Monday, August 26, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral Part 5: The Bells

By J. M. Hochstetler

Today’s post finishes up 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 bells whose beloved tones are a cherished daily part of Paris life.

During the French Revolution, all but one of the cathedral’s bells were melted down to make weapons and guillotines for the revolutionaries’ grisly work. The destroyed bells were first replaced during the mid-19th century, and then again in 2013 during the celebration of Notre-Dame’s 850th anniversary. In a formal ceremony that drew extensive media coverage, the new bells were washed with holy water, anointed inside and out with chrism oils, and blessed before being installed, again completing the cathedral’s full complement.

Emmanuel bell. Jason Riedy, CC BY 2.0
Each bell is given a name. Emmanuel, the cathedral’s largest bell and the bourdon, the one with the lowest pitch, occupies the south tower. It is tuned to F sharp and is the only bell that survived the revolution, possibly because at thirteen tons it would have required extraordinary efforts to remove it from the belfry. It was installed during the 15th century and was recast in 1681 at the request of King Louis XIV who gave it its name. Emmanuel sounds each hour of the day and has been rung to mark some of the most important events in France’s history. It sounded the “Te Deum” for the coronations of the French kings and has been rung for the funerals of French heads of state, the visits of important world leaders, the end of wars, national and international tragedies, and holy days such as Christmas, Easter, and Ascension. Bell ringers and musicians still consider this bell to have one of the most beautiful tones in all of Europe.

Accompanying Emmanuel in the south tower is the cathedral’s second largest bell, a drone bell named Marie in homage to the Virgin Mary. At six tons and tuned to G Sharp, Marie is called the petite bourdon). Cast in a foundry in The Netherlands, it is engraved with the phrases “Je vous salue Marie,” (in French, “Hail Mary”) and “Via viatores quaerit,” (in Latin, “The way is looking for travelers”). Below is an image of the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, surrounded by stars and a relief with the Adoration of the Magi.

Eight bells of graduated sizes occupy the north tower. At left are nine of the bells on public display in the cathedral’s nave in February 2013. From left to right are Jean-Marie, Maurice, Benoît-Joseph, Étienne, Marcel, Denis, Anne-Geneviève, Gabriel, and Bourdon Marie.

South Bell Tower
The largest, named Gabriel after the Archangel Gabriel, who announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, weighs four tons and plays A sharp. It was cast in a bell foundry outside Paris in 2013 and is inscribed with the first sentence of the Angelus. Forty engraved lines represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert and the 40 years the children of Israel spent wandering in Sinai desert. It is used mainly for ordinary masses on Sundays and chimes the hours throughout the day. Like Emmanuel and Marie it is also used to mark important events.

Anne-Geneviève is the second largest bell in the north tower and the fourth largest in the cathedral. Its name is a tribute to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, and St. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The second line of the Angelus is engraved on it as well as three lines representing the Trinity and the three theological virtues. Weighing three tons, it is tuned to B and is also used to mark specific events. It is the only bell that remains silent during the Angelus Domini at 8 a.m., noon, and 8 p.m. in the summer.

Denis is the third largest bell in the north tower and fifth largest in the cathedral. Named in honor of Saint Denis, the martyr who was also the first bishop of Paris c. 250, the bell has engraved on it the third phrase of the Angelus and seven lines representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven Sacraments. It weighs 2 tons and plays C sharp.

Marcel, the fourth largest bell in the north tower and the cathedral’s sixth largest, is named for Saint Marcel, the ninth bishop of Paris in the fifth century, who was known for his tireless service to the poor and sick. The fourth phrase of the Angelus is engraved on it. Tuned to D sharp, it weighs 1.9 tons.

By Thesupermat - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Étienne, the fifth largest bell in the north tower and seventh largest in the cathedral at 1.5 tons, plays E sharp and is named after the first Christian martyr, St. Étienne (in English St. Stephen). It commemorates the old cathedral church of Paris that preceded Notre Dame, which was dedicated to the saint and carries the fifth phrase of the Angelus. Its most prominent feature is a gold stripe above the nameplate.

