Of all the cathedrals of France, Notre Dame de Paris is most firmly impressed on the minds of English speaking people. At least, it is more familiarly known by all who visit that delectable land, and perhaps rightly so. Poets have sung its praises, and writers of all ranks have used it in well-nigh every possible fashion as an accessory; indeed, books almost without number have been written about it, and around it. This is as it should be, for perhaps no great church is more worthy, or more prolific in material. For those who would probe deeply into its story, there is but one way to acquire an intimate knowledge thereof, – to undertake a course of reading and study in some such way as a lawyer sets about reading up on a great case. By no other method could be acquired a tithe of the commonly known facts regarding its past history; hence the impossibility of attempting to deal fully in a few pages with this great church, even in a perfunctory manner. The most that can be safely ventured upon, is to recount some of the facts.
How many have really noticed that none of the diagrams, which show the ground-plan of this cathedral, indicate the existence of any transepts? Take, for instance, that which accompanies this volume, which, it may be said, is drawn correctly, – beyond the omission of a couple of pillars on either side of the nave, there is nothing to break into the long parallelogram-like structure, with an apsidal termination. As a matter of fact, there are a pair of very beautiful transepts, as most photographs of the exterior, and drawings of the interior, show. They are, too, in no way attenuated, and are only lost in the ground-plan by reason of the fact that they follow the very unusual arrangement of not extending laterally beyond the ample width of the nave and its chapelled aisles. The south transept faqade, with the portal dedicated to St. Stephen, and two magnificent rose windows, is unquestionably more pleasing than the west faqade itself as to design and arrangement.
Begun in 1163 and consecrated in 1182, the church has undergone many vicissitudes, changes, and restorations. It has fared ill on many occasions; perhaps the greatest defilement being that which befell it during the Revolution, when it was not only foully desecrated, its statues and other imagery despoiled, but the edifice was actually doomed to destruction. This fortunately was spared to it, but in the same year (1793) it became a ” Temple of Reason,” one of those fanatical exploits of a set of madmen who are periodically let loose upon the world. Mysticism, palaverings, and orgies unspeakable took place between its walls, and it only became sanctified again when Napoleon caused it to be reopened as a place of divine worship. Again, threequarters of a century later, it fell into evil times -when it was turned into a military rendezvous by the Communards of 71. In turn, they too retreated, leaving the church, as they supposed, to the mercy of the flames which they had kindled. Fortunately these were extinguished and the building again rescued from an untoward fate.
The thirteenth-century facade is usually accredited the finest part of the church. It comes upon one as rather plain and bare after. the luxuriance of Amiens, Reims, or Rouen. As a model and design, however, it has served its purpose well, if other examples, variously distributed throughout England and France, are considered. Its lines, in fact, are superb and vary little in proportion or extent from what must perforce be accepted as ideal. Its portals are of good design, and so also is such sculpture as survived the ravages of the past, though the outlines of the doorways are severely plain. A series of modern sculptured effigies of the kings, replacing those destroyed at the Revolution, forms a plain horizontal band across the entire front; a none too graceful or pleasing arrangement of itself. A rose window forty-two feet in width occupies the centre of the next stage, flanked by two blunt pointed windows rather bare of glass. Above is an arcaded gallery of small pointed arches in pairs, also extending across the entire front. The balustrade, above, holds a number of grotesque creatures carved in stone. They may be gargoyles, but are not, however, in this case, of the spout variety, being some of those erections of a superstitious age which were so frequently added to a media?val building; though whether as a mere decoration, or with greater significance, authorities do not seem to agree. The two uncompleted square towers overtop all, pierced by the two great lancets, which, with respect to mere proportions, are unusual if not unique.
The spire above the crossing is a wooden structure covered with lead, and dates only from the middle of the nineteenth century. Both the north and south transepts contain magnificent rose windows of even larger dimensions than that of the west facade. The doorway of the south transept is ornamented with effective ironwork, but otherwise the exterior presents no remarkable features.
To the artist’s eye the gem of the building is undoubtedly the fine grouping and ensemble of the flying buttresses at the rear of the choir. Most persons, so gifted, have tried their prentice, or their master, hands at depicting this grand marshalled array of ” folded wings,” and, but for the gruesome morgue at its foot, which ever intrudes into the view, one might almost say it is the most idyllic and most specious view of a great cathedral that it were possible to have. Were it not for this charming view of these buttressed walls, with the river flowing at their feet, the Isle de la Cite would be indeed a gloomy spot, with its lurid historical past, and its present gruesome association with the ” house of the dead.” Indeed, it has been questioned as to whether the choir and chevet of Notre Dame de Paris is not the most beautiful extant. The Isle de la Cite was the ancient island village of the Parisii.
A sixteenth-century Dutch writer (De Sauteuil) has delivered himself of these few lines concerning the Seine at this point:
” When first it enters the metropolis it ambitiously stays its rapid course, and, being truly enamoured with the place, forgets its way, is uncertain whither to flow, and winds in sweet meanders through the town; thence filling the pipes with its waters. That which was once a river, joys to become a fountain.”
To carry the suggestion of contrast still farther on should read Hugo’s ” Notre Dame ” on the spot. It will give a wonderful and whimsical conception of those weird gargoyles and devils, which have only to be seen to awaken a new interest in what this great writer has put forth. For another sensation, pleasant or otherwise, one might look up a copy of Meyron’s wonderful etching of the same subject, or refer to a most excellent monograph, written not many years since, entitled ” The Devils of Notre Dame.” The interior shows the earliest example wherein the double aisles of the nave are continued around the choir, and the first introduction of the quadruple range of openings from the pavement to the vaulting. The aisles and nave are of almost equal height.
The choir, besides being merely apsided, is, in fact, a true semicircle, a sufficiently unusual arrangement in an early Gothic church to be remarked; and, in addition, is exceedingly narrow and lofty. The glass of the rose windows is of old and gorgeous quality, it having escaped destruction in Revolutionary times, whereas that of the lower range of windows was mostly destroyed.
The choir stalls are of excellent wooden carving, but the high altar is modern, dating only from 1874. The choir screen, of the fourteenth century, shows twenty-three reliefs in stone, once richly gilded, but now tarnished and dull. Index Of Articles About Paris