Paris' Notre Dame turns 850
Elaborate stone carvings adorn the entrance of Notre Dame. (Patrick Kovarik/Getty)
Zut alors! Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe- Jeanne and Denise-David have been ceremonially cast from the towers of Notre Dame to their demise.
Fortunately, these aren’t Parisian women – they’re the names of four 19th-century bells that were replaced by a new, improved set in March to honour of the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. The bells that until recently occupied the North Tower, were, to the ears of bell aficionados, discordant impostors – cheap replacements brought in after the originals were melted down to make cannons during the French Revolution. Eight new bells recreate the more tuneful repertoire of the originals – the same bells that Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo might have rung.
Fortunately, the cathedral’s most famous bell is going nowhere. Having survived the French Revolution intact, the 13-tonne Emmanuel in the South Tower has made a name for itself booming out at critical junctures in French history – notably the coronation of various kings and the liberation of Paris during WWII.
Here are a few other interesting facts from the cathedral's history:
The Quasimodo factor
Unlike in the famous Disney film, Quasimodo wasn’t the main character in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. In fact his name doesn’t even appear in the book’s French-language title, simply called Notre-Dame de Paris. Nonetheless, upon publication in 1831, Hugo’s book revived interest in the then-dilapidated cathedral. Restoration followed, including the rebuilding of the spire in 1860.
Up to the wire
Many visitors to Notre Dame climb the towers for panoramic views of the city (and close-up encounters with the cathedral’s famous gargoyles). Few go to the lengths of the high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who, aged 21, broke into the cathedral at dawn on a June day in 1971 and shuffled between the two towers on a wire. He famously went on to cross the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.
Wolf at the door
Notre Dame faces a large square, Place du Parvis Notre Dame, intended as an intermediary space between the holy cathedral and secular Paris. However, it staged a grisly drama in the winter of 1450, when a pack of man-eating wolves broke through the city walls and mauled 40 hapless civilians to death. An angry mob eventually cornered the wolves by the doors and stoned them to death.
Notre Dame’s greatest upheaval came during the French Revolution when it was declared a temple to the Cult of Reason – a sort of ersatz religion for the new Republic. Inside, statues of the Virgin Mary were replaced with Lady Liberty on cathedral altars, and crosses were removed. Notre Dame served time as a warehouse, before being returned to its original purpose in 1801.
The headless figure on the front façade is St Denis, patron saint of Paris. The story goes that St Denis was beheaded by pagans in the 3rd century. He surprised everyone by picking up his head and walking six miles, preaching sermons as he went. One matter for dispute in 15th-century Paris was who actually owned this famous head. Notre Dame claimed to have the top of his skull, while the nearby Abbey of Saint Denis claimed to own his entire head (and his body).
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.
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