Notre Dame’s history is 9 centuries of change, renovation and renewal

The Notre-Dame de Paris had been damaged and changed many times since it was begun in the mid-12th century. But the fire on April 15 might have been its most catastrophic event.

Located on the eastern end of the Ile-de-la-Cité, an island on the Seine River, the site was a Christian church since the fourth century. And for a long time, it remained a powerful symbol of church authority. Even today, it is the seat of the archbishop of Paris.

As a scholar of Gothic architecture I have studied how this and other buildings were continuously adapted to reflect changing architectural fashion and to enhance the spiritual experience of the visitor.

Key part of religious district

The current cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady, or the Virgin Mary, replaced an earlier cathedral that was built during the Merovingian period which lasted from the fifth to eighth century. The earlier building was dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Maurice de Sully is believed to have initiated the rebuilding of the cathedral around the same time that he became bishop of Paris in 1160. Maurice had previously served as archdeacon of the cathedral where he also taught theology.

Other church officials likely also had a role in this rebuilding as the cathedral canons, or clerics, and not the bishop held authority over the structure.

Reconstruction of the cathedral was part of a larger redesign of the eastern part of the Ile-de-la-Cité. This neighborhood housed the church officials, masters, clerics, servants and others who worked to run the diocese of Paris and the cathedral school.

Maurice’s other projects at the time included construction of a new street, the rue Neuve Notre-Dame, which ran from the cathedral to the west – now replaced by the square in front of the cathedral. He also built a new palace for the bishop and a new charitable hospital.

How structures were added

Construction proceeded under a series of master builders.

The first part of the cathedral to be built was the eastern part, or choir. This was to serve as the religious heart of the structure where the main altar would be located. Construction then generally proceeded westward, though multiple parts of the building were sometimes worked on simultaneously.

The design, however, was continuously revised during the course of construction. For example, in the 1220s the upper wall of the cathedral, which had already been constructed, was demolished and rebuilt to allow for larger windows. This transformed the building from a four-story to a three-story structure.

The new cathedral was largely completed by around 1245, although, construction continued in various parts until the mid-14th century. During these 200 years chapels were added along the exterior of the cathedral, some structural supports modified and the transept arms were extended, giving the cathedral a cross-like shape.

In my assessment, these many remodels during the Middle Ages demonstrated the vitality of the cathedral in medieval life and the creativity of the builders, as they adapted the building to changing architectural fashions and social practices. The change to a three-story structure, that had become the standard by the early 13th century, is one such example.

My forthcoming book shows how cathedrals, including Notre Dame of Paris, were connected to the daily life in the city. There were markets around cathedrals and also spaces where disputes could be resolved. In other words, the cathedral was an important part of medieval city life.

Meaning for France

Notre Dame was the most colossal church of its generation – wider and taller than other European churches of the mid-12th century.

There were several technological breakthroughs made in its construction. For example, it was a site of early experimentation with flying buttresses, the externalized buttressing arches that transfer the weight of the heavy stone vault away from the walls, which can then be pierced by large window openings filled with stained glass.