Notre Dame Exposition, Part II

Notre Dame de Paris, by Frédéric Houbron
1901 Painting of Notre Dame, by Frédéric Houbron

Last week, I began a multi-part post about a new online exposition that covers the history of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The exhibit includes more than one hundred historical documents and works of art, which span the church’s 800+ year history. Paris Musées, a consortium of 14 Paris museums, has curated the exposition, which went online one year after the tragic fire that ravaged the famous monument. However, most if not all of the selected works are property of the Musée Carnavalet. As this is my favorite museum in Paris, I feel compelled to tell you a tiny bit about it before delving back into the exposition.

You will find the Musée Carnavalet nestled in the heart of the congested Marais, one of the oldest quarters of Paris. This museum, housed in two 16th-century buildings, features the history of Paris and its inhabitants. Roughly one hundred rooms present thousands of works including paintings, drawings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, models, and archeological fragments. Admission is free. So, even if you don’t read French (none of the descriptions are in English), I still recommend a visit. The architecture of the building alone, and its peaceful interior courtyard, are well worth your time. Now, back to the online exposition.

The Towering Flèche

News of last year’s fire spread rapidly around the world. Internationally, people tuned-in to live footage of smoke billowing from Notre Dame’s rooftop. As authorities scrambled to clear the areas around the building and firefighters wrestled with the best approach for fighting the fire, flames became visible above the nave. The inferno steadily grew until it consumed the church’s graceful flèche which collapsed, provoking a worldwide collective gasp. Fortunately, firefighters gained control of the situation in time to avoid ruin of the entire structure. Notre Dame survived and the ravaged spire will, hopefully, not be the cathedral’s last. In fact, it was not the first.

17th Century Etching, by Jacques Rigaud
17th Century Etching, by Jacques Rigaud

In 1163, Pope Alexander III laid the first stone to inaugurate construction of Notre Dame de Paris. Fifty years later, the church received its first flèche and bell tower, made of wood. A 17th-century etching by Jacques Rigaud provides a view of Notre Dame and its original spire from the left bank of the river Seine. By the end of the 18th century, this structure was decaying and in danger of collapse. Authorities had it dismantled and removed. As a result, the roofline between Notre Dame’s front and rear facades stood empty for the half-century that followed. Remarkably, the Paris Musées’ exposition includes an early photograph of the cathedral with its barren covering. Many such early photographs are sprinkled throughout the exhibit.

Le Bourdon, Notre Dame's Largest Bell
Engraving depicting “Le Bourdon”, Notre Dame’s largest bell.

Finally in 1843, the prominent architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc erected a new flèche. This is the spire that collapsed in last April’s inferno. The new flèche, made of wood and reinforced with lead, was 96 meters high and contained 21 bronze bells. The oldest and largest of its bells was referred to as “le bourdon“. Forged in 1683, the ancient bell measured 2.62 meters in diameter and weighed 13 tons. It was the only one of Notre Dame’s bells to survive the French revolution. Sadly, the others were plundered and melted down into cannonballs. Parenthetically, a restoration project in 2012 replaced all of the cathedral’s bells except the bourdon since they had fallen out of tune. The newly-forged bells, as well as the ancient bourdon, survived last year’s fire.

Notre Dame’s Parvis

Engraving, The King Arrives at Notre Dame
Engraving of King Arriving at Notre Dame, by Jean Le Clerc

In the Middle Ages, Paris was one of the largest cities in Europe and the Ile de la Cité, the island upon which Notre Dame stands, was at its center. Crowded, narrow streets crisscrossed the isle, populated with diverse edifices. The expansive square that today resides in front of the old church did not exist. This space, immediately in front of the cathedral, is known as the parvis. For the first 450 years or so, the parvis was significantly smaller and lay beneath the normal street level, accessed via stairs.

Plan for Monument to Joan of Arc
Plan for Monument to Joan of Arc, by Pierre-Henri Mayeux

Over the centuries, other churches, commerces, dwellings, shops, monuments, and even a hospital came and went from the area. The parvis itself underwent several major renovations. However, it wasn’t until the 1860s and 1870s that the parvis attained its current dimensions. At that time, several improvement projects were considered, including one to build a monument in the center of the parvis that would honor Joan of Arc. In the end, a statue revering a mounted Charlemagne, accompanied by his vassals, supplanted this plan. The Charlemagne monument remains to this day, located on the south side of the parvis.

Numerous re-construction projects throughout the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in many archeological discoveries. Today, you can visit an archeological museum that lies beneath the current parvis. Here you can learn more about what has stood on the site, starting from ancient times, when the Gauls occupied Paris, through the 19th century.

Scene of Pageantry and Culture

Up until the French revolution, Notre Dame was the preeminent place of Catholic worship in Paris. Kings, popes, bishops, and other important people would gather there to participate in the kingdom’s major events. One notable ceremony, known as La Procession de la Châsse de Sainte-Geneviève, involved a cortege in which a châsse containing the remains of Sainte-Geneviève was carried from its resting place in the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève through the city streets to Notre Dame. People believed that engaging in this ritual could cure a variety of ills. For example, in 1130 one such procession purportedly cured 100 out of 103 followers suffering from a malady that had already killed over 14,000 Paris residents. The 3 that died were proclaimed doubters.

Procession of the Châsse of Sainte Genevieve
Ink Drawing, Procession de la Châsse de Sainte Geneviève, 17th century

The manner in which the procession was conducted was strictly defined. Parisians lined the route with carpets and erected decorative altars along its margins. Spectators threw flowers upon the châsse as it passed by. Sixteen to twenty-four barefooted porters carried the châsse, chosen members of the six most important guilds in Paris: drapers, grocers, smiths, hosiers, furriers, and notions dealers. Members from each Parisian parish walked before the châsse, not behind it. The social status of each participant determined his position in the queue. Hence, the most important dignitaries of Paris were at the rear of the procession. This is why works of art that feature such events nearly always place the end of a procession in the foreground.

The Grands Mays of Notre Dame
Interior of Notre Dame, showing the Grands Mays, by J. F. Depelchin

Between 1630 and 1707, the guild of silver and goldsmiths would annually coordinate production of a series of giant paintings to hang in the nave of Notre Dame. Each tableau measured roughly 2 by 3 meters and depicted a biblical scene associated with the life of the Virgin Mary. People referred to the enormous canvases as the grands mays since every year, the church would hang a new set during the month of May. Works of art that depict the expansive display of mays often provide a stunning perspective of Notre Dame’s colossal nave.

Grand May, Descente du Saint-Esprit
Grand May, The Descent of the Holy Spirit, by Jacques Blanchard

In the chaos of the French revolution, many of the grands mays were seized and scattered throughout France. Some were saved and moved to the Louvre. Some returned to the regions where the artists that created them had lived. Others disappeared. Notre Dame was still in possession of 76 of the grands mays when last year’s fire broke out. Thirteen were on display to the public inside the church. Thanks to a predetermined evacuation plan and the courage of firefighters, priests, church staff, and random volunteers, more than 90 percent of Notre Dame’s vast collection of artistic and liturgical works were saved. Among them, all of the remaining grands mays.

Continue to Part III of this post.


About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

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