Notre Dame: Understanding Big Architecture, Finding Little Known Relics, Avoiding Large Crowds

Notre Dame in Paris is one of the world’s most famous and recognizable cathedrals.   Everyone goes to see it, but most don’t know what to look for.  Allow me to guide you through understanding the big architecture, finding the little known relics, and avoiding the large crowds at the cathedral.


Let’s start with that you can’t miss: the monumental architecture.  It’s best observed from the outside of the cathedral.  We are going to start, not at the front like you expected, but rather on the side and back of the cathedral.  So make your way to the side or back, find a comfortable place to sit, and let me guide you through the basics of an integral part of medieval architecture: flying buttresses.  It sounds like a funny word, but flying buttresses are one of the most important advances in constructing immense building, like cathedrals.  In fact, Notre Dame was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. However, the designs for Notre Dame did not originally include these support structures around the choir and the nave.  As construction began, the walls became thinner as the cathedral grew higher and as architects incorporated huge, stained glass windows. As the walls pushed outward from the weight of the roof, stress fractures began to appear, and therefore, the the architects were forced to includes support structures around the outside walls.  They are known as flying buttresses, which transfer the massive amount of weight from the roof along arches, or “flyers”, into massive piers that are built to convey the force of the weight into the ground. These incredible feats of medieval engineering are meant to support (or buttress) the cathedral from collapsing. In addition many statues were placed around the outside of the cathedral to act as supports to the columns.  These sculptures originally were brightly painted, but the color has worn off over time. As with most historical buildings, their appearance today is very different from how people of the past saw them.


Notre Dame

Speaking of sculptures, it’s time to get up and work our way around to the front of the cathedral in order to take a look at some amazing statuary.  To many visitors, the most striking features about Notre Dame are the ornate portals of the west facade, or main entrance, of the church.  The elaborate decoration of each doorway relates biblical stories that helped illiterate medieval peasants learn about their religion.  The central and largest doorway is referred to as the Portal of the Last Judgement.  Above the doorway are three horizontal rows of sculptures. The lowest level shows the resurrection of the dead, while the one above it depicts St. Michael weighing their souls. In the same frieze, you can see some souls going to heaven (on the left), while others are condemned to hell (on the right) by the devil himself, who appears in the frieze. Can you find him?  On the uppermost level, Christ is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by reminders that his crucifixion made the resurrection of the dead possible. He appears with wounds on his hands and his feet, while angels next to him hold the spear that pierced his body, the nails used to pin him to the cross, and the cross itself. Surrounding Christ is a heavenly court of angels, prophets, martyrs, and patriarchs carved upon five arches.  All those who pass through the doorways are reminded only only of Christ’s sacrifice, but also of the need to avoid sin, no matter who you are. At the bottom of the fifth arch, the devil appears again; this time he is crushing the souls of a rich man, a bishop, and a king. Similarly, the left portal presents worshipers with models of heavenly grace and reminders of the punishments for bad behavior. The left doorway is called the Portal of the Virgin because the levels of sculpture above the doorway depict the death of the Virgin Mary, and above that, Mary being crowned and seated upon a throne in heaven, next to her son.  Between the two left-hand doors, we see Mary, again, holding her infant son Jesus. If you look just below, you’ll notice a familiar relief of Adam and Eve, who is being tempted by the serpent, thereby reminding worshipers not to be enticed by sin. To the left of the doorway, look for four figures, one of which is holding his own head.  Can you see him in my photo?  You may recognize him as St. Denis, Paris’ first bishop and patron saint who was beheaded by the Romans. To read more about him, see my post about Sacré-Cœur.  Now, let’s consider Notre Dame’s far right-handside doorway, which is called the Portal of St. Anne. Immediately above the doorway, we see the marriage of St. Joachim and St. Anne, who were the parents of the Virgin Mary.   In the level above that, sculptures depict the Nativity (when Mary gave birth to Jesus), the Epiphany (when the three wise men visited the holy family after Jesus’ birth) and the Annunciation of Mary (when she went to heaven). You might be wondering why there is so much emphasis on Mary.  Well, after all, Notre Dame is dedicated to “our lady” the Virgin Mary. What I believe is the most interesting story of the cathedral’s facade belongs to the horizontal row of 28 sculptures located above the huge arches of the three doorways. Today, these are known as the Kings of Judah, each of which was a king of the ancient land and, supposedly, a descendant of Mary and Jesus. However, during the most radical period of the French Revolution, these sculptures were mistaken for kings of France.  Fueled by anti-royal hatred, revolutionaries decapitated the sculptures and took them away. The cathedral was rededicated to the “Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being”, and, inside, many statues of Mary were replaced by the Goddess of Liberty. However, according to local legend, a school teacher and sympathetic royalist gathered up the severed heads and buried them in her backyard. They must have been hidden well because they weren’t re-discovered until 1977, when reconstruction was being done on a bank in the area. However, if you’re standing in front of Notre Dame, you still won’t see the heads. After their discovery, the royal heads were donated to the Musée de Cluny, located just a few blocks away, where you can still see them today.


Another surprising and little known fact about Notre Dame is that it holds three of the the holiest artifacts in Christianity.  The Treasury of Notre Dame contains a reliquary, which includes the supposed Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.  In 1238, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople offered the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France, in order to obtain the latter’s support for the weakening Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.  The Crown of Thorns was supposedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. While Sainte-Chapelle was originally constructed in order to hold this holy relic, after the French Revolution, it was deposited, in 1801, into a crystal reliquary in Notre Dame.  The church also purportedly contains a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The 24cm wood fragment was originally kept in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle, but in 1805, after the French Revolution, it was preserved in a crystal case and moved to Notre Dame.  Finally, Notre Dame contains an alleged nail that the Romans used to pierce Jesus’ body during his crucifixion. Originally entrusted to the Treasury of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Patriarch of that city gave it to Emperor Charlemagne, in 799, and he entrusted it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.  During the French Revolution, the government seized the holy artifact but, in 1824, returned it to Notre Dame, where it’s kept in a nail-shaped crystal reliquary adorned with a head that is gilded in silver. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s Reliquary is not open to the public. However, if you’d like to see any or all of these holy relics, they are presented to the public at special masses held on the first Friday of every month and on each Friday during Lent, both at 3:00.


Interested in seeing the interior of Notre Dame or attending a mass to be in the presence of its holy relics?  So are millions of other people each year.  You need to know when to go and how to avoid the crowds.  Since admission is free, the line to be admitted to the cathedral is often extraordinarily long due to security.  Crowds are the worst from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  If possible avoid seeing Notre Dame on weekends or on Tuesday (when the Louvre is closed).  The best times to visit are early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  The cathedral opens at 7:45AM, so I would suggest arriving as early as possible.   Alternatively, you could try seeing the cathedral in the late afternoon, since it closes at 6:45pm.  We arrived early in the morning and had to stand in a short line to be admitted.  Even though I’ve only covered the outside of Notre Dame in this post, the inside is definitely worth the wait.  After all, you don’t want to go home from Paris being the only person who didn’t go inside Notre Dame, do you?

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