Benoît-Joseph is the sixth largest bell in the north tower and the cathedral’s eighth largest, named in honor of Pope Benedict XVI, using the French version of his pontifical name and his given name, Joseph. It plays F and weighs 1.3 tons. It has two silver stripes above the skirt, one silver stripe above the nameplate, and is inscribed with the sixth phrase of the Angelus. This bell is used for weddings and sometimes chimes the hour replacing Gabriel, generally on the Ave Maria.

Maurice is the seventh largest bell in the north tower and the cathedral’s second smallest, weighing one ton and playing G sharp. It’s named after Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris who laid the first stone for the construction of the cathedral in 1163. It has two gray stripes below the nameplate and the inscription, “Pray for us, Holy Mother of God.” This bell is used for weddings.

Notre Dame de Paris
Jean Marie, the tenth and smallest bell is tuned to A sharp and weighs 0.780 tons. It bears the name of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was the bishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005. It has a small gray stripe above the skirt and displays the eighth and last sentence of the Angelus. This bell is also used for weddings.

Four additional bells were added at the top of the North Tower in 1856 to replace those destroyed during the French Revolution. These rang daily for basic services, the Angelus, and the chiming of the hours, but were placed in storage in February 2012. The largest of these, Angélique-Françoise weighs 2.11 tons and is tuned to C sharp. Antoinette-Charlotte, weighing 1.47 tons, is tuned to D sharp. Jacinthe-Jeanne at 1 ton is tuned to F. The smallest at 1,691 lbs. Denise-David, is tuned to F sharp like Emmanuel.

In 1867, a carillon of three bells were put in place in the spire with two chimes that linked to the monumental clock. Another three bells were placed in the actual structure of the Notre-Dame Cathedral itself so that they could be heard inside. These have not been rung for some time, but their restoration was under consideration before the fire.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris! Please take a moment to listen to the ringing of the cathedral’s bells, then share your answers to the questions below.

Do you live or work where church bells sound the hours of the day? If so, do you find it pleasurable or distracting? If there are no bells in your vicinity, what other sounds might capture your attention on a typical day, for example, wind blowing through the trees, wind chimes, bird songs, animal sounds like the lowing of cows, bees buzzing in the garden? Or does the cacophony of city streets energize you? Please share the sounds you enjoy during your day!
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 have lived where I could hear church bells and it's a beautiful sound. In my little rural home town, for a while, one custodian had permission to ring the bell at noon. I don't know how I would feel if I had Notre Dame's full range of bells ringing on the hour, and I sure hope they don't do it at night!!!! My daily noises now range from cars whizzing by too fast on our little road to birdsongs and wind rustling the leaves. Thanks again for highlighting Notre Dame.

    1. Connie, I'd love to be where I could hear church bells ringing from time to time, but I agree not every hour, and particularly not at night. That would be too much of a good thing. lol! The wind in the trees is one of my favorite sounds, and bird songs. I'm lucky to live where we hear very little traffic thankfully. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your favorite and not so favorite sounds!

  2. Another intresting post about Notre Dame Cathedral. I enjoy hearing bells but it's long past in our town. I do hear a clock chime on the hour when on our university campus or downtown to hear the courthouse clock chime hour the hour.

  3. Marilyn, I hadn't thought of clock chimes, but that's another lovely sound. You're fortunate to have public ones in your community. I think that bells are less and less common on churches and public buildings than they used to be, and that's sad. There's something about bells ringing and clocks chiming the hours that warms the heart. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your favorite sounds!

  4. Interesting series! Did you see what was going to play after the bells ringing? A Matt Redman!!! I like that the bells all have names. That way you which bell is what. Something that puzzles me though, is how they get them to play a certain pitch. (Is that word I'm looking for?) Does it have something to do their weight? By the way, how is FOF coming along? (Couldn't resist! Had to say something!)

  5. I knew you'd love that almost as much as Chris Tomlin, Bev! lol! I love that they're named too. I'm not sure exactly how they tune them, but i think it does have something to do with the weight--how thick they are--and maybe something about how they shape them too. I'm sure it takes a lot of skill to do it. Research for FOF is progressing steadily, and I'm coming up with ideas for scenes. But it's going to be a while before I have something for you to read. :-)