Maurice de Sully was born a peasant in Loire in 1120. He studied Latin and architecture until age 17 when he walked to Paris to continue his studies. To survive, he begged food and eked out a living as a manservant to more affluent students. Quickly, though, Sully’s intelligence got him noticed. At age 27, authorities named him as Assistant-Deacon. Three years later he had gained some renown for his sermons. When he was 40, he was appointed Bishop of Paris. (source)
As Bishop, Sully pulled down the ancient Sainte-Étienne which was built in 528 by Childebert. The growing size and importance of Paris required a larger church, not just for status in Paris’ rivalry with Rome, but to accommodate the growing population. The new cathedral would be dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Pope Alexander III laid the first stone in 1163.
The site held a prominent place in the history of Paris, even if much of its significance had been forgotten at the time. Even from the earliest days of Lutetia, the site was the center of Paris. Before Sainte-Étienne, the site held the Roman temple to Jupiter. The city had been laid out from a ground marker in front of the cathedral.
The building of the great cathedral was a huge undertaking. New streets had to be cut into the medieval city to bring the stone to the site. Sully’s commitment was total. He would fund much of the construction from revenues generated from his own land around Paris.
Alas, Sully would not see the completion of Notre-Dame, and neither would the next three supervisors. The building wasn’t completed until 1345.
In late Medieval Paris, the narrow, crowded streets next to the Virgin Mary’s church were officially designated an area for prostitutes and became a notorious hovel of vice.
For centuries, Parisians ignored Notre-Dame and allowed it to fall into disrepair. In 1789, the atheistic Revolutionaries threatened to raze it to the ground and even put up its stone to auction. Napoleon did his best to restore it when he came to power and crowned himself Emperor in its halls in 1804. Even then, baldachins covered the walls to provide a degree of ornamentation.
Notre-Dame regained considerable fame by the pen–and love–of Victor Hugo who wrote Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831.
Ironically, much of the damage to the building’s history has been laid at the feet of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect made famous by the curious city of Carcassonne. In the 1830s, he led the charge to restore Notre-Dame to its medieval luster. Instead of hewing close to the original style, the restoration became a pastiche of Gothic styles in the same way that Carcassonne was a tokenistic imitation of the Romanesque style. (Follow this link for a more complete discussion of the changes to Notre-Dame over time.)
The cathedral came close to utter ruin during the 1871 Commune when pews were piled up in the nave and doused in petroleum. Fortunately, the spark was not struck.
The Nazi’s threatened destruction again when their defeat in France was assured. Hitler issued an order to destroy the city upon evacuation. If the Third Reich could not have Paris, no one would. A delay in executing the order spared the cathedral, and the city.
Intertwined with the history of Paris, Notre-Dame wasn’t always the most important church in Paris. For much of its history, it appears to have been the after-thought. Parisians seemed to take it for granted. But the cathedral as loomed over the city and its history.
Architectural Style: Gothic