The French Culture Ministry has already announced an international competition to reconstruct or replace Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and roof, which most people assume has been there since the Middle Ages. Whether or not that initiative will truly open itself up to anything but a redo of what has been, in the last century-and-a-half, an integral part of how we perceive Notre Dame de Paris, remains to be seen.
In related good news, the cathedral’s historic 8,000-pipe Cavaillé-Coll organ has made it through relatively unscathed, with the cathedral’s heritage director confirming that while the high altar was damaged by the collapsing spire, the 18th century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine.
So far more than $1 billion has been pledged for the restoration effort, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying he wants to see the Cathedral rebuilt within five years.
No doubt everyone will have an opinion about how Notre Dame should be rebuilt. The answer should seem simple: exactly as it was. Except it is building that has seen bouts of construction for over six centuries. Most notably, the part (the roof and spire) that burned down on April 15 was mainly the (re)creation of medieval ideas as imagined by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
As the 18th century drew to a close, Notre Dame reached the lowest ebb of its fortunes. It stood disused, along with all the other churches of France. Extremists called for its demolition, with the stone to be sold for building material. In the meantime, its chapels were put up for sale, and some were actually bought, although the purchasers were apt to complain that the space was still encumbered by marble and bits of sculpture. The cathedral nave was used to store wine casks for the people’s army.
A rising young writer named Victor Hugo set the tone for this revaluation. In his Notre Dame de Paris (in English The Hunchback of Notre Dame) published in 1831, he glorified architecture as living history; to Hugo, a building was “a book in stone” – Gothic cathedrals in general and Notre Dame in particular.
Turning upon the 18th century, he denounced its refinements as silly fashion. He listed the indignities that had been wreaked on the cathedral of Paris in the name of so-called taste: its richly coloured windows gone, its interior whitewashed, its flèche ripped off, the shape of the central portal mutilated, its chapels choked with showy rubbish, its choir floored with gaudy marble, its sanctuary cluttered with histrionic statuary. Hugo’s novel strongly influenced another young Parisian of talent, only seventeen at the time but already devoting himself to architecture – Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. The name was to become almost synonymous with restoration. While still in his early twenties, Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to the newly established commission for the preservation of historic monuments. For there was a movement afoot, thanks largely to Hugo’s novel, to save the buildings that represented the country’s great past.
In 1845, Viollet-le-Duc was appointed architect for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris. He was to be occupied with that task for the next twenty years. He had developed a philosophy of restoration. He was to state it again and again in his many writings, and above all, in his vast study of French architecture, cast in the form of a dictionary that ran to ten volumes. But he expressed his principles early and clearly in his proposals for Notre Dame:
“In a project of this sort, one cannot proceed with enough prudence and discretion. A restoration can do more harm to a monument than the ravages of the centuries and the fury of rioters. For time and revolution destroy but add nothing. A restoration, on the other hand, by adding new forms, can erase a host of details which are all the more interesting for being worn and rare. It is hard to say which is more dangerous – the indifference which lets buildings fall into total ruin or the ignorant zeal which shears away, adds on, carries to completion, and ends by transforming an ancient building into a new one, devoid of the slightest historical interest.”
Restoring Notre Dame was an enormous task. Viollet-le-Duc repaired the structure literally from the foundations to the tiling of the roofs. As he explained in his report, it was only in taking the work in hand that he saw how grave the cathedral’s troubles were, the essential nature of what had to be done, and the danger of half measures. His diagnoses and remedies have proved their soundness. Notre Dame has remained substantially as he left it in 1864. Although he ran through more than one allocation, new funds were always voted for him. Building in France no longer depended on the whim of kings but on sober-minded deputies – yet they proved remarkably generous toward the cause of restoration.
The cornerstone of Notre Dame de Paris was laid in 1163. Louis VII was king. Louis himself was a pious and modest man, given to deprecating his worldly possessions. He once remarked to an Englishman: “Your master the King of England lacks nothing; he possesses men, horses, gold and silk, gems, fruits, wild beasts and all things else. We in France have nothing except bread and wine and joy.”
But Louis’s new bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, understood that prestige must be visible. Paris, the greatest city in France, could not lag behind such small towns as Senlis, Noyon, and Sens, and such abbeys as Saint-Denis. Paris had to have a cathedral worthy of a capital.
