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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Inside Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris at sunset.
A vending machine inside the
Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral..
In having visited France, you happen to mention in passing that you toured Notre Dame, you'd best be a little more specific. There are seven Notre Dame Cathedrals in France, plus an additional nine other churches having Notre Dame in their names. Last month, my wife and I toured Notre Dame de Paris. As is always the case, it's one thing to see photos and write about such a famous edifice. It's quite something else when you've "been there, done that." It's like being inside the great cathedral as opposed to merely seeing the outside, even having seen photos of the inside. Even when the cathedral is most beautiful, at sunset (above), a photo is a poor substitute for being in the church's overwhelming presence. Moreover, it's often the little things that leave the most lasting impression. Even before going inside, I was startled to see French Army troops guarding the structure. Of course, given the recent terrorist tragedy in Paris, I shouldn't have been; yet I don't recall ever visiting any other such landmark guarded by a military presence (below). Those were assault rifles they were carrying and I have no doubt they were loaded. Inside, while passing around the perimeter of the apse, somewhere behind the high altar I think it was, I was stunned to find vending machines (left). No, they weren't dispensing soft drinks, only religious medals (two euros each) but still, vending machines in a cathedral?

The French military standing guard before what would
undoubted be a prime target for a terrorist attack.
The Notre Dame de Paris Pieta,
1723, Nicolas Coustou. 
Touring a Gothic cathedral, one expects to be stunned by its beauty, regardless of how familiar you might already be with what you're seeing. In my case, it wasn't the architecture, or the stained glass windows, or even its soaring height which left me gaping. I was awed by the high altar (right) with its pieta titled Descent from the Cross, (1723) by Nicolas Coustou. I've seen Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta. This one could sit very comfortably next to it. Any sculptural work has to be rather on the awesome side to compete with it's setting, dwarfed by the ten-story height of the cathedral, backed by three major and several minor stained glass windows. Situated at the far end of the nave, Coustou's work serves as an impressive visual climax while at the same time struggling not to be overwhelmed by its surroundings.

The soaring nave of Notre Dame de Paris. Even in daylight, it relies on artificial light to attain anything approaching the luminous interior of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia.

Copyright, Jim Lane
A Gothic window (inadequately)
lighting the nave of Notre Dame de Paris.
Having just come from Barcelona and toured Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, I came to Paris somewhat jaded with regard to big churches. Notre Dame compares very well in terms of scale, but, despite the number and size of its stained glass windows, they cannot compete with the light, bright, airiness of Gaudi's creation. Of course medieval Gothic and 19th-century Art Nouveau involves an apples and oranges comparison if for no other reason than the advances in structural engineering during the intervening seven-hundred years. Yet they are both magnificent testaments to man's outward devotion to God, art, and beauty so some degree of comparison is unavoidable.

The cathedral's rose windows are masterpieces of geometry, engineering, class making (and cutting). They punctuate the north and south portals of the transept and the narthex façade over the west portal (main entrance).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Funerary Monument to the Count of
Harcourt, Notre Dame cathedral
Undoubtedly Notre Dame is best known for its enormous stained glass "rose" windows (above). I recall an art history professor I had once explaining why they call them that, but I forget what he said, and it doesn't matter much anyway. Suffice to say they are exquisitely beautiful and unbelievably large. If you can pry your eyes from the windows, closer to the ground you find a massive collection of religious sculpture. Some, such as the Funerary Monument to the Count of Harcourt (right, located in a side chapel off the nave) are striking in their audacity, a lingering souvenir from the baroque era as it toys with the macabre. (That's a robed skeleton bearing an hourglass at the head of the sarcophagus represents death.)

Copyright, Jim Lane
A large, scale model made of wood helps visitors wrap their minds
around both the enormity of the structure as well as the finer details of this
groundbreaking work of Gothic architectural engineering.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The front doors to the cathedral/
The French department of tourism and/or the Catholic Church have gone to considerable lengths to allow tourists to not just see and experience Notre Dame, but to help them understand it as well, The museum's emphasis is on both the history and the architectural engineering that have made this stone monument a national symbol. It remains a place of worship, but like Sagrada Familia, it doubles as a tourist attraction. Admission is free and the massive doors are open every day of the year from 8:00 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. (7:15 p.m. on the weekends). You may, however, unless you wish to attend Mass, want to time your visit around a daily schedule of religious services. The museum, tucked into the recesses of the immense structure, features a scale model (above) allowing visitors to visually "fly over" the cathedral, inspecting details not otherwise visible. It's unlikely you would ever be able to actually do so from a plane (below).

Notre Dame de Paris from the air.
No, these are not tourists waiting in line to get into Notre
Dame. They're apostles from the Portal of the Last Judgment.

I wonder if the French have considered letting the
fearsome Notre Dame gargoyle's guard the place.



  1. I happened to come across this while searching for some information on the stained glass at ND, and I have to say . . . you hit it right on the nose when you said (in essence) you can view photographs, models, drawings, etc., all day long of these magnificent buildings, but NOTHING prepares you for the "spectacle" (which is what it was supposed to be) when you walk through the door. OMG . . . for a second you can't even breath. This, St. Paul's and St. Peter's are my favorites (and I've been to MANY - even saw the Chagall windows in Zurich). We walked up to the dome of St. Paul's to test the "whisper acoustics theory" - and it really is true! But to get back to your point, I always tell people that travel is one of the best educational experiences you can have OR give your children. When people see something like this, they tend to realize that the world does NOT revolve around them (a concept many kids have trouble with today). I also tell people they should watch the Pope's Christmas Eve mass, even if only to see St. Peter's - one of the most magnificent structures ever built by man.

  2. Thanks for writing. Yes, there would be a lot fewer narrow-minded people in the world if there were more people who traveled broadly. For me travel is especially gratifying in that it gives me a chance to see things that in the past, I've only taught about...a chance to see if I knew what I was talking about, so to speak. I always make it a habit to try to visit well-known churches in the countries I visit. Of course, the down- side of that is that now, I'm NOT easily impressed.

    1. It's funny you said that . . . my wife is a travel writer, and a member of SATW (Society of American Travel Writers - probably the most exclusive organization in the biz). They have their yearly conferences in exotic locales, and (of course), the chambers know they're coming, so all the businesses bend over backwards to please these travel writers for T+L, Andrew Harper, NYT, etc. . . . Bottom line: I am also VERY spoiled when it comes to traveling. My wife does NOT fly coach, does NOT carry her own bags, does NOT do public transportation, and and will NOT stay or dine in anything less than 4 star. LOL! We even flew first class in one of those Virgin Airlines jets once where you basically have your own little "room" with a bed(!) (I know what you're thinking - she's not a demanding diva - but it IS her job to write for demanding divas) I have stayed, dined, viewed, met, and toured SO MANY of the world's most magnificent places, I'm like you now - very hard to impress. The last time we went to NY, we stayed in Douglas MacArthur's suite in the Towers at the Waldorf. Lying in bed at night, the crown of the Chrysler Bldg. was right out of our window. Talk about not easily impressed . . . I will have to say, I think the last time my jaw dropped was at Lake Como, Italy. So gorgeous, it just defies description.

    2. TRhett--

      Thanks for your comment, it adds a great deal to the reality of travel today (especially international travel). I tend not to be impressed so much by natural wonders...I mean, really, God can create ANYTHING, no problem. However, architecture, painting, sculpture, those are all manmade and to me anyway, at least as impressive in that man had to struggle in their creation. God did not. Men and women had to pull together to built the great cathedrals, the towering skyscrapers, the bridges, the dams, the ships, hotels with soaring atriums, etc. etc. etc. Man is fallible. God is not. Man has to sacrifice to create his marvels. God simply said/says, let it be and it was/is. Of course what God created is more vast, but not necessarily more beautiful in that we're speaking of two different types of beauty which may or may not be comparable (depending upon your attitude toward God and man). On our trip out west, my wife wanted to see the Grand Canyon...for maybe an hour or so. I spent entire DAYS in each of several art museums. I loved San Francisco. She HATED it. (She did the driving is why.) I was fascinated by the way in which people had struggled to deal with the geography of a TERRIBLE place to build a major city. She thinks they should only build cities in flat places. As a frequent traveler, becoming jaded is a malady we all have to consciously combat. We're off this spring to see another manmade wonder...the Panama overcoming nature again.

  3. Sorry for this question dear ladies and gentlemen. Please somebody knows who is the manufacturer or provider of the medails or coins vending machines? Thanks in davance for your kin attention a reliable HELP.

  4. I wondered if anything from these pictures will be left after today ....

  5. Without a doubt most of the beautiful objects you discuss are in ruins after the fire today. Just horrifying to think about.