yellow periscope notre dame de paris architecture design travel

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris – The Spirit of an Age

Statistics declare that 13 million people visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris every year and it is the most visited monument in Paris (no, it’s not the Eiffel Tower). One has seen it in books, travel shows and facebook posts by friends! And then there was the Disney movie that sealed its fame. We studied about the Notre Dame during art history lessons with elaborate terms like Gothic architecture, flying buttresses and rose windows being thrown about.

Despite all this, nothing prepares you for the beauty and the absolute perfection that this structure represents. Once you get there, it’s easy to understand why it is a mecca for architects, sculptors and art enthusiasts. It epitomizes prayer and divinity in a physical form.



“When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door.”

― Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame


Notre Dame de Paris – Architecture

Before going to Notre Dame, it’s a good idea to know some basics about its architecture and history. It will not just make your visit an enriching experience, you can also impress others with design jargon.

Notre Dame Paris Cathedral Gothic Architecture France
The Notre Dame’s imposing structure, sits on the banks of the river Seine, a perfect spot for experiencing something spectacular. ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ is considered to be one of the greatest examples of French Gothic Architecture . Three main things to identify Gothic architecture are: The pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress. These techniques allowed architects to build taller buildings and open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows.


Notre Dame Paris Cathedral Gothic Architecture France flying buttresses
The Notre Dame was one of the first buildings to incorporate arched exterior supports known as ‘flying buttresses’, which were required as the walls around the choir and nave began to develop stress fractures during construction. The architects designed single-arch buttresses to prevent the walls being pushed outwards under load.


Notre Dame Paris Cathedral Gothic Architecture France flying buttresses
Notre Dame – West facade. The architect Le Corbusier described the Notre-Dame’s facade as a ‘pure creation of the spirit’. It took nearly two centuries to complete the cathedral. The foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163.  Many architects worked on the project over decades and it was finally finished in 1345.


notre dame cathedral paris central facade tympanum last judgement
The Notre Dame’s facade has three portals. The portal in the center depicts the Last Judgement as per the Bible. In architectural terms this is a “tympanum” which means a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, bounded by a lintel and arch that often contains sculpture and imagery.


notre dame cathedral paris facade central portal Portal of Last Judgment
Detail of the tympanum of the Portal of Last Judgment: The lower part shows the dead being revived from their graves. Above them, the archangel Michael is weighing their souls. The chosen people, who showed love to God and fellow men, are led towards Heaven on the left. The condemned are led by a devil to hell on the right. Above all this you can see Christ majestically seated on his throne of glory.


notre dame cathedral paris facade portal tympanum last judgement
Details from the central portal of Notre Dame’s facade: the life-size figures of the apostles moving upward to the scenes of the Last Judgement in the tympanum, reinforcing the narrative of salvation then preached by the clergy. At the foot of the apostles are medallions representing virtues and vices.


notre dame cathedral paris sculpture Portal of St. Anne
Sculptures of kings, queens and priests on the Portal of St. Anne on the facade of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. While the architectural plan of a Gothic church in itself provides a sort of spiritual journey, more specific stories are narrated through the sculptures.


The Stained Glass Windows

Most of the innovations of Gothic architecture were developed for the very purpose of adding larger and taller stained glass windows to cathedrals!  There are two standard Gothic shapes of stained glass windows: the tall window with the pointed arch and the round rose window.

Since very few people could read at the time, stained glass windows offered a dazzling, gigantic glass screen, to display stories from the Bible in light and color. Sounds very much like the colorful, huge billboards of our times which are hard to ignore. When light passes through the panes they glow like jewels, creating an almost magical, dreamlike atmosphere. The Notre Dame cathedral has three rose windows and nearly two hundred other stained glass windows.

The South Rose Window inside the Notre Dame de Paris is a true masterpiece. It has 84 panes divided into four circles and its imagery presents the New Testament.


The North Rose stained glass window at Notre Dame de Paris is entitled, “The Glorification of the Virgin Mary.” It has 80 scenes from the life of the Virgin taken from the Old Testament. The center oculus features Mary holding the Christ Child. Surrounding them are images of kings and prophets of the Old Testament.


Stained-glass windows were an important feature of churches built in the Gothic style architecture. The designs in the stained-glass windows usually depicted scenes from the Bible or the lives of saints. Such scenes were important tools in teaching Christian beliefs to the people.


The beauty of stained-glass windows is the contrast they create: It makes entering a Gothic cathedral on sunny day stepping into a rainbow with the rich colors shining through. The interior is dark and monotonous, giving the stained glass a luminosity and brilliance that inspired worshipers.


Notre Dame de Paris – Interiors

notre dame cathedral paris gothic architecture interiors design structure
As Gothic architects added flying buttresses, piers and other stone supports for reinforcement, the main walls of the cathedral started to become non-structural and a greater wall area was available for large windows.


As innovations in structural support happened, churches got higher and more awe-inspiring. Their stained glass windows let in more light and provided additional Biblical art for the congregation. The clerestory windows of Notre-Dame’s original nave were enlarged in the 13th century, filling the interior with light.


notre dame cathedral paris interior gothic architecture
The cathedral’s long halls, rib-vaulted ceilings, and light filtered stained glass windows achieve a stunning and heaven-like setting and one cannot help but feel how small a part you are in the larger scheme of things.


Notre-Dame is symbolically and literally the centre of France. In front of it is the “Point zéro des routes de France”, the spot from which all direction in France is measured, the zero point in distance measurement.


yellow periscope paris notre dame cathedral travel mahesh blog post

Just like the Notre Dame, read about our trip to another place that should also be on your bucket list: Tigers Nest trek, Bhutan – places to visit before you die


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