Statues representing the king and the bishop, as well as the powerful Dean of the Chapter of Notre Dame, can be seen on the Portal of Saint Anne, the south portal of the western façade. The sculptors set to work right at the beginning of construction, carving capitals for the columns and statues for the portals – although these statues would not be inserted in their places for some forty years. The oldest part of the Portal of Saint Anne – it was rebuilt in the 13th century – is the tympanum, the curved triangular space under the arch. In its centre, the Virgin sits majestically on a square, ornamented throne, enclosed within turrets like a miniature cathedral. She sits with a certain hieratic stiffness, the Child on her lap, and both gaze straight ahead, as if unaware of the adoring angels to either side. Beyond the angel on her left, identified by his crown and regal look, Louis VII humbly kneels. On her right, Maurice de Sully asserts his ecclesiastical prerogative. He stands proudly, his crook over his right shoulder, a small and stocky man who looks more conscious of his power than does the king of his, perhaps because Maurice had travelled a longer way than Louis to achieve it.
Tucked into the corner of the tympanum to the left of Maurice, his back bowed to conform to the curve of the arch and the habit of the scribe, in his hand a book in which he seems to be making an entry, sits a man who has been identified as Barbedor, Dean of the Chapter. He is a young man with a face rather like Maurice’s, except that he is beardless. Barbedor deserves his place on the façade of the cathedral. Chaplain and confessor to Louis VII, he was the direct intermediary between king and bishop. He also served for sixteen years as dean, and in that capacity supervised much of the construction. What is more, he devoted a large part of his personal wealth to furthering the work. It was he who compensated owners whose houses had to be razed and he who furnished the funds for the stained glass of the choir.
Before any work could begin, the stone had to be found. Millions of tons of stone were quarried in the Île-de-France during the cathedral-building centuries – more, it has been said, than during the whole history of ancient Egypt. Fortunately, beautiful stone of varying degrees of hardness underlay much of the countryside around Paris. Most of the stone for Notre Dame came from quarries on the Butte Saint-Jacques, from Bagneux, Arcueil and Montrouge. The quarrymen, unlike the other workmen, tended to be residents of the area who spent their lives amid choking clouds of stone dust. Since transportation was expensive, they cut the blocks roughly to shape in the quarry – there was little point in carting tons of waste material to the building site.
The quarryman had to know stone intimately. Working with primitive equipment, without benefit of explosives or mechanical saws, he had to find the lines of cleavage in the beds, to follow the grain of the stone. As a rule, he chose the softer varieties wherever their use would do no harm, as in the sculptures and facings. But for bearing surfaces, for the drums of columns and overhanging cornices, he had at his disposal the firm, hard stone called cliquart. No doubt the pay scales varied for the different types of stone since the workmen were paid piecework by the block rather than by the hour.
From the quarry, the stone had to be transported in oxcarts or on barges to the site. An oxcart could carry perhaps one ton – and thousands of tons of stone were needed. No wonder that the sculptors of Laon cathedral placed statues of oxen at the corners of their towers, in tribute to the patient beasts.
At the masons’ lodge, the stone was dressed to its final shape. The stonecutters carefully marked each block or cylinder to show where it was to be placed on the wall, column, or arch. In addition to these “position marks”, they chiselled their personal marks – rarely letters of the alphabet, more often symbols: combinations of triangles, crosses, arrows, zigzag bars. These masons’ marks were the equivalent of signatures; they ensured that when the week’s work was totalled, there would be no disputes over how many blocks each man had delivered. But the marks also served as an expression of the medieval mason’s pride in his work. A father handed his mark on to his son. If a son worked on the same job with his father, he would add a small additional stroke to distinguish his own mark. By examining marks, archaeologists have been able to trace the travels of the itinerant masons from cathedral to cathedral across France.
The simplest form of stone-working consisted of making the rough blocks that were used with rubble and mortar to fill the interior of walls and buttresses to the required thickness. Such work could safely be left to apprentices. The smoothly finished blocks of larger sizes for the facings of the cathedral – as well as the drums for the columns, the cylinders for colonnettes, the wedge-shaped voussoirs that formed the arches, and the complexly faceted keystones – required the experience and talent of the trained journeyman. The lacelike tracery of windows, the intricacies of capitals, the multiple planes and curves of mouldings, were necessarily reserved for the master mason. Medieval writers did not differentiate between masons and sculptors, but it is clear that the men who carved the madonnas, patriarchs, saints, kings and gargoyles that adorned the cathedrals knew themselves to be artists, even though they only occasionally signed their work. With the growth and spread of the Gothic style, these sculptors became more daring, more realistic, and more obtrusive. They literally covered the cathedrals with their works; there are 1,200 sculptures in Notre Dame de Paris.
