Notre-Dame

Statue at Notre-Dame My pictures of Notre-Dame Cathedral are very popular, so I’ve prepared a FAQ to answer common questions about the structure. If you have a question that isn’t answered here, send me feedback and I’ll try to research an answer to post here (no guarantees).

Summary of Questions

* When was Notre-Dame built?
* What is the full name of the cathedral, and what does it mean?
* Who decided to build the cathedral?
* Are there working bells in the towers?
* What do the bells sound like at Notre-Dame?
* Who owns the cathedral?
* When is the cathedral open, and how much does admission cost?
* Can I attend Mass at the cathedral?
* Can I get married at the cathedral?
* How much did the cathedral cost to build?
* Does Notre-Dame have a site on the Web?
* Can you recommend a good book on Notre-Dame?
* Has the cathedral ever been repaired?
* Is there a pipe organ in the cathedral?
* Where is the best spot from which to take a picture of the cathedral?
* What about taking photos inside the cathedral?
* What are gargoyles and chimeras?

Q:  

When was Notre-Dame built?

A:  

Construction on the cathedral started around 1160 (that’s almost nine hundred years ago), and it took around a hundred years to complete, depending on how you define completion.

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Q:  

What is the full name of the cathedral, and what does it mean?

A:  

The full name is the la Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris, and is pronounced /la katedʁal də nɔtʁə dam də paʁi/. It means “the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris”; in other words, it is the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary (“our lady”) in Paris. It is usually just called Notre-Dame for short.

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Q:  

Who decided to build the cathedral?

A:  

Bishop Maurice de Sully conceived the idea of a superlative cathedral for Paris, and was by far the person most responsible for its construction. He was very good at organizing people, motivating them, and raising funds. He died before it was completed (which he no doubt expected, since he knew it would take many years to complete it). He left a cash gift behind in his will to pay for the lead roofing of the structure, and he was not a rich man.

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Q:  

Are there working bells in the towers?

A:  

(The answer below applies to the old bells. They were replaced in 2013. I'll update this answer shortly.)

Yes, five of them, and four of them are still rung regularly (several times a day). The largest is rung only for special occasions, such as Easter. The largest bell—named “Emmanuel”—was recast by Louis XIV from the original, and weighs about 13 tons. The clapper alone weighs half a ton. The other four were cast in 1856, to replace bells that were removed during the Revolution in 1791 and melted down in order to make weapons. All of the bells are run via a remote-controlled electrical system today. Prior to that, they were rung with pedals, and originally they were rung with ropes. Contrary to what you might read in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (a work of fiction), however, there was never a hunchbacked bellringer.

You can visit Emmanuel in the south tower if you wish. The tone of the large bell is F-sharp.

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Q:  

What do the bells sound like at Notre-Dame?

A:  

Judge for yourself … here's a MP3 recording of all the bells ringing for the evening service on Christmas Day of 2011:

click here

The MP3 is 2.5 MB in size. I recorded it myself and I've released it to the public domain, so you can do anything you want with it. It was recorded with professional equipment in digital stereo about 50 meters west of the south tower, at ground level. The entire bell-ringing sequence ran for about six minutes, but this is just part of that sequence, at a point when all the bells were being rung. The bell with the lowest tone is the huge, 13-ton "Emmanuel" bell in the south tower. The recording was made at about 6:15 PM, and the bells are announcing evening Mass for Christmas.

(Note: The bells were replaced in 2013 and rang for the first time on Holy Saturday of that year. I'll update the recording as soon as I can. The new ones sound a lot like the old ones, though.)

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Q:  

Who owns the cathedral?

A:  

When the French government officially separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church early in the 20th century, it took ownership of all cathedrals owned by the church, and they became public buildings. This included Notre-Dame. The cathedral is now technically managed by the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques (the National Historical Monument Trust), a government agency that is responsible for most major landmarks. Services are still held inside the cathedral by the Catholic church, however, and it still manages the cathedral in many respects as if it still owned the structure.

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Q:  

When is the cathedral open, and how much does admission cost?

A:  

The interior of the cathedral is open every day from 7:45 AM to 6:45 PM (as of April 2005). Admission is free.

A small museum of relics and religious items exists within the cathedral and may be visited for a fee.

