Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris

The secrets of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, an iconic French monument

Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris

Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is one of the most emblematic buildings in France. This masterpiece of Gothic architecture located on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, attracts more than 14 million visitors each year, far exceeding the Louvre Museum, the Château de Versailles and Montmartre.

Behind its walls, there are many hidden secrets! Do you know any of them?

The Cathedral was not always as appreciated as it is today and didn’t really become well-known until the nineteenth century.

There was a time when this place of worship, built in the Gothic style between 1163 and 1345, lacked prestige and renown. Such was the case under what was called the Old Regime. Despite being one of the largest Cathedrals in the West, Notre Dame at the time was a simple place of worship like many others. Apart from the celebration of some royal marriages, such as the union between Henry of Navarre, who would become Henry IV, to Marguerite de Valois, and the coronation of Napoleon I, all important events normally took place elsewhere; as for the kings of France, they were buried in the Basilica of St. Denis, while the Cathedral of Reims would be the place of choice for France’s coronation ceremonies. And then there was the Sainte-Chapelle, just around the corner where the most precious relics of Christendom were safely kept.

During the French Revolution, the Cathedral, little appreciated by the local population, was one of the first religious monuments to be vandalized. Stained glass windows, statues and other sacred objects were completely destroyed by looters.

It was in 1792, during the period of dechristianization led by the revolutionary government of Paris, that the ransacked and mistreated Notre-Dame became the property of the state. A year later, the reconverted building would be called the ‘Temple of Reason'”. It was here that Robespierre’s new “Cult of the Supreme Being” would be celebrated. For the next nine years, however, the Cathedral was used as little more than a warehouse. Thousands of barrels of wine belonging to the Revolutionary Army were stored there.

It wouldn’t be until 1801, with the arrival of Napoleon I, that the Cathedral would become a place of catholic worship again. Indeed, in 1802, the very first post-revolutionary ceremony (the Easter Mass solemnly consecrating the promulgation of the Concordat) was celebrated in the presence of Bonaparte and other Consulate officials.

Napoleon would choose the Cathedral in which to be crowned Emperor in December 1804. Notre-Dame only rose to popularity, however, in 1831.

A French architect called Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, was responsible for a major restoration of the building, that would make Notre Dame the most famous Cathedral in Paris.

Released in 1996, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, an animated feature film by Disney Studios, was loosely based on Victor Hugo‘s novel ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’, published in 1831. In both stories the Cathedral plays a very central role.

The Cathedral is built on the remains of former churches.

It would seem that the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame was built on the same site as other important places of Catholic worship in the past.

In this precise location, a Paleo-Christian church built in the fourth century and a Carolingian Basilica also existed. Then, towards the end of the high Middle Ages, it was on the remains of a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and another dedicated to SaintEtienne that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame was erected.

The building’s dimensions and the golden ratio

Notre Dame de Paris

Do you know what the golden ratio is? It is a naturally occurring mathematical proportion (about 1:1.618) which is aesthetically pleasing when observed in nature and when incorporated into human creations like art and architecture. The splendour, harmony and perfect proportions of Notre-Dame are partly explained by extensive use of the golden ratio in its construction. Use of the ‘golden rectangle’ which is based on the golden ratio can be found in the proportions of the western façade, the door frames, as well as around the main rose window and the Cathedral’s two towers.

The Cathedral’s finishing touch: The Devil’s doors


According to legend, in the 13th century, a young and ambitious ironworker named Biscornet was given the task of designing and making the decorative ironwork that would adorn Notre Dame’s side doors. The task before him seemed Herculean and required months of hard work in the oppressive heat of his forgery. His work finally completed, it was unveiled with the final installation of the doors; it was to be the Cathedral’s last finishing detail. Parisians were blown away by the intricate and elegant beauty of his work. Until then, such a level of artistry and detail had never been achieved before. The elegance and complexity of his wrought-iron masterpiece was the perfect finish to the most splendid of Christian monuments. But apparently, it seemed just a little too good. Back in the 1300s, belief in superstition and magic was rife. A rumor began to circulate in the streets of Paris that this impressive work could not possibly be the work of human hands. In fact, Biscornet was suspected of having sold his soul to the devil in exchange for this masterpiece! There were even stories of Biscornet being found asleep on the ground of his workshop studio while supposed to be working on his project. And nevertheless, his project was mysteriously finished in record time. The priests themselves asserted that Satan was behind all this, that it was he who had locked the doors of the Cathedral, and it was only by sprinkling them with holy water that they could be opened. Although Biscornet insisted that the doors were the work of his own two hands, he was unable to shake off the accusations of devilry. His untimely and unexplained death only seemed to confirm people’s suspicions of his pact with the devil. According to many, the devil had returned for his payment, the soul of the unfortunate ironmonger. 

So, was it legend or reality? Probably all hocus pocus really, but we’ll let you decide. Even today, experts in the field struggle to find a plausible explanation. How could this young man achieve such a heretofore unseen level of intricacy and detail with the limited tools available at the time? Biscornet’s name itself lends a clue. Given the rumors, its meaning is eerily strange:  ‘Bis’ means ‘two’ or ‘twice’ and ‘cornet’ which comes from the word for ‘horn’. Together they make ‘the two-horned one’! So, the next time you walk through the doors of the Cathedral, will you be raving about this amazing masterpiece or be cowering behind a crucifix in an attempt to ward off evil spirits? Or maybe you’ll just be bemused by the whole thing and appreciate the irony of the idea that the devil himself may have had a final hoof in the construction of this most sacred of places.

Notre Dame's doors

What about the treasures hidden in the weather vane of the Cathedral?

The rooster, which is essentially a weather vane, is perched on the top of Notre-Dame’s spire. In 1920, during renovations bone dust was discovered inside this metal bird. This unidentified dust was subsequently replaced with three relics, one of Saint Denis, one of Saint Genevieve (both patron saints of the city) and even a supposed fragment of the Holy Crown of Thorns! Placed at a height of more than 93 meters, these important relics are seen as a symbol of protection both for the Cathedral’s pious congregation and the inhabitants of the city in general. 

The ‘forest’ of Notre-Dame

Notre Dame

Thirteen thousand oak trees were used in the construction of the Cathedral. All of these trees were used as supporting beams for the roof’s structural frame of surprising dimensions; it measures more than 100m long, 13m wide at the nave, 40m at the transept and 10m in height. The huge amount of wood used is equivalent to the number of trees found in the Parc de Bercy, which has an area of ​​nearly 14 hectares! In other words, the equivalent of a real forest! Hence the nickname.

The heads of the kings of the gallery, missing for more than 200 years!

gallery 28 kings

For many centuries, many citizens of Paris were convinced that the line of 28 statues along the main façade represented the kings of France. That is why, in 1793, the revolutionaries decided to decapitate the statues. They were in fact the kings of Judah. For nearly two centuries, all trace of the heads was lost. Then, in 1977, in the courtyard of a Paris apartment, 21 heads were found by accident and unearthed. Ever since they have been kept at the Cluny National Museum of the Middle Ages.

What would our famous Cathedral look like without good old Viollet-le-Duc?

In the nineteenth century, during renovation work of the Cathedral carried out by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the decapitated statues were given a new face. The architect took advantage of the opportunity to have his own head sculpted and integrated into the line of kings. If you look at the eighth statue from the left, it is none other than that of the architect himself! But it seems that he didn’t stop there; Viollet-le-Duc also used his likeness for the face of Saint Thomas the Apostle, which is interestingly the only statue of the twelve apostles that faces the Cathedral. What better way to sign your own work!