The carpenters were as important as the masons. The lives of the workmen depended upon their care in lashing together the scaffolding poles. They built the ramps to carry up materials and constructed the shoring that held walls in position. They chose, hewed, and installed the tie beams, plates, and rafters of the roofs, binding the members together with mortise-and-tenon joints, through which wooden pegs were driven. Carpenters also had to be engineers, for they built and maintained the “great wheel”, which was installed on a platform under the roof and used for hoisting stone and other heavy materials into place. These wheel-windlasses were operated by manpower, sometimes in the form of a treadmill, but they afforded considerable mechanical advantage.
The greatest call upon the skills of the carpenters came in the construction of the falsework or centering, the complex curving frames that supported arches during construction. Unless the centering had the proper curvature, the stone arch would not hold when the wooden support was removed. Moreover, the process of “striking” or “decentering” called for delicate judgement. If the wooden frame was removed too soon, while the mortar was still green, the arch might collapse. But leaving the centering in place too long was also dangerous. For if the mortar had set so hard that it had lost all plasticity, when the centering was removed and the building settled, the vault might crack open. The medieval carpenters seem to have devised ingenious methods of removing wedges a little at a time, so that the arches could settle gradually as the mortar hardened. Still, it must have been a tense moment for carpenters, masons, and the master of the work alike each time the falsework was finally removed.
The master of the work, magister operis, sometimes called master mason or master builder, combined the roles of architect, general contractor, and chief foreman. He was on the site every day directing operations, but he also drew up the plans, made models of the projected building, organised the order of construction, and negotiated with the canons, the bishop, or the abbot. Carrying his virga, the measuring rod, he went about the works in elegant robes, with his gloves in his hands but not on them. These gloves were a sign that he had sprung from the guild of masons but that he now worked with his head rather than his hands.
Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the first master of the work at Notre Dame, although a certain “Richard the mason” witnessed a cathedral document in 1164, and the names of some of the later great masters have been preserved. But it is clear that Bishop Maurice de Sully made an inspired choice. When he was ready for the laying of the cornerstone of the choir in 1163, he had at his disposal an architect whose ability matched the bishop’s vision.
Once the cornerstone was laid and the elaborate dedication ceremonies completed, Bishop Maurice de Sully matched expenditure to income and employed just enough workmen to keep the cathedral growing briskly but not wastefully. The foundations were dug nine meters deep and filled with the hard stone of Montrouge to take the enormous weight that would be raised upon them. The chancel – choir and apse – was built first. This is where the priests officiated, from the high altar. Once the chancel was built, the church could function. As Maurice conceived them, choir and apse would be big enough and grand enough for the celebration of royal weddings, funerals, and victories even before the completion of the nave. By itself, in fact, the chancel formed a sizeable church, 52 meters long and 48 meters wide, with the vaulting of the choir rising to the unprecedented height of more than 30 meters. Four tiers of windows – sapphire, ruby, topaz, and emerald – poured jewelled light into the sanctuary. Auxiliary altars were ranged against the curving outer wall of the apse, and the ambulatory, the wide passageway that swept around the eastern perimeter of the building, was to be double-aisled.
Such a plan had already been attempted at Saint-Denis. But the immense scale of the new Notre Dame multiplied the technical difficulties. The vaults were higher and the spans wider than had so far been conquered by the new building style. Yet Maurice de Sully and his architect were aiming for impressive vistas, not to be spoiled by a multiplicity of supporting members. The problem was ingeniously solved by the spacing of the pillars, and by combining simple transverse arches with a system of triangular ribbing. The resultant design was a triumph of both aesthetics and practicality. It would be imitated again and again in subsequent churches; but the clarity, grace, and noble perspectives of the apse at Notre Dame de Paris have remained overwhelming. Yet this portion of the church was built in less than twenty years. More important, it set the dominant motif for the remainder of the cathedral, even though building continued well into the 14th century.
Louis VII did not quite live to see the choir and apse of Notre Dame completed. An old man before he reached sixty, he arranged for the coronation of his heir at Reims but was himself unable to attend the ceremony. After a lingering illness, he died in the beloved shadow of the new cathedral, in the very Cloister of Notre Dame where he had been raised as a child.
