French student recalls visit
I am a French teacher here in the U.S. and many years ago I brought a group of students to France. One of those students just messaged me to tell me how grateful she was to have seen Notre Dame back then, because of the fire. I hope they can rebuild it and am grateful that it did not completely burn to the ground.
That celestial ship
With no roof and no spire, Notre Dame is now an earthly object, tied down to the ground. And the flying buttresses no longer serve as the knots that keep the celestial ship from floating back to heaven.
The destructions caused by the fire make us see what makes Notre Dame so super-natural.
Let a roof and a spire and the effect-creating disciples return quickly please.
Notre Dame Fire
I think it is sad that it caught on fire. Many people say that it is just a building. However, it is a place where people worship. It is also history made over 850 years ago. I am glad it did not burn down.