By Margaret Smith
The site of the cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Ile de la Cite, has long been a centre of worship for Parisians. The Romans worshipped in a temple here dedicated to Jupiter and there were three Christian churches on this spot before Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris, decided in 1160, that a new cathedral should be built to reflect the city’s status as the capital of France, a building which celebrated its 850th birthday in 2013.
Legend claims that Bishop Sully had had a vision of a glorious new church which he then sketched out in the dirt and dust in front of the earlier building. Before construction began in 1163 a number of houses had to be demolished and a new road constructed so that building materials could be transported there more easily.
A foundation stone was laid but opinion differs as to whether this ceremony was carried out by Sully himself or Pope Alexander III. Construction took almost 200 years, perhaps because, contrary to normal building practice, the western front with its two great towers was begun before the nave was completed.
Since its ‘initial’ completion in 1345, there have been many alterations and extensions to the building, though not all of them legal. Much damage was caused by rioting Huguenots in 1548 because they considered that many of the statues and other features were idolatrous but this was nothing compared to what happened during the French Revolution.
Throughout the country, churches were re-dedicated and became Temples to the Cult of Reason and Notre Dame didn’t escape. Many of the cathedral’s treasures were either destroyed or plundered because they were considered ‘tasteless’.
The statues of Biblical Kings of Judea were ‘beheaded’ by the mob who thought, erroneously, that they represented earlier Kings of France. Fortunately some of these heads were found during excavations in the 1970’s and are now displayed in the Musee de Cluny.
Statues of the Virgin Mary were replaced by ‘Lady Liberty’ on many altars. Then there were rumours that the whole building was going to be put up for sale until it was decided that it could be put to use as a centre for secular celebrations and gatherings.