To his son Philip Augustus, Louis left the conquest and absorption of the Angevin possessions on the Continent. His own greatest monument was the ring of noble churches and cathedrals in and around Paris. Saint-Denis, Sens, Vézelay, Noyon, Senlis, Laon, Reims, Châlons-sur-Marne, Mantes – almost as many magnificent churches were begun or reconstructed during his reign as there were towns and abbeys in the royal domain.
In these cathedrals, a new kind of music was replacing the Gregorian plain chant whose powerful, straightforward recitative had seemed the musical reflection of the foursquare, massive Romanesque churches. The new polyphonic style, more rhythmical and more complex, full of surprises like the nascent Gothic, had its origin at Notre Dame de Paris. Leoninus and Perotinus, two composers of genius, made Paris the centre of the musical world. Leoninus in his Magnus Liber provided enough two-voiced music to cover the whole round of the ecclesiastical year. Perotinus, suiting his compositions to the acoustic demands of the new choir of Notre Dame, rewrote many of Leoninus’s organums by adding more voices and interweaving them into intricate melodies.
With pomp and circumstance, the high altar of Notre Dame was consecrated in 1182. Assisted by Maurice de Sully, the papal legate, Henri de Château-Marçay, mixed holy water and chrism and inscribed the requisite seven crosses upon the altar. Then the altar was washed, wiped, and rubbed once more with oil of catechumens and chrism. The incense was blessed, and a grain of incense was placed in each of the corners of the altar and at its centre. Then, once more, came the scraping and cleansing, sprinkling of the altar cloth and ornaments with holy water, and censing of the altar. Only then could the first mass be celebrated at the new altar.
It was a high honour for Maurice de Sully to have the papal legate present at this important ceremony. It was a higher honour still, three years later, for him to have Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, officiate in his new choir. To men of this era of Crusades, the patriarch was the greatest ecclesiastic in the world next to the pope.
The events of the 12th century – in the Holy Land and in Europe – inevitably slowed the work of building Notre Dame de Paris, if only because the driving spirit behind it, Maurice de Sully, was so much preoccupied during the years of peril and warfare. Philip Augustus, before leaving for the Third Crusade, appointed Maurice one of the executors of his will. The Crusade and the subsequent war with England strained the resources of France. It became harder to raise funds for building after so much treasure had been poured into equipping the men who died in the disease-ridden squalor of the camp at Acre.
Nevertheless, Maurice had guarded his own revenues well. Early in his episcopate, he completed his noble episcopal palace, which occupied the area between the new cathedral and the Seine. And throughout his long tenure as bishop of Paris, work on the cathedral never ceased. By the time Maurice died in 1196, the great nave was substantially finished. As his last act of faith toward the cathedral he loved, Maurice provided in his will the sum of 100 livres for the expenses of roofing. He left an equal amount to the “poor clerks” of the cathedral of Paris – for he himself had once, long ago, been just such a poor clerk, living on the charity of earlier bequests.
The nave of Notre Dame de Paris benefited by the advances in the techniques of Gothic architecture that were being made all over France at this time. Outside, to support his 33-meter-high vaulting, the master of the work threw up a series of flying buttresses – perhaps for the first time, perhaps perhaps in imitation of what had been done at Saint-Denis and in smaller churches around the Île de-France (the question of priority is in dispute and perhaps can never be definitely settled). The sexpartite vaults – crossed ogives with a supplementary arch passing through their keystones – seemed to fling themselves toward Heaven, as if to reproduce in stone the soaring ambitions of Philip Augustus.
The double aisles of the choir continue through the nave, but there is a remarkable difference in the supporting columns. In the choir, they are uniform round shafts on square bases. In the long nave, the same scheme is followed in the central vessel. But the effect of a monotonous parade of pillars all exactly alike is broken by the inspired treatment of the central line of columns separating the two aisles. Here, simple shafts alternate with pillars surrounded by colonnettes that add both strength and grace. The changing rhythm of these columns is one of the greatest charms of the nave at Notre Dame, for the colonnettes impose a vertical movement that contrasts beautifully with the horizontal feeling of the simple shafts, whose successive circular drums are plainly visible.
