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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame as Seen front the Quai de la Tournelle, 1897-1902, Jean-Francois Raffaelli 
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris may be the second most famous building in the world in which the back is more often photographed (and painted) than the front. First place in that category would have to go to the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Like the Parthenon too, Notre Dame is the architectural symbol of the city in which it resides, though the Paris cathedral once more probably comes in second, behind the Eiffel Tower. When I went looking for paintings by famous artists of the ancient island landmark, the first ones to come to mind were those of Claude Monet. Oops, Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral of Notre Dame. Although many artist have painted the Notre Dame in Paris none appear to have been famous, which left me free to choose one of the best, that of Jean-Francois Raffaelli, Notre Dame as Seen front the Quai de la Tournelle (above) from about 1897-1902.
Probably the most famous painting of Notre Dame is not of the outside of the cathedral,
but the inside, Jacques-Louis David's Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1805-07. Of
course it's hard to see the church for all the people.
It's tempting to think of Notre Dame de Paris as being as old as Paris itself, though inasmuch as the city dates back at least as far as Roman times, such an assumption would miss the mark by more than a thousand years. Archaeologists have found ruins of a pagan temple on the site. Notre Dame was begun in 1160 by the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully after having torn down an "inadequate" church dedicated to St. Etienne on the site, though historians think it more likely he considered it simply "out of style." Style is important to Parisians. De Sully employed the "new" Gothic style he'd seen in the St. Denis Basilica, not far from Paris. Of course over the nearly two centuries which passed before the cathedral was finally completed around 1345, tastes changed, architectural styles evolved, and the engineering grew ever more complex as the Notre Dame joined what could only be deemed a "race to the heavens" among similar churches popping up all over France at the time. Notre Dame builders were not architects but visionaries. What they built influenced other such builders as what they built flowed back to influence the final style of the Paris cathedral.
A quick primer on Gothic
architectural terms
Notre Dame was, for instance, the first instance of the  flying buttress. From the outside, these seemingly delicate, soaring arches add an almost fantasy element to the Gothic style. Yet, they are anything but delicate and developed as a matter of necessity rather than adornment. Without them, the stone walls, which grew ever thinner and thinner as the churches grew ever taller and taller, would have bowed outward and collapsed inward on worshippers, shortening their life-long journey to heaven. And if a Gothic cathedral appears as something of a spiritual vision on the outside, inside they soar to what could nearly be call the heights of ecstasy. The ceiling of the Notre Dame choir tops out at 33 meters (just over 100 feet.) The Beauvais Cathedral in northern France won the race upwards at 48 meters, an astounding 159 feet in height on the inside (the height of a 16 story building).

The "X" marks indicate the ribbed ceiling vaults.
Besides astonishing heights, four other elements make up the Gothic style--the fluted column, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and finally, stained glass. And if actual heights weren't enough, all four of these other features serve to enhance the illusion of even greater heights. Unlike the "fat" Roman/Greek columns of earlier Romanesque architecture, the fluted column featured numerous vertical grooves which made them appear thinner and taller than earlier church supports. The pointed arch appears more graceful and slender than ancient Roman arches. At the same time, the ribbed vault replaced the barrel vault, topping off the soaring fluted columns, also largely replacing frescoes with structural ceiling elements that appeared to be decorative. And finally, to quote no less an architect than God Himself, "let there be light." Hundreds of huge, slender windows on three different levels not only provided light, but reduced the weight of the ever more precarious piles of cut stone in their reach toward the sky. Moreover, stained glass not only told the story of Christendom but cast an unearthly heavenly glow upon the soaring interior. Notre Dame de Paris was the proving ground for all these Gothic innovations. And despite fires, riots, revolutions, restorations, and even attempts to secularize the worship within, Our Lady of Paris continues to stand as a cultural, architectural, and religious icon after almost a thousand years.
Modern day lighting makes the interior of Notre Dame as spectacular at night as when daylight pours through the acres of stained glass above.

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