Whenever we hear the name Notre Dame, one of two things might come to mind: the movie that we all watched and loved, about a man who rang the bells at a church, called “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” or the notorious Fighting Irish football team in Indiana from Notre Dame University. Well, if you were hoping that this was an article on Quasimodo or the Division I football team, I am sorry to disappoint you. But do not be too discouraged because, instead, you will read about one of the most beautiful cathedrals that has ever been built (and it is in the film the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” so that is relatively close). The Notre Dame de Paris, or as we call it in English, the Notre Dame Cathedral, is a massive Gothic cathedral that represents the times and art of medieval Europe.
The architectural style of Gothic came into existence in Europe in the mid-twelfth century and lasted until the sixteenth century.1 The idea of the Notre Dame de Paris, which translates to “Our Lady of Paris,” was established by Maurice de Sully in 1160 who was the bishop of Paris at the time.
He wanted to build a cathedral church dedicated to the Virgin Mary; hence the name’s translation. The first stone for the foundation was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163.2 The Notre Dame Cathedral was built on the ruins of two previous churches in the eastern end of the Ile de la Cite, which is the “historical heart of the city.”3 The purpose for it being built, beside dedication to the Virgin Mary, was for it to be an education center. During the high middle ages, the increasing wealth and social complexity of the cities created the demand for educated individuals to deal with “political, legal, and theological issues.” The institution did not, however, hold classes inside of the cathedral. Instead, there was a school connected to the cathedral.4
Emerging from the Romanesque Era, the Gothic Age of architecture came along with its signature innovation: the flying buttress. You probably think I am joking with a name like that, but those types of appendages to the frames of Gothic cathedrals were what allowed for these cathedrals to be built so tall. During the Romanesque Era, cathedrals were much shorter due to the heavy stones that were used for building the walls, limiting how tall they could build. The classic Roman arches could not evenly distribute the weight with the dome shape they took.5
Now if we take a look at the cathedrals during the Gothic Age, the difference in height can be readily noticed. The cathedrals during this time seemed to tower over those of the previous era. For that, we can thank the flying buttresses that were mentioned earlier. These buttresses were able to absorb the weight displacement of the walls, allowing them to be made taller, and allowing them to have large spaces for stained glass windows, which were not possible for Romanesque cathedrals. The weight of the stones could be easily supported by the thin intersecting arches. The architects discovered that the outward thrust of the vaults were concentrated in the small areas at the springing of the ribs and were also deflected downward by the pointed arches; the pressure could be counteracted by the narrow buttresses. Rows of carved flying buttresses created the signature look for Gothic masterpieces such as the Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, and Beauvais.6
The Notre Dame de Paris is a model cathedral for the era of Gothic Architecture. The multipurpose cathedral created an environment of religious and secular education that helped shape the minds of the world. I know that there was no mention of a “Hunchback” in this article of the Notre-Dame, but I can guarantee that Quasimodo was proud to ring the bells of such a monumental cathedral.