The capitals of the columns in the nave, as compared with the choir, illustrate the completed transition from Romanesque to Gothic. The floral patterns are still stylized, but there is a greater approach to realism, a greater fineness in the depiction of each leaf. Indeed, in spite of its vast size, fineness is the dominant characteristic of this nave. The structural members are thinner, leaner, less massive than the ones in the choir. The builders by then had acquired confidence in opus francigenum, or “French work”, as Gothic architecture was generally called throughout Europe. They had a better understanding of the strength of colonnettes and pointed arches, and they had added to their already considerable arsenal of structural reassurances the vital device of the flying buttress.
With flying buttresses to support the upper parts of the nave, tribunes above the aisles were not strictly necessary. They were built nevertheless, for the sake of additional strength and consistency with the choir, and are among the most beautiful aspects of Notre Dame de Paris. Wide, well-lighted, they are vaulted by simple crossed ogives that run down to engaged columns, between which, the arcades are additionally supported by graceful, slender pilasters. Some of the capitals in these tribunes display long, narrow recurved leaves – first examples of the crockets that were later to become so popular in Gothic architecture and that were used lavishly on the façade of Notre Dame.
Under Maurice de Sully’s successor, work on the façade began immediately after completion of the nave. As chance would have it, the new bishop of Paris was named Eudes de Sully and came from the same town of Sully-sur-Loire as had Maurice. But there was no kinship between them, and, in fact, the two men were as different as pauper and prince. Eudes de Sully was a noble, related to many of the great secular and ecclesiastical lords of France and England. Philip Augustus was his cousin; and Eudes de Sully as bishop had the rare courage to “obey God rather than man”, as the biblical phrase so current at the time had it. What that meant in practice was that he opposed his king and obeyed the pope, who had placed the French realm under interdict to punish Philip for repudiating his second wife. In quarrels with the papacy, kings expected support from their own bishops. But Eudes de Sully immediately stopped services in the cathedral of Paris and enforced the interdict throughout his diocese.
But although his relations with Philip were often strained, as Maurice’s had scarcely ever been, Eudes de Sully had one great advantage over his predecessor that redounded to the benefit of Notre Dame: He was independently wealthy. He was also willing to devote his large means to the embellishment of his cathedral. The result was that the original design of the western façade was reconceived on a more ambitious scale – so much more ambitious that the façade ultimately took more years to build than had the choir and nave together.
It was during the first twenty-five years of the 13th century that the grandiose western façade was erected as far as the stage of the great rose. The magnificence of the façade harked back to Norman ancestors, particularly Saint-Étienne and La Trinité at Caen with their schemes of three portals and two towers. It is even possible that the ancient Christian basilicas of Syria influenced the design of the Paris façade – crusaders and pilgrims would have seen these many times. Saint-Denis, Senlis, Noyon, Laon, and other churches of the Île-de-France likewise served as models. But for perfection of balance, harmony of parts, and beauty of detail, the western façade of Notre Dame de Paris equals or surpasses all.
The three great portals, each set between a pair of buttresses, all differ somewhat in height and width as well as in sculptural subjects. The central portal, higher and wider than the other two, has suffered the most damage from time and man – those two great enemies of architectural monuments of which, Victor Hugo remarked, man is the worse. In 1771, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot destroyed the beauty of the portal by enlarging it so that processions with canopies could pass through. The 19th century restoration permits us to see the portal in its original shape, but much of the sculpture is the work of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and his pupils.
The subject, traditional for cathedrals, gives the central portal its name: the Portal of the Last Judgement. At the summit of the tympanum, a majestic Christ sits in judgement upon the sinful and the good, whose souls are being weighed by Saint Michael in the upper lintel. Two angels beside Christ hold the nails, lance, and cross (those sacred relics that the chivalry of France were trying to wrest from Saladin at the time the original sculptures were carved). A little lower than the angels, Mary and Saint John kneel before Christ to pray that mercy be shown to the human race. On the left side of the upper lintel, under Christ’s upraised right hand, the saved rise to Heaven; on the right, the damned are being dragged down to Hell. The crowned souls of the just are being guided to Paradise by a lovely angel; a savage demon tugs at a long rope dragging the sinners sinners downward. In the covings to the left of the tympanum, Heaven and all its angels, patriarchs, saints, virgins, and doctors of the Church, are displayed; while on the right are chaos, horror, the ugly twisting and writhing shapes of Hell and all its demons.
Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations on the pier, pillars, splays, and bases of the great central portal were as true to the originals as he could make them in the 19th century. A mere list of the subjects suggests the complexity of this religious art: Christ as teacher, the Liberal Arts, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Apostles, the Virtues and the Vices – a large segment of Christian doctrine and Christian history was incorporated into this one great portal. Yet the central portal, with its wealth of sculpture, is only one of three.
The Portal of Saint Anne, to the right, contains the oldest sculptures in the cathedral. The lintels of this portal show scenes from the New Testament: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, King Herod and the Magi, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, and so on. The statues below the lintel are reconstructions from the workshop of Viollet-le-Duc.
The left portal, the Portal of the Virgin, is distinguished from the others by the gable above the tympanum. As the whole church was consecrated to the Virgin, so also was one entire portal of the façade. Here was the place for those scenes recorded in the Apocrypha, which so stirred the imaginations of men in the 12th and 13th centuries: the death, assumption, and coronation of the Mother of God. The 13th century tympanum of the Portal of the Virgin shows Mary’s burial and assumption. Below this scene sit three kings of Judah, to emphasise Mary’s royal ancestry, and three prophets, to recall the Old Testament prophecies of the coming to earth of Jesus Christ.
To the 13th century mind, the Virgin provided the link between human lowliness and divine majesty. She had also incorporated into herself the goddesses of the ancient world, those seasonal goddesses like Ceres and Proserpine. Hence, it was only natural that the pier should show in bas-relief the changing seasons and the ages of man, that the pillars should depict the months and their labours. A Bible in stone, a calendar in stone: The medieval cathedral tried, like the medieval summa, to be an epitome of all the knowledge that was needed for life and salvation.
Above the three portals, running across the entire façade, the builders of Notre Dame created the Gallery of Kings. Here, twenty-eight kings of Israel looked out over the Île de la Cité. The statues we now see are restorations, for in the French Revolution antiroyalist Paris saw the twenty-eight as kings of France, not Israel, and took them down. (Almost 184 years later, twenty-one of the statues’ heads were discovered during a building renovation and are now displayed in the Cluny Museum.) But if they misinterpreted the letter of the religious iconography, can it be said that they misinterpreted the spirit? The statues of the gallery may have depicted the kings of Israel, not France; but the sculptors had, indeed, been glorifying the only monarchy they knew. In the Gallery of Kings, they were undoubtedly proclaiming their pride in the triumphs of the French monarchy, which had grown so notably in power and prestige during the first quarter of the 13th century.
By the time Louis IX became France’s king in 1226, the rose window of the western façade of Notre Dame had been completed. This magnificent wheel of stone, like a huge halo around the head of the Virgin whose statue poises on the balustrade in front of it, is one of the miracles of 13th century architecture. The rose is 10 meters in diameter – the largest of its kind when it was erected – and the builders confronted the triple problem of sustaining the immense pressure of the surrounding stone upon so large a gap in the wall, of dividing the space into approximately equal areas, and of providing room enough for the glass, so that the window would serve its function of admitting a flood of coloured light to the interior.
They solved these problems ingeniously by arranging slender colonnettes like the spokes of a wheel all around the central oculus. These spokes run to a second circle of trefoiled arches on which rests a second series of colonnettes. But here, in between each radius, an additional colonnette to the outer rim has been inserted. The elegant result is approximately equal division of the space and tremendous strength in the whole structure. Functionalism alone, however, was never the aim of the medieval builder; and the effect of this rose is one of singular harmony, restfulness, and confidence. The loveliness of the stone tracery is enhanced by the sturdy semicircular arches, ornamented with innumerable crockets that surround the upper half of the window. These arches again rest on columns that recapitulate the theme of the window itself as do the slender columns of the bays between the buttresses to either side of the rose. The wheel theme also is recapitulated in the two blind roses in the tympanum of each bay; the crockets of the semicircular arch are repeated in the cornice that extends across the entire façade above the rose.
Seen from the interior, the western rose is somewhat disappointing. A good third of it is obscured by organ pipes that were installed there in the 18th century. And all the original glass has vanished; what we now see are nineteenth-century restorations. Although they are good work, they remain only a dim simulacrum of the thirteenth-century glass, which one realises when standing at the crossing of the transept and looking up at the rose of the northern façade. Here, in the glorious rose window built by Jean de Chelles around 1250, the gemlike glass – blue, red, green, brown, and yellow, but predominantly blue – is almost all the original from the 13th century.
