Friday, April 26, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral Part 1 and Giveaway!

by J. M. Hochstetler

Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, East Side
I’m sure that most of us have heard of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It’s recently been in the news because of the destructive fire that started on the evening of April 15, 2019, while the cathedral was undergoing repairs to its roof. The building sustained serious damage, including the destruction of its wooden spire and most of the lead-covered wooden roof above its vaulted ceiling as well as some of the valuable relics it housed. Thankfully, however, preliminary reports are that many relics were saved and that the stone structure itself remains stable. Fund-raising efforts and plans for repairs are already underway.

Part of my June release, Refiner’s Fire, is set in Paris, so I thought I’d take a closer look at this iconic building and also offer a giveaway. We’re starting today with the history of the cathedral’s construction, and next month Part 2 will delve into some of the marvelous details and treasures Notre Dame contains.

Building a Medieval Cathedral

Nave of Notre Dame
Notre Dame means Our Lady, and the famous medieval cathedral is located in the center of Paris on the Île de la Cité, one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine River. An outstanding example of French Gothic architecture, it’s one of the most widely recognized structures in Paris. Around 12 million people visit annually making it the city’s most visited site.

It’s thought that a pre-Christian Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter originally occupied the site. It was succeeded by four earlier churches, and then in 1160 the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, decided to build a cathedral in the new Gothic style. He had the Romanesque church on the site demolished and used its materials for his cathedral. Actual construction began between March 24 and April 25, 1163, with King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III present for the laying of the cornerstone.

North Rose Window
Building a medieval cathedral wasn’t a speedy or inexpensive process. It not only required a constant influx of money, but also massive amounts of materials, intensive labor, and highly skilled craftsmen, which becomes quite apparent when you look at the construction timeline. It was 1177 before the choir was completed, and the high altar wasn’t consecrated until 1182. The four sections of the nave behind the choir and its aisles up to the clerestories were finished in 1190, followed by the bases of the façade and the first traverses. The work was still in process when Heraclius of Caesarea called for the Third Crusade from the cathedral in 1185. At some point a decision was made to add transepts from the altar to bring in more light and to use four-part instead of six-part rib vaults to make the roofs stronger and allow for greater height. These were finally completed in 1208, with work still continuing on the nave. A large portion of the western façade was built by then, but it wasn’t complete until around the mid 1240s. And it took from 1225 to 1250 to construct the nave’s upper gallery, along with the two towers on the west façade.

Cross section of buttresses
by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
The cathedral remained a work in progress for a very long time, however. During this same period the transepts were remodeled in the latest Rayonnant style and a gabled portal was added to the north transept, with a spectacular rose window placed above it. That gave impetus to modifying the southern transept in a similar design, and both portals also received a rich embellishment of sculpture. The south portal features scenes from the lives of St Stephen and several local saints, while the north portal features Christ’s infancy and the story of Theophilus.

An important innovation in the 13th century was the use of a structure called a flying buttress. A series of these were built on the outside of the choir during this period as well. Before these were developed the entire weight of the roof pressed down and outward on the walls and the abutments that supported them. Flying buttress distributed the weight from the vault’s ribs evenly to a series of counter-supports topped with stone pinnacles outside the building to give them greater strength and stability. This allowed the walls to be built higher and thinner with larger windows so that the interior felt light and airy, like a vision of heaven. It isn’t known for certain whether the first flying buttresses were used before the 13th century, but detailed laser scans of the structure seem to indicate that the buttresses were part of the original 12th century design. The cathedral’s first buttresses were replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th century as additions and alterations continued.

Later Alterations

Many more alterations were made to the cathedral during the Renaissance, when the Gothic style lost popularity. The interior pillars and walls were covered with tapestries, then in 1548 some of the statues were damaged in riots by Huguenots, who considered them idolatrous. The 17th and 18th centuries brought many more changes during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV in line with the period’s more classical style. The sanctuary was rearranged and the choir largely rebuilt in marble. Many of the stained-glass windows that dated to the 12th and 13th centuries were taken out and replaced with white glass windows for more light. Can you imagine? What were they thinking? And in the second half of the 18th century, the spire was damaged by wind, so it was simply removed.

The Cult of Reason is celebrated at Notre-Dame
during the French Revolution, 1793
The worst damage happened during the French Revolution, however. The cathedral was desecrated and many of its religious relics and other treasures were defaced, destroyed, or stolen. In 1793 the building was dedicated to the Cult of Reason and later to the Cult of the Supreme Being. The Goddess of Liberty was installed on several altars in place of the Virgin Mary. Except for the statue of the Virgin on the cloister portal, all the large statues on its façade were destroyed. Twenty-eight statues of biblical kings at the west façade, believed to represent French kings, were beheaded. Happily many of these heads were found at a nearby excavation site in 1977 and can be seen at the Musée de Cluny. The building was eventually used as a warehouse for the storage of food and for other purposes.

Efforts at Restoration

The Cathedral at the Beginning of Restoration 1847
by Hippolyte Bayard
With the arrival of the new century, the cathedral’s situation finally began to improve. In July 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement to restore Notre Dame to the Roman Catholic Church, which formally took place in April 1802. Then on December 2, 1804, he and his wife Joséphine, were crowned emperor and empress of France there with Pope Pius VII officiating.

