European Architecture Series
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

History and Gothic Architectural Design.

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West facade of Notre Dame Cathedral,
Ile de la Cite, Paris. Note the balance
between the vertical towers and the
horizontal bands of sculpture and
other decorative stonework.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris (1163-1345)


Architecture of Notre-Dame Cathedral
Gothic Cathedral Builders
Articles about Medieval Gothic Art

For more about the development of building designs,
see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present).

For more about the evolution and types of art associated with Christianity, see: Medieval Christian Art (c.600-1200) and Christian Art (c.150-2000).
For later styles, see: Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (1560-1700).

Flying buttresses at Notre Dame
Cathedral, giving masonry support
to the walls of the nave.

Medieval art at its finest.
Notre Dame Cathedral seen from the
east. Notice the flying buttresses
circling and supporting the apse.

For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.


Considered to be one of the greatest examples of French Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame Cathedral - along with the Eiffel Tower - is one of Paris's most famous landmarks. Located on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the River Seine, the cathedral was commissioned by Maurice de Sully shortly after becoming Bishop of Paris in 1160, and built over two centuries, from 1163 to 1345, although much of it was completed before his death in 1196. The cathedral is renowned for the naturalism of its gothic sculpture as well as its sublime stained glass art, typifying the improvements made over the previous era of Romanesque Architecture and Romanesque sculpture (c.1000-1200). Significant damage was caused to the cathedral during the radical phase of the French Revolution (1790s), which was followed in the mid-1840s by an extensive program of renovation, overseen by the restoration specialist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. In 1991, Notre-Dame Cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of culturally important sites. For two other important examples of Gothic design, see Chartres Cathedral (1194-1250) and Cologne Cathedral (1248-1880).


Construction began in 1163 after Pope Alexander III laid the cornerstone for the new cathedral. By the time of Bishop Maurice de Sully's death in 1196, the apse, choir and the new High Altar were all finished, while the nave itself was nearing completion. In 1200, work began on the western facade, including the west rose window and the towers, all of which were completed around 1250, along with a new north rose window. Also during the 1250s, the transepts were remodeled in the latest style of Rayonnant Gothic architecture by architects Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil, and the clerestory windows were enlarged. The last remaining elements were gradually completed during the following century. (See also Flamboyant Gothic architecture: 1375-1500.)

Architecture of Notre-Dame Cathedral

The cathedral is roughly 128 metres (420 ft) in length, and 12 metres (39 ft) wide in the nave. Its cruciform plan, elevated nave, transept and tower were borrowed from 11th-century Romanesque architecture, but its pointed arches and rib vaulting were strictly Gothic. Indeed, it was one of the first Gothic cathedrals to have arched exterior supports known as "flying buttresses". These were not incorporated into the initial architecture of the building, but were included when stress fractures began to appear in the thin upper walls as they cracked under the weight of the vault. In addition to the flying buttresses, over a dozen supporting piers were constructed to support the exterior walls and counteract the lateral thrust of the nave vaulting. Notre-Dame is also famous for its external statues and gargoyles arranged around the outside to serve as extra column supports and drainage pipes. As Gothic building designers hoped, the additional reinforcement provided by the buttresses, piers and other stone supports enabled the main walls of the cathedral to become non-structural, and thus a greater wall area was available for stained glass, in order to inspire worshippers and illuminate the cathedral's interior. Indeed, Notre-Dame Cathedral exemplifies the main contributions of Gothic art to Christian architecture: churches soared higher and were more awe-inspiring, while their stained glass windows let in more light and provided additional Biblical art for the congregation. Thus the clerestory windows of Notre-Dame's original nave were enlarged in the 13th century, filling the interior with light, thanks to the improvements achieved in structural support.

Notre-Dame's stern facade is decorated with a mass of stone sculpture, notably around the central portal, which is flanked by statues depicting The Last Judgment. The facade design balances the verticality of the twin towers (69 metres in height) with the horizontal banding of the decorated galleries. This produces a simple but powerful western elevation, which dominates the square in front.

The cathedral's transept portals are also richly decorated with architectural relief sculpture; the south door features scenes from the lives of Saint Stephen along with other local saints, while the decorations around the north door depict the infancy of Christ and the tale of Theophilus.

Gothic Cathedral Builders

With the aid of only elementary drawings and templates, master stone masons meticulously directed the construction of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. The practices of intuitive calculation, largely based on simple mathematical ratios and structural precedent, were closely guarded and passed between successive generations of masons. Specific site conditions and the insatiable demand by church authorities for higher and lighter buildings provided the impetus for continual development.

More Articles about Medieval Gothic Art

Medieval Sculpture (c.300-1000) From Late Antiquity to Romanesque.

Medieval Artists (c.1100-1450).

German Gothic Art (c.1200-1450).

German Gothic Sculpture (1150-1400).


• For more about French Gothic architecture and building design, see: Homepage.

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