Friday, July 26, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral Part 4: Iconography

By J. M. Hochstetler

Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
Western Façade
Today I’m continuing my series on the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris as it was before the recent fire. In this installment, we’ll focus on the decorations that grace the exterior, or its iconography.

The devil weighing sinners' souls
Gothic cathedrals and churches in a very real sense functioned as a liber pauperum, or poor people’s book. Since the great majority of people at that time were illiterate, they featured a wealth of sculptures that illustrated biblical stories. Notre Dame is one of the most impressive examples ever built. Originally all the sculptures on its façades were painted and gilded, which must have created quite a stunning effect, particularly for rural peasants and the city’s poor. The picture above shows the lower part of the cathedral’s front or western façade that faces the square. The statues at the top portray the 28 kings of Judea and Israel. Below, from left to right are the portals of the Virgin, the Last Judgement, and Saint-Anne. The tympanum over the central portal is composed of figures of sinners being led off to hell, while good Christians are being taken to heaven. The right portal shows the coronation of the Virgin Mary, and the left the lives of saints who are especially important to Parisians, foremost among them Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother.

Chosovi assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (]
Allegory of Alchemy
Not all the sculptural decoration portrays religious figures, however. Some is devoted to medieval science and philosophy. The central portal of the west façade includes figures holding circular plaques decorated with alchemistic symbols. The central door’s center pillar at left features a statue of a woman on a throne holding a scepter in her left hand. In her right are two books, one of which is open (symbolizing public knowledge), and the other closed (symbolizing esoteric knowledge). A ladder with seven steps represents the seven steps alchemists followed in their quest to transform ordinary metals into gold.

Sharon Mollerus [CC BY 2.0 (]
The exteriors of gothic cathedrals and churches also featured various grotesques or monsters. Notre Dame’s were added in about 1240, and include gargoyles; chimeras, which are a mythical hybrid creature with the body of a lion and the head of a goat; and strix or stryge, creatures resembling owls or bats that were said to eat human flesh. Taken from figures in classical Roman literature, they were symbols of the evil that those who did not follow the teachings of the church would face. The gargoyles have a practical purpose as well. They serve as rain spouts to project rainwater away from the building as far as possible to prevent it from eroding the mortar between the stones, consequently a large number were used to create many thin streams. Rainwater runs from the roof into lead gutters from which it flows down channels on the flying buttresses, then along channels cut into the backs of the gargoyles and out its mouth. Many statues and grotesques, were removed during the 17th and 18th centuries, and more were destroyed during the French Revolution. During the cathedral’s restoration in the 1800s these were replaced with figures in the Gothic style designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
Krzysztof Mizera [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Let’s finish off with an informative brief video on how the Cathedral of Notre Dame was built.

J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is a professional editor, a publisher, and the author of award-winning historical fiction whose books have been endorsed by bestselling authors such as Lori Benton, Laura Frantz, Jocelyn Green, Michelle Moran, and MaryLu Tyndal. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. She is also the author of One Holy Night, which won the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and co-authored the award-winning Northkill Amish Series with Bob Hostetler. Her latest release is Refiner’s Fire, Book 6 of the American Patriot Series.


  1. I never knew that gargoyles served a purpose! Thanks for the post!

    1. That's pretty cool, isn't it, Connie? Thanks for joining us!

  2. Joan, I hadn't realized how impressive a structure Notre Dame was until I visited Paris in 2016. I'm so thankful I was able to visit the cathedral before it was damaged. I appreciate your sharing all of these amazing details. Even when visiting I couldn't take all of it in! Also, I didn't know the purpose of gargoyles or their symbolism. Another impressive cathedral in Paris is the one at Montmartre, although I only saw that one from the outside.

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    2. How lucky you are to have seen it before the fire, Kathy! It must be overwhelming to try to take everything in when you're actually there. So much to see! I haven't checked out Montmartre, but must do! I love all those wonderful the Gothic cathedrals in Europe and wish I could get there to take a tour of the major ones. Thanks so much for joining us!

  3. Joan, very impressive. I enjoyed the video. I never really thought much about the structure and how long it has taken to build it.
    Blessings, Tina