/ 16 November 2022

10 things you probably didn’t know about Notre Dame

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A tourist takes a picture of a Christmas tree illuminated in front of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on December 4, 2007 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Whether it’s the Netflix series Emily in Paris or the 2006 comedy drama starring actress Anne Hathaway The Devil Wears Prada, the capital city in France is always mentioned in conversations about love or romance. 

An iconic feature of the city is the Notre Dame cathedral. Construction on the mediaeval cathedral started in 1163 under the leadership of Bishop Maurice de Sully and most of it was completed by 1260 with changes and improvements being done through the centuries.  

Notre Dame, translated as “Our Lady” in French, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is an important spiritual figure in Catholicism, symbolising purity, humility and gracefulness as a source of comfort for the broken. Having survived the biggest blaze in its history, a new film Notre Dame On Fire, will attempt to explain the events of 15 April 2019. In light of this here is a list of 10 things you probably didn’t know about Notre Dame. 

1. It’s the most visited monument in Paris

Until the fire that recently threatened its rich past, Notre Dame has always been the most popular monument visited in the capital city of France. It’s been estimated that 14 million people come to explore the detailed architecture of the building, learn about its history and sometimes attend a service. The cathedral is set to reopen to the general public in 2024.  

2. Houses the Crown of Thorns

During the crucifixion of Jesus, it is said that he was first beaten by Roman soldiers who then placed a crown made of thorns on his head to mock his title “King of the Jews”. Notre Dame stores what is believed to be the crown placed by the Romans on Christ’s head. 

3. It almost burnt down in 2019 

A fire broke out beneath the roof of the cathedral’s building on April 15 2019. The fire lasted for 15 hours before firefighters managed to contain the flames that could have caused drastic damage to the body of the building. However the spire of the building was left completely destroyed and with some of the walls of the building left with smoke damage. Currently, Notre Dame is still closed to the public.  

4. The 10 bells in the cathedral each have a name

Apart from the impressive architecture of the building, one of the interesting features in the cathedral are the bells of various sizes. Situated in the towers, these bells are named after important religious figures. The oldest bell is named Emmauel, a Hebrew name meaning “God is with us” and dates back to the 15th century. The other names are Marie, Etienne, Gabriel, Anne Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice and Jean-Marie.   

5. The cathedral was vandalised during the French Revolution 

Following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, France suffered great civil unrest for several years. The revolution dismantled the country’s estate system, of which the church was a large part. As a result, religious institutions or buildings were seen as a sign of power and militancy. Notre Dame suffered the effects of this — it was looted, used as a food storage warehouse and many sculptures and statues were destroyed.   

6. The building has a gothic architectural style 

Gothic architecture was prevalent in Europe from the 12th to the 16th century when the cathedral was built and it was built according to gothic design. It is said to have been one of the first Gothic cathedrals to feature an arched exterior support known as a flying buttress. 

7. The towers are not twins

When looking at the cathedral it might look like the building’s towers are the same height, however, the tower situated on the north side of the building is bigger than the one on the south. Tourists are able to access the top of the building, climbing 387 steps up a stairway in the north tower. 

8.  Rose shaped windows have biblical symbolism 

The cathedral features colourful rose shaped windows depicting figures. The three rose windows symbolise Christianity’s holy trinity — the father, son and holy spirit — and are meant to reflect a sense of light and divinity coming through the windows from heaven. 

9. Floating heads from the cathedral depict kings of Judah 

The west front side of the cathedral once featured the sculptured heads of the 28 kings of Judah, but these statues were beheaded during the French Revolution. The heads were believed lost until 21 of them were exhumed in 1977 and later displayed with other pieces from the cathedral’s portals.  

10.  The cathedral acts as a compass 

Outside Notre Dame by the entrance lies a small circular plate inscribed with a compass that is called “point zero”. It is used as a starting point to calculate distances to places around Paris.  

Notre Dame on Fire is currently on the big screen in South Africa.