Notre Dame: The History of an Icon
The entire world watched in shock as Paris' iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was ravaged by a fire on April 15, 2019. The beautiful cathedral has stood as a sentinel, and an important symbol of Catholicism, in the French city for 856 years.
Discover more about the fire, as well as the history behind this beautiful cathedral and what made it so special to the entire world.
Flames Engulf the Roof of the Cathedral
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but officials believe it was likely an accident related to restoration work being done on the structure.
Billows of Smoke Take to the Skies
To get to the blaze, firefighters and emergency personnel had to navigate over bridges (during rush hour) to reach the Île de la Cité.
Firefighters Try to Contain the Damage
The fire destroyed large parts of the over 800-year-old-structure, but more than 400 firefighters were on the scene to save what they could. It took more than seven hours to contain the inferno and save the structure's two iconic bell towers.
Firefighters Get Close to the Flames
Emergency teams removed as much art and historic relics inside the building as possible. We do not yet know the status of all the pieces, but there's good news regarding at least one particularly significant work: a relic of the Crown of Thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ at the time of his crucifixion. It's been confirmed that this treasure was spared from damage.
Thanks to the Efforts of Firefighters, the Damage is Contained
French President Emmanuel Macron thanked firefighters for saving the cathedral's main facade. "Thanks to their bravery, the worst has been avoided."
Plans to Rebuild
On Tuesday, April 16, French officials announced they had extinguished the blaze. The full extent of the damage is still being assessed, and an international fundraising campaign is being organized to raise money for the renovations.
Paris has vowed to rebuild its iconic place of worship, with French President Emmanuel Macron stating, "The worst has been avoided, but the battle isn't fully on yet."
He tweeted, "Notre-Dame is aflame. Great emotion for the whole nation. Our thoughts go out to all Catholics and to the French people. Like all of my fellow citizens, I am sad to see this part of us burn tonight. Notre-Dame is aflame. Great emotion for the whole nation. Our thoughts go out to all Catholics and to the French people. Like all of my fellow citizens, I am sad to see this part of us burn tonight."
French billionaires Bernard Arnault, Bettencourt Meyers and François-Henri Pinault, along with families of other notable French companies, had pledged more than $700 million for the reconstruction by daybreak.
The Birth and Rise of Notre Dame
Notre Dame was built on the site of two former basilicas, with its foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163. By the 1300s, the cathedral contained most of its adornments, including a nave, porches and chapels.
The imposing structure has been one of Paris' top sights for centuries, standing an imposing 226 feet high at the height of its bell towers.
An Icon Ablaze
When the fire began on Monday and quickly spread through the monument, the world was riveted — and devastated.
Interestingly, this is not the first time there's been a fire at Notre Dame. An inferno in the 13th century caused significant damage, leading to restorations between 1230 and 1240.
The most iconic images of Notre Dame are of its twin towers, 226 feet in height. The tallest structures in Paris until 1889's completion of the Eiffel Tower, the bell towers were added to the cathedral between 1200 and 1250.
The south tower holds Notre Dame's 10 bells, while the north tower has been enjoyed by visitors willing to climb the 387 steps to reach the top and view Paris.
During Notre Dame's history, the bells have been rung both in celebration and remembrance, including to mark the end of World Wars I and II. The bourdon bell weighs 13 tons and dates back to King Louis XIV, who named it Emmanuel.
The Bell Towers are Spared
While the fire significantly damaged much of the cathedral, its towers were left intact.
Standing nearly 300 feet in height, the spire was one of the most iconic elements of Notre Dame to come down during the April 15 fire. The original spire was placed atop the cathedral in the 13th century; the spire that fell into the flames was a 19th century recreation.
The first spire, or fleche, had been removed in 1786, after it was weather-beaten from 500 years above the transept and altar of the church. The reconstructed version was covered in lead to help it withstand the elements, and weighed 750 tons.
A rooster sat at the top of the spire, holding a tiny piece of the Crown of Thorns and relics from the patron saints of Paris, Denis and Saint Genevieve. Those relics were removed before the fire and were spared.
The Spire Up in Flames
The central spire began collapsing early in the blaze.
The Moment the Spire Fell
Onlookers gasped as the spire fell into the flames.
Surrounding Notre Dame's spire were 12 copper Apostles, added by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who had also recreated the spire.
Featured in four groups of three in the four positions of the compass, all but one of the Apostles faced Paris. The exception was Saint Thomas, the patron saint of architects, who faced Viollet-le-Duc's spire.
Each group of Apostles was paired with an animal symbolizing an evangelist. Seen in this picture is an eagle, representing Saint John.
Thankfully, the Apostles were removed just days before the fire, in preparation for renovation, and so have been spared.
Notre Dame's three circular rose windows are its most famous features after the bell towers. Situated on the north, south and west sides of the church, the windows date back to the 1200s, including the north rose window, donated by King Louis IX.
The stained glass in all three windows was replaced by the 1960s and depict scenes from the life of Christ, the story of Adam and Eve, and Saints Peter and Paul. Other windows below the rose windows showcase the Prophets, added in the 19th century.
Rose Windows Survive
A spokesperson has said the precious stained-glass windows are still intact.
Notre Dame was the product of King Louis VII, who wanted a spectacular monument of a church that could put Paris on the world map.
The arched roof, developed in the 1100s, showed off a new technology: a rib vault. This construction balanced the weight of the roof.
Rib Vault Roof, Destroyed
The fire destroyed most of the roof of Notre Dame.
Shape of the Cross
Like many Gothic churches, Notre Dame was laid out in the shape of a cross. The original cathedral was demolished in 1160 to make way for the new Notre Dame, referred to by Parisians as "Our Lady of Paris."
During the April 15 fire, the roof caved in on the majority of the church.
A Cross Remains
Deemed one of the miracles of the fire, the Golden Altar's cross remained standing following the fire, and prayer votives that were lit before the fire broke out were reported to still be lit.
The Last Judgement
Above Notre Dame's grand entrance was a sculpture of the Last Judgement. The powerful artwork depicted the Second Coming of Christ, with sinners being led to hell and the innocent making their way to heaven.
The sculptures depicting biblical stories were meant to serve the people of Paris, many of whom were originally illiterate, giving the cathedral its nickname as "the poor people's book."
Hundreds of gargoyles were added around Notre Dame as a means of covering unsightly water spouts. In more mythical terms, the ferocious demons were also meant to keep away evil spirits.
As with the original spire, the gargoyles of Notre Dame were restored with new additions during the 1800s. Viollet-le-Duc had some fun by even adding his own figure to the collection.
Notre Dame's signature flying buttresses were added in the 13th century to support the weight of the church walls. Replaced in the 14th century, they stretched 40 feet.
Notre Dame did not receive its first organ until the 1400s. When Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was restoring the cathedral, he incorporated a new pipe organ, which was added in 1868.
The pipes of the organ were created out of pipes from other instruments. More than 8,000 pipes were used in the organ, which has been saved from the fire.
One of Paris' most iconic sites, more than 13 million people visited Notre Notre every year, with lines to enter the cathedral and climb to the top of its towers often wrapping around the building.
Although a tourist destination, the cathedral was also an active Catholic church where daily mass was offered to visitors and locals alike.
Île de la Cité
Notre Dame resides on Île de la Cité, a natural island in the Seine River that separates Paris' Left and Right Banks. The city began on this island, considered the center of Paris, during medieval times.
The island is also home to the Palais de Justice and the Sainte-Chappelle church.
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Notre Dame was immortalized in Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in 1831. It is said that he set his tale in the Gothic building to make people aware of the architecture's importance and to promote its restoration.
Numerous films have portrayed the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, including Walt Disney's animated picture and the 1956 film starring Anthony Quinn (shown here).
Just in front of Notre Dame is Paris' Point Zero. (Kilometre Zereos in French.) The geographic marker supposedly marks the exact center of the city, and is used to measure Paris' distance from other locations.
It is rumored that if you spin in the circle on one foot then kiss your love, you will be together forever. Other visitors leave coins on the marker, making wishes that are said to be granted.