Much of Notre Dame remained in ruins, however, until 1831, when Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, became such a success that it restored public interest in the cathedral. In 1844 King Louis Philippe started a movement to restore it. A large team of architects and craftsmen worked from historical drawings and engravings to replace the original decorations or, where these were missing, to add embellishments consistent with the original style. They also replaced the original spire with one that was taller and more ornate. This restoration took twenty five years.

Modern Renovations

Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, West View
Over the centuries, air pollution caused the cathedral’s stone exterior to deteriorate and discolor. And August 1944, while Paris was being liberated during WWII, some of the medieval glass was damaged and replaced with glass in modern abstract designs. It was becoming obvious that the building needed serious repairs. Finally in 1963 in time for the cathedral’s 800th anniversary, the façade was cleaned of its accumulation of soot and grime and the stone restored to its original color. But deterioration continued, and by the late 1980s, some of the gargoyles and turrets had fallen off or were dangerously loose. So another renovation began in 1991, during which much of the exterior was replaced, with authentic architectural elements being retained. The cathedral’s pipe organ was also upgraded to a computerized system, and the west face was cleaned and restored in time for millennium celebrations in December 1999.

For the building’s 850th anniversary in 2013, the four 19th-century bells from the northern towers were melted down and recast in bronze to simulate the sound of the cathedral’s 17th century bells. But after more than eight centuries, the building was showing signs of deterioration consistent with its age, which led to the most recent renovation. A €6 million renovation of the spire began in late 2018, during which the copper statues on its roof and other decorative elements had to be temporarily removed. By luck or providence, that happened just days before the fire broke out.

With the release of Book 6 of my American Patriot Series, Refiner’s Fire, I’m giving away a copy of Daughter of Liberty, or any volume of the series if the winner already has it —except Refiner’s Fire, which I’ll be giving away in June after its release. If the winner has all the books in the series so far, I’m happy to offer a copy of either Northkill or The Return from the Northkill Amish series. To enter, please leave a comment on this post answering the question below before the end of the day.

Notre Dame is a work of art in and of itself. What features of the cathedral do you find the most impressive and/or beautiful?

Be sure to include your email address in your comment so I can contact you if you win. I’ll announce the winner first thing tomorrow morning.
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, releases in April 2019. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.


1. Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris: East side.,_version_1.2

2.Nave of Notre-Dame de Paris, 22 June, 2014.,_version_1.2

3. North Rose Window. Photo by Julie Anne Workman. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

4. 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. Public domain.

5. Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, West view, Paris, France.,_version_1.2


  1. Here in America we are impressed if we see architecture from the 1700's. I can't wrap my mind around seeing something that was built in the 1100's!!! I love looking at pictures of the stained glass, but I imagine if I were there the whole sweeping architecture would render me speechless. Thanks for the post! bcrug(at)twc(dot)com

  2. Oh, me too, Connie! It's stunning to think about a building that old still standing, much less in use today. Thanks for joining us and entering the drawing! Got you on the list.

  3. Thanks for sharing this timely article. I truly hope that this landmark will once again be restored to its full glory!

    1. So do I, Connie! Thanks so much for joining us, and good luck in the drawing!

  4. I wish I had been able to see this incredible place before this fire. I am totally enthralled by the stained glass windows and the very high ceilings. Thanks so much for giving us so many historical details and also for the giveaway.

    1. Hopefully they'll be able to restore it, Betti, but sadly some of the irreplaceable treasures were lost. Thank you for joining us, and good luck in the drawing!

  5. The North Rose window! It is impressive! My brother and sister-in-law have been there. I've seen the photos they've taken. Beautiful!
    If, my name is picked as the winner please choose someone else. I have all your books as you well know.

    1. How lucky your brother and sister-in-law were to see it before the fire, Bev! From what I've heard at least most of the stained glass windows remained intact, and hopefully they're all undamaged. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I've been there multiple times and I'm thankful the fire didn't destroy more.

    1. Stacy, you were blessed to see it before the fire. Thanks for joining us!

  7. My goodness, the whole thing is so impressive. My degree is Interior Design, and we studied the cathedrals built in this era. The vaulting / ribbed ceilings was an impressive feat, allowing for greater area below without columns previously necessary to support the roof.
    Of course, at Notre Dame, the Rose Window is breathtaking.
    My email is

  8. Thank you for sharing, Robin! I really love the magnificent features of gothic design. Good luck in the drawing!


  9. The Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Cleveland Ohio is really pretty

    connie dot tillman 82 at

  10. Connie, we do have some really pretty cathedrals in this country too. There's one at St. John, IN, that also impressive. Thanks for joining us, and good luck in the drawing!

  11. The winner of the drawing is Connie Porter Sanders!!! Congratulations, Connie, and I'll email you right away to find out which book you want and get your mailing info.

    For those who didn't win this time, I'll be offering another giveaway on the Colonial Quills blog on May 15, and on this blog May 26. I also plan to have a drawing on my American Patriot Series blog later in May and on Facebook, and all of these will include Refiner's Fire. So be watching for details, which I'll announce on Facebook!