Cathédrale de Notre-Dame
Built on the site of the Merovingian cathedral of Saint-Étienne, itself sited on the old Roman temple to Jupiter, Notre-Dame was begun in 1160 under the auspices of Bishop de Sully and completed around 1345. The cathedral's seminaries became an ecclesiastical powerhouse, churning out six popes in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though it subsequently lost some of its pre-eminence to other sees, such as Rheims and St-Denis. The building fell into decline over the centuries, suffering its worst depredations during the Revolution when the frieze of Old Testament kings on the facade was damaged by enthusiasts who mistook them for the kings of France. Napoleon restored some of the cathedral's prestige by crowning himself emperor here in 1804, though the walls were so dilapidated they had to be covered with drapes to provide a sufficiently grand backdrop.
It was only in the 1820s that the cathedral was at last given a much-needed restoration largely thanks to a petition drawn up by Victor Hugo, who had also stirred public interest through his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, in which he lamented the sorry state of the cathedral (Gothic architecture was particularly favoured by Romantic novelists like Hugo, who deemed the soaring naves of the great cathedrals singularly suited to sheltering "tormented souls"). The task of restoration was entrusted to Viollet-le-Duc, who carried out an extensive and thorough renovation some would say too thorough remaking much of the statuary on the facade (the originals can be seen in the Musée National du Moyen-Âge) and adding the steeple and baleful-looking gargoyles, which you can see close up if you brave the ascent of the towers (daily: AprilSept MonThurs 9am7.30pm, FriSun 9am9pm; OctMarch 10am5pm; €5.50).
The facade was given a thorough clean in the run-up to the millennium, removing years of accumulated grime and allowing the magnificent carvings over the portals to make their full impact. Perhaps the most arresting is the scene over the central portal, showing the Day of Judgement: the lower frieze is a whirl of movement as the dead rise up from their graves, while above Christ presides, sending those on his right to heaven and those on his left to grisly torments in hell the condemned include a fair number of what look like bishops and kings, suggesting that the craftsmen of the day were not without freedom to criticize the authorities. They weren't lacking in a sense of humour either: all around this arch peer out alert and mischievous-looking angels, said to be modelled on the cathedral choirboys of the time. The left portal shows Mary being crowned by Christ, with scenes of her life in the lower friezes, while the right portal depicts the Virgin enthroned, and below, episodes from the life of Saint Anne (Mary's mother) and the life of Christ. These are masterfully put together, using visual devices and symbols to communicate more than just the bare-bones story in the nativity scene, for example, the infant Christ is placed above Mary to show his elevated status and lies on an altar rather than in a crib, symbolizing his future sacrifice.
Inside, you're struck immediately by the dramatic contrast between the darkness of the nave and the light falling on the first great clustered pillars of the choir, emphasizing the sacred nature of the sanctuary. It is the end walls of the transepts that admit all this light, nearly two-thirds glass, including two magnificent rose windows coloured in imperial purple. These, the vaulting and the soaring shafts reaching to the springs of the vaults, are all definite Gothic elements, while there remains a strong sense of Romanesque in the stout round pillars of the nave and the general sense of four-squareness. The trésor (daily 9.30am6pm; €2.50) contains mostly ornate nineteenth-century monstrances and chalices and isn't really worth the entry fee.
Free guided Tours (1hr1hr 30min) take place in French every weekday at noon and on Saturday at 2pm, and in English on Wednesday at noon; gather at the welcome desk near the entrance. A leisurely way to take in the interior are the free organ recitals, held every Sunday at around 4 or 5pm. The instrument, by the great nineteenth-century organ-maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, is one of France's finest, with over six thousand pipes.
Before you leave, walk round to the public garden at the east end for a view of the flying buttresses supporting the choir, and then along the riverside under the south transept, where you can sit in springtime with the cherry blossom drifting down. On the other side of the cathedral, to the north, lie rues Chanoinesse, des Ursins and de la Colombe, three of the few streets on the island to have survived Haussmann's attentions. There's nothing particularly special about them, but the old houses here give some flavour of the more atmospheric pre-Haussmann Île de la Cité.
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