Visitors are expected to not make too much of a racket if services are in progress during their visit. There is a tiny bookshop inside, and small counseling booths for people who would like to speak to a priest. Flash pictures are discouraged inside the cathedral, and photographing or filming services is frowned upon (I guess God doesn’t like photographers). There are also other bizarre requirements, such as a requirement to remove any hats and to keep shoulders covered (for women), but with the huge traffic through the cathedral, these requirements are not really enforced. Be sure to turn your cell phone off while you're inside, a ringing cell phone will practically wake the dead inside a cathedral.

You can also visit the towers of the cathedral, via an entrance on the outside of the cathedral at the base of the north (left) tower), but it's not free and there is usually a long line (more than an hour of waiting during much of the year). The cost is €7 for adults (April 2005). Visiting the towers involves climbing a tiny stone spiral staircase with 255 steps, and negotiating a tiny open balcony at the base of the towers that is barely more than a foot wide (40 cm or so) at some points. It's not for people with health problems, obesity, claustrophobia, or a fear of heights. From the balcony you can also visit the largest of the bells and optional go up into the south tower, which doesn't cost extra but involves another 147 steps in an even tinier staircase. The views of the city from both the balcony and the top of the south tower are excellent. Only 20 people at a time are allowed up into the towers (there isn't much space), and the last admissions are at 6:45 PM. The towers are open from 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM.

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Q:  

Can I attend Mass at the cathedral?

A:  

Yes. The cathedral is constantly filled with tourists, even during services, so it's perhaps not the most solemn place to attend Mass, but you can if you want. You can also go to confession in multiple languages, thanks to priests on duty in the cathedral during opening hours. You don't have to be Roman Catholic to do any of these things, although I suppose they aren't of much interest to non-Catholics.

As of April, 2005, there were services every weekday at 8:00, 9:00, noon, and 6:15 PM, on Saturdays at 6:30 PM, and on Sundays at 8:30, 10:00, 11:30, 12:45, and 6:30 PM (the 10 AM service includes Gregorian chants, and the 11:30 and 6:30 PM services include the choir).

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Q:  

Can I get married at the cathedral?

A:  

Generally speaking, no. The Roman Catholic church, which holds services in the cathedral, prefers that marriages be performed in local parish churches rather than in large cathedrals. So while nothing technically prohibits a marriage at Notre-Dame, unless you're a princess or something like that, it's unlikely that you'd be able to persuade the diocese to set it up there. Note also that, no matter where you marry, you need to be married under law first (either in your home country or in France).

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Q:  

How much did the cathedral cost to build?

A:  

Nobody is quite sure, but there is no doubt that it was very expensive. Maurice de Sully had a gift for fundraising and somehow managed to come up with funds regularly enough to keep the cathedral continously under construction. The royal family apparently contributed nothing to the funding of the construction, but some people left money behind in their wills, and others made outright gifts. The bulk of the funding remains a mystery, though, since few records were kept.

There is no doubt that the cathedral was paid for, in any case. It was not build by devout Catholics eager to work for free, but by skilled contractors and engineers who were paid for their services. Building materials were also purchased, not donated, in general. In fact, the cathedral was the state of the art at the time, and some of the best engineers and craftsmen of the period worked on its construction (Paris was already an excellent place to find skilled carpenters, masons, and other workers, so talent was easy to find). The materials used for construction were very carefully selected for their structural properties and were the best that could be had. The project was probably something like what Hoover Dam represented in the 20th century.

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Q:  

Does Notre-Dame have a site on the Web?

A:  

Yes, sort of (France is still extremely primitive in all domains related to the Internet). Try http://www.cathedraledeparis.com, which is operated by the Conférence des Évêques de France. The site is clogged with a zillion Flash animations, but there are still parts that are readable, and there is a translation in English (although it doesn't contain as much information as the French version).

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Q:  

Can you recommend a good book on Notre-Dame?

A:  

Yes. One book I really like is Notre Dame de Paris, by Alain Erland-Brandenburg and Caroline Rose, a large and beautiful book with lots of pictures and text. I have a review of it here if you’d like to know more. Unfortunately, it's already out of print. There are many other books on Notre-Dame, however.

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Q:  

Has the cathedral ever been repaired?

A:  

It has been remodeled at various times, but not in significant ways after construction was completed. Overall, it is quite faithful to the original concept (unlike many other Gothic cathedrals).

