It was the 10th of November 1793 when an attractive young opera singer was carried on a palanquin to the doors of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The singer – scantily clad and bearing the pike of Jupiter – was to play the part of Liberty in one of the strangest performances the 600-year-old Catholic Cathedral would ever witness. Entering through the central doors, she walked down the long aisle of the great Cathedral to her stage – a paper-mache “mountain” which had been erected in the Cathedral’s nave. Around the mountain stood a troupe of ballet dancers, all bearing torches in her honor. On the top of the mountain sat a small Greek temple with the words “To Philosophy” inscribed on it. The singer seated herself below the temple as the gathered crowd sang hymns in her honor – “Thou, Saint Liberty, inhabit this temple, Be of our nation the Goddess,” they cried.1 When the songs concluded, the singer climbed to the Greek temple, turned to the crowd, and smiled. Uproarious cheers erupted, thus completing the transformation of France’s leading Cathedral into the Revolution’s Temple of Reason. How did Notre Dame, a proud bastion of French Catholicism become host to a heretical spectacle that many would later call “ridiculous,” “grotesque,” and “repulsive”? The answer lies in the long and fascinating history of the Cathedral itself, which started in a booming medieval city, rose to new heights under the Bourbon kings, then fell again in a revolution.
Notre Dame de Paris
Construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163. It was the brainchild of the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, who felt the city had outgrown the existing Romanesque cathedral. Paris was booming during this period. New industries were taking root, the University of Paris was expanding, and government administration was growing. By the time of the first census in 1328, the population had ballooned to over 200,000 people (two and a half times the size of London). The Bishop felt the time had come to begin work on a new and grander cathedral, one that would be worthy of a large cosmopolitan city like Paris.
Once begun, construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral would continue nonstop for almost 100 years. It was a generational project, with seven different masters in charge of construction at different points in time. Each new master left their particular imprint on the building, incorporating new design elements which traced the trajectory of Gothic architecture.
Perhaps the most important of these innovations was the use of flying buttresses, which in the late 12th century were just coming into vogue. These exterior supports counter the outward push of the ceiling against the walls, allowing the structure to be taller and the walls thinner. With less load on the walls, more windows could be added and the interior pillars made slimmer. This made the Cathedral feel more expansive and emphasized verticality (Notre Dame was the first building in northern Europe to be more than 100 feet tall). One downside was that the exposed buttresses potentially marred the appearance of the exterior. The architects of Notre Dame, however, used them to enhance their work, placing statuary and other designs around them. Around the choir (where the flyers are most exposed), they appear like a forest of spires, ornate and soaring.
Decorating the rest of the Cathedral’s massive façade is an array of delicate carvings. These depict an assortment of religious scenes, including the Last Judgement, the Virgin Mary, and the lives of saints. This complemented the biblical imagery in Notre Dame’s ornate stained glass windows. The depiction of important religious scenes on the façade and in windows made Church teachings more accessible to a public that was at that time mostly illiterate (what we now call a “Poor Man’s Bible”).
The Royal Cathedral
When work on the Notre Dame Cathedral was finally completed around 1260, Maurice de Sully’s vision had been achieved – the people of Paris now had a Cathedral worthy of their city. In the succeeding centuries, its bells (among the largest in the world) would become a herald for both religious ceremonies and events of national importance. But just as Notre Dame shaped the city and its people, it too would be shaped by the great historical events that would follow. The next 300 years would see the Hundred Years War, multiple plagues, and the French Wars of Religion. These halted the medieval boom and sent Paris into decline.
Things only began to stabilize in 1594, when the first Bourbon monarch, Henri IV, captured Paris. Encountering only light resistance, Henri rode into the city at the head of his men, making Notre Dame his first stop. He was greeted at the entrance by the canons and archdeacon, as well as by the church’s ringing bells. Entering, he went straight to the Cathedral’s high altar, where he prayed for national reconciliation. As he prayed, thousands of Parisians flocked to the Cathedral. A spontaneous service – known as a Te Deum – was celebrated. Music was played and hymns were sung, all while the king remained kneeling at the altar in prayer. Outside the Cathedral, Henri’s soldiers passed out notices explaining Henri’s peaceful intentions. Grace and forgiveness were to be the order of the day. It was an auspicious beginning to what would become a long and fruitful relationship between the Bourbons and the Church
Henri IV and his heirs would go on to lavish Notre Dame with royal patronage. For 200 years, Notre Dame grew in splendor and riches. The Cathedral was filled with priceless paintings, sculptures, and even the captured standards of foreign armies. Among the most important pieces of art donated by the Bourbons was a three-piece marble ensemble commissioned by Louis XIV (the Sun King). The central piece of the ensemble was a Pietà – a depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Christ after the crucifixion. This piece was placed on the high altar. To its right is a statue of Louis XIII, who is depicted offering his crown to the Virgin Mary, while to the left is a statue of Louis XIV, kneeling in reverence. It was through works of art like this that Notre Dame became a potent symbol of the alliance between the crown and the church, assuring its centrality in the religious life of the nation.
