Construction of the Gothic cathedral was part of a massive rearrangement of the urban topography of the east end of the Ile de la Cité. The new cathedral was located substantially to the east of the old principal church, S-Etienne, opening a new space for the parvis to which a new east-west road, the Rue neuve Notre-Dame provided access. The Hôtel Dieu was relocated to the south west of the cathedral and construction broke beyond the limits of the old Roman wall with a new bishop's palace to the south and the new Gothic choir to the east.

Construction of the new cathedral had probably already begun when Pope Alexander III visited Paris in 1163: later written accounts record that he laid the first stone. The work on preparing the foundations (said to be 20-25 feet deep) in this wet soil must have been difficult and lengthy. Work above ground began with the choir and proceeded rapidly: Robert de Thorigny, abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel noted that by 1177 work on the cathedral begun by Bishop Maurice de Sully had advanced rapidly and that the chevet "is already finished, save for its vaults (or roof) (tectorium)." In 1182 the new high altar was consecrated by the papal legate. The nave, built from east to west and directed by a second master mason was certainly begun while the upper choir was under construction. Despite its superficial similarity to the choir, the nave embodies important modifications and innovations. Work on the western frontispiece preceded the westernmost nave bays.

Bishop Maurice de Sully died in 1196 and was replaced by Eudes de Sully: by this time the western frontispiece and upper nave were under construction. The nave was probably substantially complete by around 1210; work continued in the next decades on the upper parts of the western frontipiece and towers: in 1245 it was decided not to erect steeples atop the western towers.

The cathedral was transformed in a series of campaigns beginning in the 1220s. Lateral chapels were added between the culées of the nave; the clerestory windows were extended downwards and the old triforium suppressed and new transept terminals were constructed (Jean de Chelles, d. 1258, on the north and Pierre de Montreuil, d. 1267, on the south. Construction of the lateral chapels around the choir extended into the fourteenth century.

Sculptural Program

As with the rest of the cathedral of Paris, the sculptural program is the product not only of twelfth- and thirteenth-century projects, but also the result of the mid-19th century restoration scheme of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. Bearing this in mind, we will trace the sculptural program roughly in chronological order.

The twelfth-century St. Anne portal exemplifies a process that took place with relative frequency -- namely, the installation of an older sculptural program into a later architectural setting. In the case of this portal, twelfth-century sculpture from more than a single portal was placed in a thirteenth-century frame at the south entrance within the scheme of the western frontispiece. The lower lintel, which was carved when the portal was installed in the thirteenth century, depicts scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna. The tympanum, upper lintel, and jamb figures all date to around 1150, slightly postdating the twelfth-century portals at Chartres. The presence of both king and bishop in the tympanum of this portal have led to a healthy scholarly debate about the identification and significance of these figures, particularly on the face of the cathedral of this important city in this century. For more on this matter, consult references below by Cahn, Horste, Gillerman, and Thirion. Williamson has pointed to the St. Anne portal as a stylistic bridge between the late Romanesque of Chartres and St-Denis and the securely Gothic portals of Senlis, Mantes, and Sens.

The central portal is devoted to the theme of the Last Judgment. Christ sits in the lintel; the division of the souls occupies the upper lintel; and the resurrection of the dead is represented in the lower lintel. A varied host of attendants oversee the central theme from the voussoirs above, including prophets, martyrs, virgins, all of whose knees and heads are tilted toward the central drama of the tympanum and lintels. The twelve apostles appear as column figures, and in the jambs below the allegorical representations of the virtues and vices appear under trilobed arcades. An image of Christ appears in the trumeau, and at his feet the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is retold in stone. Williamson has noted that the presence of the Virtues and Vices at eye level demarcated an important shift in the relationship of the layman to a sculptural program: "the apostles and the heavenly congregation in the voussoirs were out of reach of the public, but the very human vices of cowardice, anger, and so on were plain for all to see." The Virtues and Vices appeared later on the south porch at Chartres and on the jambs of the west front at Amiens. The reliefs of the Virtues and Vices of the central portal are also related to allegorical reliefs at Sens.

The theme of the south portal is the Coronation of the Virgin. In the tympanum, the Virgin appears already crowned, receiving a blessing from Christ, who is seated beside her, and her Assumption takes up the entirety of the upper lintel. In the lower lintel, the ark of the covenant is given pride of place, with seated prophets and kings flanking it. Saints with potent local significance appear as jamb figures, and in the lower recesses of the embrasures, a calendar and zodiac signs are carved in relief. The Virgin's status as the theme of this portal is assured by her central presence in the trumeau. The socles and jambs of the north and central portals were likely finished by 1215.

A band of 28 kings serves to unify the three vertical units of the building and divide the western frontispiece vertically. These kings are reproductions from the minds of restorers; however, more than 20 of the original heads of these Old Testament kings -- which had been lobbed off during the French Revolution -- were rediscovered in an excavation in the 1970s. These kings were originally executed in the late 1220s, and the heads that were recovered are now housed in the Musée Cluny in Paris.

The north transept portal is the result of remodeling campaigns that took place at the cathedral in the middle decades of the thirteenth century. This portal was in all likelihood completed before the portal fronting the south arm of the transept. The north portal was carved around 1245-50. The Virgin occupies the trumeau, and although they are now missing, three kings once adorned the now-empty niches to the left, and allegorical figurations of Faith, Hope, and Charity were originally nestled in the niches to the right of the trumeau. The panoply of figures in the voussoirs appear in supple drapery emblematic of the Paris region. The scenes depicted in the lower lintel are the Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt. The upper lintel is devoted to a Golden Legend account of Theophilus, a Sicilian vicar who made a deal with the devil and later regretted it, appealing to the Virgin for deliverance. The latter complied, assisting him in dissolving his initial bargain and lightening the weight of his soul. This tale is represented across four scenes in the upper lintel -- where the Virgin's powerful intercessory role is visible in stone -- and it concludes in the tympanum, with the moralizing presentation of Theophilus' contract with the devil.

An inscription to the right of the portal on the south arm of the transept provides a secure author and date for this portal. It was designed around 1257 by Jean de Chelles, undoubtedly with additions by Pierre de Montreuil. The tympanum and lintel features narratives from St. Stephen's hagiography. The niche and trumeau figures all date to the nineteenth century, but initially they were key local saints still well known to us today, including St. Denis, St. Germain, Rusticus, Eleutherius, and Marcellus. For a detailed discussion of the style of the transept portals, see Kimpel.


Three levels of interpretation may be entertained. E. E. Viollet-le-Duc, considered the monument a radical breakthrough, a revolt against feudalism and monasticism; expressive of the new creativity of the urban artisan and le génie français. By the mid twentieth century this interpretation had been transformed. Marcel Aubert, Eugène Lefèvre-Pontalis and Jean Bony considered the building as structurally flawed and in need of a prompt structural retrofit (addition of flying buttresses). Jean Bony and Paul Frankl had little to say about Gothic as expressive of French national identity. Most recently scholars (Kimpel, for example) have again returned to the power of Notre-Dame in particular and Gothic in general to represent Frenchness and the extraordinarily innovative nature of this monument. All agree that Notre-Dame participated in and helped form a common language (koine) of architecture shared by an extraordinary number of churches in the vicinity and beyond


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