A major refurbishment was undertaken in the mid 19th century, which included restoration of the spire over the nave (which had been removed some centuries earlier). The lead architect, Viollet-le-Duc, was extremely faithful to the original design of the cathedral in his restoration, with one small, deliberate exception—which I won’t reveal here (if you are interested, you can learn more here).

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Q:  

Is there a pipe organ in the cathedral?

A:  

There are two, in fact, the larger of which happens to be the largest pipe organ in France.

The main organ is located in front of the rose window at the western end of the cathedral. It dates originally from the 14th century, although only twelve of the pipes in the modern-day instrument (all in the Principal 32 stop of the pedal organ) survive from that first incarnation. It has been restored, repaired, and rebuilt many times, but the most recent restauration was also the most complete, and took place during the period 1990-1993, with the work being performed by organ builders Jean-Loup Boisseau, Bertrand Cattiaux, Philippe Emeriau, and Michel Giroud, and computer engineers Christian Roussel and Miguel Ruiz of Synaptel, with assistance from IBM. The instrument today is practically brand new, although it retains most of the features of the last major restoration, completed by the famous organ builder Cavaillé-Coll in the 1860s.

The main organ today comprises 128 stops and five manuals plus pedals. It has incorporated electric blowers since 1924 (prior to that, air pressure was provided by human beings). The modern organ is computerized, with full computer control of combinations and couplers and the like that allows each of the organists of the cathedral to define a personal configuration of the instrument for his preferences. The organist can also alter the way the keyboard responds to touch to suit his liking. The instrument also incorporates a MIDI interface (now that must be fun to use!), two video displays to show system status, a token-ring network to allow communication between the several Intel-based computers that operate the instrument, and an audible annunciation system to aid blind organists in configuring the instrument. Finally, the organ uses a smart card keying system to prevent unauthorized use (each organist has his own access card). It has come a long way since the 1300s!

The “small” organ in the choir is a separate instrument with two manuals plus pedals, 33 stops, and about 2200 pipes. It dates from 1865 (although an earlier instrument dated from the 1400s), and was fully restored in 1990, including the addition of computerized combinations for the keyboards.

The choir organ is used for routine stuff. The main organ is used for special events, some services, and for the free organ recitals every Sunday at 5:45 PM. Several organists play the instruments in rotation.

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Q:  

Where is the best spot from which to take a picture of the cathedral?

A:  

The Pont de l’Archevêché, a bridge connecting the southeastern corner of the Île de la Cité with the Left Bank, is the classic spot for taking a picture of the cathedral. The southwest corner of the bridge on the Left Bank side is the best vantage point, and it was the point I used for my main picture of the cathedral.

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Q:  

What about taking photos inside the cathedral?

A:  

Taking photos inside the cathedral is permitted (except during services), as long as you don’t have a tripod and don’t use flash (this latter rule is not strongly enforced).

The cathedral is very dark, as all cathedrals tend to be. With most ordinary films, you’ll have to use long exposures or flash (but remember that using a flash might attract angry attention from guards). For long exposures, brace yourself against something and hope for the best, and turn off the flash.

Photographing the stained glass is a special case: Since sunlight is streaming through the glass, it’s a lot easier to get a decent picture of it. For the southern rose window using ISO 400 film, I recommend, say, 1/50 sec at f/5.6 or the equivalent. Most cameras can do this. For the picture I took for my photo gallery, I went with f/2.8 at 1/50 sec, on Fuji Provia 100F film (ISO 100); you can check out the results for yourself. Use higher shutter speeds (and larger apertures) and maybe a half-stop less exposure if you want to recover as much detail in the glass as possible.

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Q:  

What are gargoyles and chimeras?

A:  

Gargoyles /ˈgɑɹgɔɪ̯l̩z/ are sculptures of animals that conceal rainwater spouts on the cathedral. These spouts direct rainwater away from the walls of the cathedral when it rains, in order to reduce erosion of the stone in the building.

Chimeras /ˈkɑɪ̯mɚəz/ are grotesque sculptures composed of body parts from several different animals that serve a purely decorative purpose on the cathedral.

Many people refer to all of the surrealistic sculptures on the cathedral as gargoyles, but in fact only those that are waterspouts are truly gargoyles. The word gargoyle comes from the French word gargouiller /gaʁguije/, which means “to gurgle”.

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