Notre Dame in the Storm of Revolution
Then came 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution. It is difficult for us today to fully grasp the totality of the word, “revolution” – at least as it was understood in America in 1776, France in 1789, and Russia in 1917. These revolutions were complete and total repudiations of the past. They incited violence not just against those who defended the status quo but also against the psyche of the nation itself. Radical new ideas were called upon to replace the outdated philosophies being overthrown. In the case of France, these ideas were provided by Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, who offered a new coherent moral and ethical system completely divorced from the traditional sources of power – namely the church and the monarchy.
As a church with strong royal associations, Notre Dame was a conspicuous symbol of the old order and would soon find itself in the crosshairs of the revolution. This did not happen immediately, however. The day after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the new revolutionaries celebrated a Te Deum at Notre Dame. During this service, the new President of the National Assembly gave thanks to “Our Lady” for the commencement of the Revolution. It wouldn’t take long, however, until revolutionaries would begin to turn against the Church. In November 1789, the new National Assembly confiscated the Catholic Church’s massive land holdings, estimated at around 10% of all French land. In February 1790, monastic orders were dissolved, with former monks and nuns encouraged to reenter private life. Then in July of 1790 came the last straw. The Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which set up a new administration to manage and reorganize the clergy and allowed parishioners to elect their priests. The Pope, who had remained mostly silent up to this point, finally spoke out, declaring the constitution heretical and schismatic. Diplomatic relations between France and Rome were immediately severed.
Things only got worse from there. In 1793, an order went out to seize all bronze objects in Notre Dame so that they could be melted down to make cannon. Shortly after, they came for Notre Dame’s lead coffins, which were used to make bullets. In October 1793, the 28 kings of Judah on the west façade were ordered decapitated, the revolutionaries having mistaken them for depictions of former French Kings. Then in November came the coup de grace – Catholicism was outlawed and the Bishop of Paris arrested. To replace Catholicism, revolutionary leaders established the Cult of Reason, a religion built around the ceremonial worship of rational thought and the rejection of religious authority. Christian symbols were hastily removed from Notre Dame and the Cathedral was declared a Temple of Reason during the exceptionally sacrilegious ceremony described in the intro. But as with many things during the Revolution, the Cult of Reason did not last long. The following year, its leading lights were guillotined and the Cult of the Supreme Deity was born. Notre Dame was rechristened accordingly and began holding services to the Supreme Deity. During this time, it also served as a warehouse for 1,500 barrels of wine confiscated from aristocrats who had fled the country.
By this stage, Notre Dame was falling into neglect and increasing disrepair. Fortunately, things were about to change. The excesses and contradictions of the Revolution were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. All classes began to long for a return to moderation. In 1795, as the political climate began to change, Notre Dame was restored to the Catholic Church, though its use was still heavily circumscribed. Though modest, it was the first step in a long journey to restoring Notre Dame to its former glory.
A Coronation to Forget
In 1799, Napoleon closed the book on the French Revolution with a bloodless coup d’etat. “We have reached the end of the Revolution’s narrative,” he proclaimed. “Now we must govern, not philosophize.”2 He began this pragmatic program by seeking a rapprochement with the Church, opening negotiations with the Pope in June 1800. Talks would drag on for months, during which time Napoleon would feel popular pressure to reach an agreement. In 1801, a petition went up around Paris demanding that the bells of Notre Dame ring once more. That July, a deal was reached which became known as the Concordat. This substantially relaxed restrictions on Catholic worship and healed the divisions created by the Revolution’s attacks on the Church.
By 1802, the French economy was gradually recovering from the chaos of the Revolution. Moreover, after a string of spectacular battlefield victories, a tentative peace had been reached in Europe. Napoleon’s personal popularity soared during this period. Now was the time, he felt, to cement his legacy by taking the title of Emperor and founding a new dynasty. There was of course only one person capable of making an Emperor – the Pope. Having achieved reconciliation with the Church with the Concordat, Napoleon invited the Pope to Paris to participate in his coronation. The Pope initially balked but eventually reconsidered, figuring he could use the opportunity to extract further concessions from Napoleon on behalf of the Church (he wouldn’t).
Napoleon decided to hold the coronation at Notre Dame, not the Cathedral of Rheims – the traditional location for the coronation of French kings. It was a natural choice for Napoleon, a symbolic middle point between the royalty of old and the people of Paris, who had been the vanguard of the Revolution. It would take three months to decorate the Cathedral, which had fallen into disrepair. Thrones for Napoleon and the Pope were erected (Napoleon’s, of course, being higher). Tapestries, carpets, and canopies were brought in. The stones were thoroughly whitewashed, which unfortunately also significantly damaged the Cathedral’s frescoes. Even nearby houses were demolished with the justification that they obstructed the view of the Cathedral’s façade.