Without binoculars, the subjects depicted on the northern rose are difficult to make out from the ground, but the colours, and the light that falls through them onto the church floor, are breathtaking. Mary is in the centre of the wheel, of course; in the circles around her are the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. The window is larger than the western rose and contains proportionately more stone to glass, but it looks no heavier. The whole enormous structure rests upon the frail clerestory windows below it, but the lacelike tracery and the small trefoiled roses in the corners distribute the weight so perfectly that no sagging or cracking has appeared in seven centuries.
The southern rose, unfortunately, did not fare so well, perhaps because exposure to the sun weakened it more than the others, perhaps because normal maintenance was neglected on this side. At any rate, this rose began to buckle in the 16th century. An 18th century reconstruction made matters worse, and the whole façade crumbled. In the 19th century, Viollet-le-Duc decided that the trouble lay in the inadequate buttressing. He therefore reinforced the buttresses and rebuilt the entire wall, creating a new southern rose in the original style. Here is our chance to judge his merits as a restorer. The glass, predominantly red in keeping with tradition, is deceptively good. The expert may recognise it as 19th century, but the tourist observer is not likely to question its authenticity.
The stone tracery follows the same pattern as that of the other roses. It casts an interesting light on the reverse “progress” in architecture. For Viollet-le-Duc, with all the resources of 19th century engineering science behind him, found it necessary to make his stone framework thicker and therefore somewhat clumsier than that of the medieval roses. Yet it is scarcely surprising that he could not compete with the 13th century builders. For by the reign of Louis IX, the new Gothic style had become the native language of France’s architects. They were completely at home in it, had been working in the style for generations, son learning from father, apprentice from master, and had developed a boldness and assurance that enabled them to use stone almost as we use steel today. The passion for more and more light, ever leaner supports, had seized them all. Notre Dame was brand-new, as cathedrals went, but to these 13th century master builders, it already looked antiquated, outmoded. And so, even before the structure was complete, they began modernising it.
Around 1230, the original buttresses were replaced by the immense scapular arches that give Notre Dame its characteristic appearance. Along with this operation, lateral chapels were installed along both sides of the nave to take advantage of the space between the upright buttresses. More light was sought by increasing the amount of glass in the clerestory. During the 13th century, much of the wall between the buttresses was removed and the opening was almost entirely filled with glass: a procession of twin lancet windows each surmounted by a miniature rose. Shortly afterwards, the 13th century north and south roses, which had been about 5 meters in diameter, were also removed. Because of the installation of the lateral chapels, the transept façades were no longer in line with the rest of the structure. New façades were now built and the present vast roses – perhaps twice the diameter of the old ones – were installed in the north and south façades. But the traditional colour scheme was kept: the north rose predominantly blue, the south an exquisite pink developed especially in the Paris glass workshops.
Coloured glass had become a decisive element of the new architecture. The row upon row of immense, multicoloured windows glowing within the dusk of lofty vaults made these 13th century cathedrals like no buildings known before or since. The Middle Ages loved glittering things, shiny materials, strong colours, as we may see by the vast stores of jewelled, enamelled, gilded objects kept today in museums or church treasuries. Yet coloured glass outdid all other works of art in brilliance. The great Norman-Sicilian churches sheathed their walls in mosaic.
The Romanesque churches had been brightened with wall paintings. In Italy, the possibilities of coloured marble – white, green, pink, and black – gave churches a suave richness. But neither mosaic nor paintings nor marble could begin to equal the jewelled intensity of French stained glass. As sunlight struck the outside of the church from any direction or at any angle, the interior was emblazoned with shimmering veils of coloured light. Even on dark days, the windows fulfilled their expository function, telling stories from the Old and New Testaments, celebrating saints and heroes, and commemorating the benefactors of the church – those members of the royal house or of the local nobility and the prosperous guildsmen who contributed generously to the window fund.
With each of the many windows further subdivided into panels, medallions, circlets, and niches, the stained glass formed a vast picture book which could repay a lifetime of study. But seen all together, the glass was overwhelming. Thanks to it, the inside of the church became miraculous, supernatural, the nearest approximation man could make on earth of the divine city promised to the faithful after death. When stained-glass windows filled entire bays of the clerestory, the cathedrals of the 13th century proclaimed the underlying principles of creation and were a visible sign of the power and perfection of the Creator.
