Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris” in French, is geographically located in the center of Paris (Île de la Cité), on one of the two islands on Seine, where the medieval city was founded upon. Spiritually, it’s also the heart of Paris and France. Right in front of the cathedral, there is a bronze plaque on the ground – Point Zero, symbolized the distance to all other parts of the country are calculated from this spot.
This Gophic styled Catholic cathedral was founded in 12th century by the bishop of Paris at that time, completed almost 200 years later, became an inseparable part in the histories of Paris. Many soldiers gave their prayers here before going into the fights for the Crusades. In 1431, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself here as the Emperor of France. In early 20th century, Joan of Arc was beautified (blessed) and canonized (declared to be saint) in the cathedral. In 1970, it held the Requiem Mass of General Charles de Gaulle.
Notre-Dame is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and even in Europe. It was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress (arched exterior supports, on north, east and south side of the cathedral, see picture on the right). After the construction began and the thinner walls 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.
At the front of the cathedral, there are three entrances. On the left, the Portal of the Virgin expresses the faith and hope of those who are baptized. It portrays the prophets who announced Virgin Mary’s glorious destiny and the kings from whom she descended. Right above the doors are the three prophets (left) and the three Old Testament kings (right). They are holding phylacteries showing that God’s promise has been fulfilled, Jesus has come to save humanity. At a bit higher, Virgin Mary is depicted in her final slumber. While she was sleeping, in the presence of Christ and the apostles, she was lifted up to heaven by an angel at her head and another at her feet. At the top, an angel is crowning Mary while Christ, seated on the same throne as His mother, gives her a scepter. She is made Queen of Heaven. On the left of the entrance, there are Emperor Constantine, an angel, Saint Denis holding his head, and another angel. Saint Denis was the first bishop of Paris. He was decapitated in 250. As a reminder of his martyrdom, Saint Denis is depicted holding his head in his hands, showing that death was no end for him. On the other side of entrance, there are Saint John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, Saint Genevieve and Pope Saint Sylvester. Saint Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris, who holds a candle that a small demon is trying to blow out.
The center entrance is called the Portal of the Last Judgment. At the top, Christ is seated majestically on His throne of glory, reminding us that he came to earth to save humankind through his sacrifice on the Cross. 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 is holding the spear and the nails of the Cross, and the angel on the right is holding the Cross itself. Through this gesture, Jesus is asking us to trust Him and is showing us that everything is possible for us with His support and the help of all the saints who are working for us, especially Mary and John the Baptist, who are seen here as they were on the day of His crucifixion, with Mary at his right and John at his left, praying for men. Below that is a depiction of the Resurrection: The dead are being resuscitated from their tombs (right above the doors). In the middle part, 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 taken to heaven by angels, and the condemned are taken to hell by a devil. On both sides of the entrance are the twelve apostles of Christ.
The right entrance is Portal of Saint Anne. It was built in honor of the mother of Mary, Saint Anne. Above the doors there are two nice friezes that tell the story of the marriage of Joachim and Anne (Christ’s grandparents) and the marriage of Mary and Joseph (Christ’s parents). In the middle, it shows scenes from Christ’s arrival on earth, from the Annunciation to the Epiphany. At the top there is a magnificent Virgin with Child in the Romanesque style. She is seated under a canopy and on a throne, bearing a crown and a sceptre and holding her Son, who holds the Book of the Law, on her lap.
Above the three entrances of the facade is the King’s Gallery, a line of statues of the 28 Kings of Judah and Israel, which was redesigned to replace the statues destroyed during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries mistakenly believed the statues to be French kings instead of biblical kings, so they decapitated them.
Above King’s Gallery is the 10 meter wide Rose Window featuring a theme of human life, with symbolic scenes such as the Zodiacs and Labors of the Months. Another Rose Window (12.9 meter wide) on the south side features a theme of New Testament. The Rose Window (also 12.9 meter wide) on the north side features a theme of Old Testament.
Inside the cathedral
Another extraordinariness of Notre-Dame’s sculptures is the legendary gargoyles (chimères) at the third level (Galerie des Chimères) which connects the two towers. Gargoyles, mostly animals with grotesque features, were originally designed as water spout to prevent rain water running down the walls. But I don’t think these ones at Notre-Dame, made famous by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, were designed as water spout but instead just to creep you out. Even after centuries and looking at them under bright sun, they still give you spooky feelings. And if you’ve read Hugo’s novel, you will definitely be touched again and feel like living in the story.
Point Zero, as mentioned at the beginning of the post
Copyright © 2011 Jenson Yu. All rights reserved.