Soon the day itself, arrived. December 2nd, 1804. The ceremony, which had been carefully negotiated with the Pope, kicked off. As planned, Napoleon arrived at the Cathedral wearing his crown and holding the royal scepter. Upon entering, he placed the crown and the scepter on the altar. The Pope then anointed Napoleon’s head and hands with holy oil, an act that traditionally signified the transformation of the sovereign’s body from the profane to the sacred. The Pope then turned back toward the altar, blessing the crown and the rest of the royal regalia. Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for. The Pope picked up the crown and moved as if to place it on Napoleon’s head. Before he could, however, Napoleon snatched it from his hands and crowned himself. Contrary to popular myth, this was not a spontaneous act. It had been planned long in advance in consultation with the Pope. It symbolized that the Emperor derived his legitimacy not from God, but from the will of the people. This was meant to assure the public that the ideals of the Revolution lived on. Lest there be any further doubt that this was the case, following the (self)crowning, Napoleon took an oath before the crowd to “govern only in view of the interest, the well- being and the glory of the French people.”3
All told, it was a beautiful ceremony, flawlessly executed. Yet despite all the preparation, the pomp, and the expenses incurred, it failed. The elaborate and often cryptic symbolism embedded in the ceremony was largely lost on the public while the relegation of the Pope to a subordinate and diminished role created resentment within the Catholic community. While the failure did no lasting harm to Napoleon’s position, it did not deliver the boost to legitimacy that Napoleon and his advisors had hoped for. Recognizing this, little effort was made to publicize the event and Napoleon reportedly never spoke of it again.
Notre Dame – Renovation and Resilience
If neither Napoleon nor the Pope gained from the imperial coronation, then the winner by default was Notre Dame. It had weathered the storm of Revolution and now its dignity was restored. But having survived political upheaval, it would now face a new threat. As the 19th century kicked off, the 650 year-old Cathedral was beginning to show its age. Left to crumble, many began to fear that it was only a matter of time before Notre Dame succumbed to the fate of other medieval monuments – demolition. It was then that Victor Hugo, in a bid to save the Cathedral, wrote his famous novel the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He published the novel together with an earlier essay he had written, “War on the Demolishers,” enjoining the people to save their monuments. The ploy worked. The people of Paris rallied behind their Cathedral and the government agreed to pay a king’s ransom to restore it to its former glory.
The project wrapped up in 1864, saving the Notre Dame Cathedral for another 150 years. That is, until the night of April 15, 2019. You probably know the story by now: the heroic efforts by firefighters to save the building, the outpouring of grief over the tragic loss, and finally the popular commitment to rebuild what was lost. Fortunately, we now know that the fire was not quite as destructive as it initially appeared. Amazingly (some would say miraculously), not only did the main structure of the Cathedral remain largely intact, but many of the priceless works of art and relics housed there also appear to have survived. This includes the copper rooster weathervane formerly at the top of the spire, which collapsed in flame the night of the fire. The rooster, which was thought lost, held a tiny piece of Christ’s crown of thorns. Digging through the rubble the day after the fire, an architect working to preserve the Cathedral found the rooster, a little dented but largely intact. Even engulfed in flame, the Cathedral remains resilient.
Body and Soul
For centuries, writers have pondered Notre Dame’s significance as a religious and historical monument. As the recent fire has shown, it is far more than just a medieval-Gothic cathedral, both to the people of France and to the world. As a focal point of history and ceremony, its symbolism has changed with the times. Historian Avner Ben-Amos at Tel Aviv University writes that a monument is more than just the physical structure. It’s the ceremony and events associated with it that give it the weight of meaning capable of being passed down through the centuries. Monuments that are no longer part of ceremony cease also to be a part of history. A body without a soul. So it is that the physical structure of Notre Dame is only a part of the Cathedral’s story. It is its history, the ceremonies and debates that played out there, that capture our imagination and will continue to regardless of the state of the physical building.
Notre Dame is not the only cathedral to have had a close relationship with royalty. If you enjoyed this piece, check out my post on Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, here.
- The account of the Festival of Reason in the intro was actually the second time this ceremony was performed at Notre Dame that day. Exact details of the ceremony vary between accounts and the intro is a bit of an amalgamation from a couple different sources. The most complete explanation of what happened that day (at least, that I could find) was from Rodama, available here. Rodama helpfully includes excerpts from French sources. The quoted line from the hymn comes from L’église de Paris pendant la révolution française, 1789-1801, Vol. 2 (1895) p.431-3. The translation is Rodama’s. Rodama’s blog is an amazing resource for anyone interested in this period.
- Poirier, Agnès. “Notre-Dame: The Soul of France.” Oneworld Publications. April 2, 2020. This is a short, very well written history of Notre Dame. The quote from Napoleon about the end of the Revolution is from this book. I highly recommend it.
- Dwyer, Philip. “‘Citizen Emperor’: Political Ritual, Popular Sovereignty and the Coronation of Napoleon I.” History, vol. 100, no. 1 (339), 2015, pp. 40–57.
- Murray, Stephen. “Notre-Dame of Paris and the Anticipation of Gothic.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 80, no. 2, 1998, pp. 229–253.
- Ben-Amos, Avner. “Monuments and Memory in French Nationalism.” History and Memory, vol. 5, no. 2, 1993, pp. 50–81.
- Bruzelius, Caroline. “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 69, no. 4, 1987, pp. 540–569.
- Carlyle, Thomas (1838) . The French Revolution: A History. II. Boston, MA: Little & Brown.