Inside Notre Dame, France’s iconic cathedral

Notre Dame, or ‘Our Lady’, is a jewel of French Gothic architecture nestled on an island on Paris’ River Seine.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows Paris Notre Dame Cathedral from the banks of the river Seine
Notre Dame, completed in 1345 after 182 years of construction, draws millions of tourists each year [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

The celebrated Notre Dame is the architectural jewel at the heart of the French capital – one of the finest examples of French Gothic construction and home to invaluable works of art and artefacts.

The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century and took more than a century to build, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts between 12 and 14 million tourists each year in France.

Visitors are drawn to admire its stained-glass windows, flying buttresses, impressive sculptures and carved-stone gargoyles.

The seat of the archbishop of Paris and a centre of the Catholic faith, Notre Dame has also been the target of political violence throughout its history.

In the 16thcentury, it was pillaged by Protestant Huguenots and later plundered during the French Revolution in the 1790s, after which it fell into a period of neglect. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor of the French in the cathedral.

A general view of the interior of the cathedral [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]
A general view of the interior of the cathedral [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]

It featured in Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831. The book revived interest in the building and shortly afterwards a restoration project began.

Notre Dame survived the two world wars of the 20th century. At the end of the German occupation in 1944, the cathedral rang its bells to announce the liberation of Paris.

At the time the fire broke out, it was undergoing renovation work, with scaffolding surrounding some of its structures. A number of statues had previously been removed for the effort.

As of late Monday, the raging fire put the building’s future under threat; its 19th-century spire, which was in the process being renovated, and vast sections of its 12th-century roof collapsed.

Here are some of the treasures that may be at risk in the blaze:


  • The big “Mays” of Notre-Dame de Paris – Large-scale paintings that were commissioned almost every year by the Parisian Goldsmiths’ Society between 1630 to 1707 to be offered each May 1 at the cathedral in honour of the Virgin Mary.
  • The Visitation, by Jean Jouvenet – A masterpiece of the 18th century depicting the Virgin Mary raising her eyes to heaven, near her cousin Elizabeth, bowed before her, who is in the sixth month of the conception of John the Baptist
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fountain of Wisdom, by Antoine Nicolas – Estimated to have been completed in 1648, the artwork depicts Saint Thomas Aquinas sitting on a pedestal dressed in the garments of the Dominican order, to which he belonged. 

Stained glass

  • The rose windows – Notre Dame’s north, south and west rose windows are described on the cathedral’s website as “one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity”. The south rose window was built in 1260, about 10 years after the north rose window was constructed.


  • Notre Dame’s exterior features a collection of sculptures known as “grotesques”, stone creatures intended to protect the church from malevolent spirits.


  • The Great organ – With five keyboards and nearly 8,000 pipes, Notre Dame’s great organ is probably the most famous musical instrument of its kind in the world. It is believed to have been constructed sometime in the 13th century, according to the cathedral’s website.
  • The Choir organ – An instrument of 2,000 pipes that is believed to have been constructed in the 19th century.
The cathedral was undergoing renovation work at the time the fire erupted [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]
The cathedral was undergoing renovation work at the time the fire erupted [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies