9 Things You Should Know About Notre Dame Cathedral

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On Monday more than 400 French firefighters attempted to save Notre-Dame Cathedral from a devastating fire. Here are nine things you should know about one of Europe’s more historic and iconic religious landmarks:

1. Notre-Dame de Paris (French for “Our Lady of Paris”) is a Catholic cathedral in Paris that took centuries to complete. The cornerstone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III, and initial construction was completed in 1260, nearly a hundred years later. The cathedral wasn’t officially consecrated, though, until 1345. Even after completion, construction and restoration continued. A half-dozen other major construction campaigns were undertaken from the 12th to 14th centuries, and changes and restorations took place from the 17th to 21st centuries.

2. During the anti-Christian fervor of the French Revolution, Notre Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason and rededicated to the atheistic Cult of Reason. Later, when the Committee of Public Safety, which controlled France, decreed worship of a Supreme Being, it was rededicated to the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. When interest in the new religions waned, the cathedral was converted into a storage warehouse for food. 

3. Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement in 1801 to restore the cathedral to the Catholic Church. Three years later he decided to hold his coronation ceremony at the cathedral, becoming the first Frenchman to hold the title of emperor in a thousand years. Pope Pius VII handed Napoleon the crown—which the young conqueror of Europe placed on his own head.

4. In 1831, novelist Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame de Paris, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Hugo began writing the novel in part to bring attention to the value of Gothic architecture. A few years earlier, Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (“War to the Demolishers”) aimed at saving Paris’s medieval architecture. Based in part on Hugo’s effort to draw attention to the cathedral, King Louis Philippe ordered in 1844 that it be restored.

5. From 1856 to 2012, the four major bells atop the northern towers of the cathedral were rung every 15 minutes. They also rang for significant events, such as the end of World War I in 1918, the liberation of Paris in 1944, and in honor of the victims of 9/11 in 2011. The four bells—which were named Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne, and Denise-David, after French Catholic saints—were melted down and replaced by eight new ones in 2012. The reason for the change was to recreate the sound of Notre Dame’s original 17th-century bells.

6. The cathedral’s pipe organ dates back to the 18th century and is the largest in France. The instrument has five keyboards, 109 stops, and 7,374 pipes. In the 1990s, the organ was restored at the cost of $2 million and took 40,000 hours to complete. The update included a musical-instrument digital interface (MIDI) that records and allows for instant replay, a voice synthesizer, a printer, and a telephone line to an office near Versailles.

7. In 2013, a hive of honey-producing bees was placed on the roof of the sacristy (i.e., the room where the priest prepares for a service). The types of bees—Buckfast bees—were bred from a special strain at a Benedictine monastery, and known for their gentleness. The beehive is hosted on the cathedral to “recall the beauty of the Creation and responsibility of man towards it.”

8. The wood used for the framing of the cathedral consisted of 1,300 oak trees representing more than 21 hectares (52 acres) of forest.

9. The current fire is part of a long history of damage to the cathedral. In the 16th century, both the Huguenots and also the French king vandalized and altered the structure of the building. During the French Revolution 28 statues of biblical kings located at the west facade were beheaded because they were mistaken for statues of French kings. Minor damage to the medieval glass was also caused by stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in 1944. Even nature has taken its toll, as five centuries of wind damage forced the removal of the original spire in 1786.