The skills involved in making stained glass had reached a high degree of development. Colour was infused into the molten glass itself – cobalt yielding the vast range of blues; iron oxide with added gold, the ruby reds; silver oxides, the yellows. But the same additives would also, in lesser or greater proportions, at higher or lower temperatures, produce purples or greens. The glassmakers commanded an astonishing number of these chemical tricks, secrets never written down and lost in subsequent centuries. Only in the middle of the 19th century, under the inspiration of Viollet-le-Duc, did the new scientific chemists laboriously analyse the composition of the glass and reconstruct the manner of its making. It then became evident that the very accidental nature of the process, the impurities of the ingredients, the lack of uniformity in each sheet of glass – which might be wavy, thick or thin, full of blisters and bubbles – had a great deal to do with the liveliness of the final effect. Glass made according to tested formulae and under controlled temperatures turned out to be a sorry imitation of the real thing. And then, the lead armatures in which the panes of glass were set like so many jewels were also subject to infinite variations of coarseness and fineness, curvature or flatness. The soldering of the joints could be done neatly or roughly, which also influenced the effect.
Before the final assembly, the coloured glass was trimmed to size either by heating or cutting with a diamond, and it was then painted with the requisite details. Folds were painted into the garments, features upon faces, leaves upon trees. This work was essentially an enamelling process, utilising a mixture of cullet (scrap glass), copper, and so-called Greek sapphire, dissolved in a vehicle of wine or urine. The second baking of the glass again produced surprises and idiosyncrasies, which became the despair of later scientific ages when they attempted to match the effects.
A small corps of artists was responsible for the designs. The stamp of certain masters can be seen in the windows of a host of churches in the Île-de-France and beyond. Perhaps only a few workshops workshops turned out all the stained glass. These shops had to be situated close to the raw materials – river sand was needed for the glass itself and forests to provide ample charcoal for the smelting. Chartres had the most notable workshop of all. Its glass was greatly in demand and exported as far as Canterbury in England. But there is reason to believe that the Chartres workshop employed Parisian artisans. For Paris, the royal city, was the most active centre of the decorative arts and attracted the finest craftsmen. Illuminators of manuscripts provided the king and court with psalters and books of hours; weavers of tapestries made vestments and altar cloths; goldsmiths and jewellers fashioned the reliquaries that were growing ever more elaborate.
Louis XIII’s vow to build a new high altar for Notre Dame was eventually fulfilled three quarters of a century after he had made it, by the son who had scarcely known him. For Louis XIV, who had so pertly announced his imminent accession when he was not yet five years old, sat on the throne for seventy-two years – the longest reign in the history of Europe. It was also the reign during which France became the greatest power in Europe, in which French virtually replaced Latin as the language of international diplomacy, in which French culture and manners were universally admired and imitated, French wealth envied, a French colonial empire founded, the French realm enlarged, a French civil service elaborated. Under Louis XIV, René Descartes and Blaise Pascal dominated mathematics, philosophy, and theology; Sébastien Vauban, military fortification; Henri the vicomte of Turenne and Henri Grand Condé, military tactics; Jean-Baptiste Colbert, economic theory and practice – much as the French armies dominated Europe. A host of great French writers were read not only in France but throughout the civilised world. If French painters could not compare with their Italian and Dutch contemporaries, French interior decoration, furniture and architecture had no rivals. Every king in Europe who had the means tried to imitate the vast halls and ornate glitter of the palace at Versailles. As one historian noted, it was only fitting that a king who so dominated his age and his country should close his reign by remaking the solid Gothic structure of Notre Dame in his own image.
Louis XIV tasked Robert de Cotte with the renovation. Cotte replaced the rood screen with a sumptuous and gilded wrought iron fence, opened up the choir and ambulatory, and removed the tombs in the nave. New furniture was produced as well as the current high altar, depicting Louis XIV and XIII kneeling before a Pietà. In 1709, canon Antoine de La Porte commissioned for Louis XIV six paintings depicting the life of the Virgin Mary for the choir. At this same time, Charles de La Fosse painted his Adoration of the Magi, now in the Louvre.
We’ll have to wait to find out who will be tasked with the restoration work. And no doubt the French will be their usual vocal selves in expressing their opinions on the selection of architect and the proposed restoration. One wonders how many architects are brave enough to take that on…
Mostly from ‘Notre Dame: A History’, by Richard Winston.