Aside from St. Paul’s Cathedral in Vatican City, Notre-Dame in Paris is probably one of the most famous churches in the world. Around 13 Million people visit this cathedral every year, that is an average of 30,000 people per day and in the peak summer season this can go as high as 50,000.
Notre-Dame cathedral sits on an island in the River Seine, the Ile-de-la Cite and can easily be reached by public transport. A number of different Metro Lines run to nearby stations, and various bus lines have stops around the cathedral.
Entry to Notre-Dame is free, and although the que to get in can be rather long, it does move fairly fast. This gives you a good opportunity to admire the front facade, which is just outstanding, but more about that a little later. The cathedral is open daily and masses are held several times a day; for details on opening times and mass times visit their website.
If you are looking for details on the famous gargoyles of this cathedral, please visit my previous post entitled “The not so old Gargoyles of Notre-Dame“.
Notre-Dame is dedicated to “Our Lady” (Notre-Dame), Mary the mother of Jesus. This impressive church started life in 1163 and its dedication mass took place two centuries later, in 1345. Much of the work was done by the ordinary citizens of the city, for free, with master masons supervising.
It should be noted that the Romans were the first to build on this spot. Back in 52 BC the Romans, who had conquered the Parisii tribe, built a temple to their god Jupiter on this same spot. When the Roman empire fell, the Germanic Franks replaced this temple with their Christian church of St. Etienne in the 6th Century. You can actually see the outlines of this church in the pavement in the form of the smaller gray stones. Whilst you are looking at the ground, see if you can spot some yellow bricks, which outlines the medieval street plan of this area. Today this square is large and open, but in medieval times it was a much smaller area with shambles facing a then run-down church, winding streets all around and higgledy-piggledy buildings everywhere.
In front of the cathedral, about 30 yards/27 meters from the central doorway, you will see a bronze plaque on the ground with the words “Point Zero” engraved around it. This is the spot from which all distances in France are measured and is considered the center of France; incidentally, it also used to be the center of Paris 2,300 years ago.
Now look to your right, as you face the church, and you will see a great statue. This is Charlemagne (Charles the Great 742-814), King of the Franks, whose reign marks the birth of the nation of France. He was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. His death however marked the start of a split in his country, which eventually would become permanent and lead to the formation of France and Germany as separate nations.
Just at the side of the left doorway, as you face the church, is a statue with his head in his hands. This is St. Denis, the city’s first bishop and patron saint. St. Denis was beheaded by the Romans, as he was too successful in converting people to Christianity. According to legend, once beheaded, he picked up his head, tucked it under his arm, and headed north. On his way he stopped at a fountain to wash the head and he continued on until he found the right place at which to meet his maker. This was supposedly at Montmartre. Although the name Montmartre comes from the Roman “Mount of Mars”, later generations, when thinking about their beheaded patron, preferred to use the less pagan version “Mount of Martyrs”.
Look just above the church front portal and you will see a row of statues; these are the 28 Kings of Judah. During the French Revolution (1789-1799) these biblical kings were mistaken by the citizens as the hated French Kings and so they stormed the church and chopped their heads off. In 1977 an accidental discovery unearthed these missing heads. Apparently a school teacher who lived nearby at the time of their decapitation, collected the heads and buried them in his garden for safekeeping. These original heads can be seen in the Cluny Museum, which is just a few streets away.
Once you enter the church be aware that pick pockets are religious; religiously trying to lighten your load!
You can get an audio guide for 5 Euros, or take a free English-language guided tour (again, visit the Notre-Dame website for details). Notre-Dame has the typical basilica floor plan we see in so many catholic churches; a long nave lined with columns and flanked by side aisles. There is seating space for up to 10,000 people, and it probably feels like there is just that number all around you when you visit. Don’t let that put you off enjoying the inside of this fantastic building.
At the altar you will see a 17th Century pieta, flanked by two kings; Louis XIII (1601-1643) and his son the famous sun king Louis XIV (1638-1715).
One statue that a lot of people just seemed to walk by is that of the French teenage soldier Joan of Arc (1412-1431). She is depicted here in her dress of armor, praying. She was burned at the stake by the English and their allies for claiming to hear heavenly voices. The teenager was beatified here in Notre-Dame in 1909.
Follow the statues gaze and you will be looking at one of the three rose windows. This one is special as it still has its original medieval glass.
The outside of this church is just as amazing as its interior. The flying buttresses are 50-foot stone beams and are the key to this complex Gothic architecture. They are responsible for supporting the roof, as the pointed arches in the interior cause the weight of the roof to be pushed outward and the buttresses push the weight back inward.