Standing tall for centuries on the Île de la Cité, one of two remaining natural islands in the River Seine within the city of Paris, Notre Dame de Paris, meaning Our Lady of Paris, a medieval Catholic cathedral, is one of the most famous landmarks of the city. It is considered that before the arrival of Christianity in France, a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood on the site of Notre-Dame, which was subsequently replaced with an Early Christian basilica, later a cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen alias Saint Etienne.
However, four churches succeeded the Roman temple before the Notre-Dame and the last church before the cathedral of Notre-Dame was a Romanesque remodeling of the prior structures, which although enlarged and remodeled, was found to be unfit for the ever growing population of Paris.
With the intention to build a new and larger church in the Gothic style, like the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, demolished the Romanesque cathedral and according to the records of the Memorial Historiarum, the construction of Notre-Dame began between 24 March and 25 April 1163. With the generous financial backing provided by the crown for the construction, the first stone was laid in June 1163, in a lavish ceremony attended by King Louise VII and Pope Alexander III. Work on the sanctuary and nave began first and the high altar was consecrated in 1182. Sully could celebrate the first Mass in the cathedral, but would die in 1196, nearly 150 years before the main structures of the cathedral would be finished in the 1300s. In fact, the construction of Notre Dame took nearly two centuries from start to finish.
Built in a bold new style, with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses and free up the walls for heavenly stained glass, Notre Dame was one among the first Gothic cathedrals and with a record breaking vault of 108 feet (33 m), it was Europe’s tallest building when completed. Among the major components that made Notre Dame different from the others, include one of the world's largest organs and its immense church bells.
During the construction of the Saint-Chapelle, Louis IX gifted it the relics of the passion of Christ, including the crown of thorns, a nail from the cross and a sliver of the cross, which he had purchased earlier at a great expense from the Latin Emperor Baudouin II. Originally, the massive building was painted in bright colours, along with the massive interior, creating a brighter and lighter effect. Even, many of the statues were gilded as well. However, gradually time took its toll and harsh weather had long since removed those adornments.
During the French Revolution, Louis XVI was executed in 1793 and Notre-Dame and the rest of the clergy's property in France was seized and made public property. During that period, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered and twenty-eight statues of the biblical kings, located at the west façade, mistaken for statues of French kings, were beheaded. While the kings on display today are 19th century replacements, the original heads were later discovered accidentally in 1977 and are now displayed at the Cluny Museum.
The Napoleonic Wars left Notre Dame in a pathetic condition and barely escaped demolition. Thankfully, Victor Hugo’s famous 1831 novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ sparked the awareness of the cathedral’s decaying state and saved it from being lost forever. Finally, in1844 King Louis Philippe I issued orders to restore the dilapidated church and appointed architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to complete the project.
With a large team of sculptors, glass makers and other craftsmen, he worked from the drawings or engravings to restore or replace and add some decorations in the spirit of the original style, to complete the job on 31 May 1864.The restoration included a statue of Saint Thomas, that was given the likeness of architect-restorer himself. He also added the strange looking mythical gargoyles on the Galerie des Chimeres. Apart from that, he replaced the original 13th century spire, which was removed in 1786.due to structural concerns, with a taller spire, which stands 315 feet (96 m) tall and weighs 750 tons.
During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the cathedral suffered some minor damage from stray bullets and some of the medieval glasses were damaged. On 25 August 1944, the bells of Notre Dame rang out signaling the liberation of Paris after 4 years of Nazi occupation. On the next day, Charles de Gaulle led a victory parade that ended at the cathedral and a special mass was held to celebrate the liberation, attended by General Charles De Gaulle and General Philippe Leclerc.
As the cathedral had continued to show signs of deterioration despite the 1990 renovation, the national government proposed a new renovation program in the late 2010s. On 12 December 2012, Notre-Dame began a year-long celebration of the 850th anniversary of the laying of the first building block for the cathedral and the set of four 19th-century bells atop the northern towers were melted down and recast into new bronze bells in 2013.
On 15 April 2019, millions of people around the world watched on the TV screen in stunned horror, as flames and smoke spewed from the 850 year old Gothic marvel, destroying the spire and the oak roof beams supporting the lead roof. The roof and the upper walls were severely damaged by the devastating fire. The fire, speculated to be linked to the ongoing renovation work, danced for hours unabated, despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters. For the first time since the French Revolution, the Notre Dame Cathedral did not host Christmas services on 25 December 2019, it remained dark and desolate.
Fortunately, all the relics of the cathedral survived. The lead joints in some of the 19th-century stained-glass windows melted, but the three major rose windows, dating to the 13th century, remained undamaged. Several pews, the long bench seats used for seating members of the congregation or choir, were destroyed, but the main cross and the altar survived, along with the statues surrounding it. The two pipe organs suffered little and some paintings were damaged by smoke.
President Emmanuel Macron launched a fundraising campaign for the rebuilding of the church, which brought in pledges of over €1 billion as of 22 April 2019. However, as of 14 June, only €80 million had been collected and it seems that a complete restoration could require twenty years or more.