Notre Dame is perhaps the best-known Gothic cathedral in the world, probably due to its location on a small island in the Seine River in central Paris called the Île de la Cité. It has been central to many prominent historical events, including Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804 and the French celebration of their liberation from the Nazis in 1944. The impetus for construc-tion of the cathedral came about when a new bishop, Maurice de Sully, decided around 1160 that the older cathedral was not grand enough for its role as the parish church of the "kings of Europe." Therefore, the decision was made to demolish the older church and build a larger one in the new Gothic style. Construction began in 1163, when the cornerstone was laid by either the bishop or Pope Alexander III, and the nave was completed by 1200. The interior and west façade were not finished until 1250. During the reign of King Louis VII, the construction of Notre Dame became the major task of the Bishop de Sully, who spent his life overseeing its financing. Dur-ing its construction, the Gothic style developed from its early phases into the High Gothic, which is why stylistic changes are evident in different parts of the building.
   The earliest Gothic style is epitomized by the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, located several miles north of central Paris. This Bene-dictine monastery houses several tombs of the French royal family as well as the relics of Saint Denis, the patron saint of France. After a fire destroyed part of the older church, Abbot Suger in the 1130s oversaw the financing for the construction of the new church. Having traveled widely, Suger sought to introduce a new style of architecture at Saint-Denis, and his tireless work resulted in the first true Gothic church, which became the source for many other Gothic churches constructed across France in the next several centuries. Unlike most buildings, the west façade of Saint-Denis was completed first, by around 1140. A tripartite façade appears here with twin towers, only one of which can be seen today because the other did not survive damage it sustained in the 19th century. Although the general layout of the façade recalls the Romanesque church of Saint-Étienne in Caen built in the 1060s, it is much more elaborately carved with ar-chitectural sculpture. On the interior, sophisticated vaulting and sup-ports allowed for larger stained-glass windows that let more light into the building. The vaulted ceilings were more open and spacious than in Romanesque structures, with thinner columns that provided a more "weightless" appearance. The pointed arches also allowed for a taller ceiling and more wall space for fenestration than the Ro-manesque round arch provided.
   These are the Gothic features adapted for use at Notre Dame. With more fenestration came the need for more sophisticated buttressing; the first use of true flying buttresses is found at Notre Dame, where the buttresses are attached to the upper register of the outer clerestory wall and then "fly" out from the wall, attaching again into the outer walls of the lower-level side aisles and area. Pinnacles top the areas where the buttresses angle into the side walls, and these bring more vertical weight down into the wall supports. Flying buttresses are a crucial feature of Gothic architecture. The additional support is cer-tainly needed, given the large windows in relation to the masonry walls. The more traditional attached buttresses, such as are seen at Saint-Étienne at Caen, would have obscured the windows. In addi-tion, Gothic churches are typically built on a Latin-cross plan, with a long vaulted nave flanked by lower side aisles, a transept with side doors at the crossing of the church, and a well-lit choir area, some-times with an ambulatory circling around the choir and chapels radi-ating from the ambulatory.
   At Notre Dame, the transepts are suppressed, and the ambulatory allows for visitors to walk around the choir without disturbing the mass. Notre Dame does not have projecting choir chapels as do later Gothic cathedrals, such as at Amiens. The elevation of the church is typically designed with a two- or three-story interior, to include a tri-forium, or balcony above the nave arcade, and then clerestory win-dows above the triforium. Gothic arches, as seen in the nave arcade, are always pointed, a feature that allows for an increase in height within the radius of the arch and thus more room for tall windows as well as the visual effect of a soaring interior height. At Notre Dame, the three-story interior is articulated with thick piers that line the nave, separating the central area from the side aisles. The side walls are defined by the arcade, a triforium, and then a register of clerestory windows. From the massive piers spring ribs, some of which curve around into the pointed arches that define the arcade, while others travel vertically upward to demarcate the bay unit divisions and to merge into the ceiling. There they become the ribs used for the cross-vaulted roof support. At Notre Dame, the nave vaulting is a six-part system, where three ribs intersect each other. The ribs help to direct the weight of the masonry and of gravity through the support system of piers and walls, and they also help the visitor to visualize how the building is measured out based upon geometric principles. Therefore, a seemingly complex structural system is laid bare by ribbing that functions as an exoskeleton, much like the way the flying buttresses function on the exterior of Notre Dame. The Gothic cathedral also ap-pears weightless in that the pointed arches direct the visitor's eye up-ward toward the clerestory windows, where light streams in on a sunny day, creating patterns of colored light on the walls of the church. Certainly at this time the interior space would have been overwhelming to the visitor, unaccustomed to seeing such large-scale architectural constructions.
   In addition, Gothic churches are even more elaborately decorated with architectural sculpture, placed at pivotal points, mainly on the exterior of the building. The magnificent decoration served both iconic and didactic purposes. It was meant to glorify the sacred space as the house of God on earth, but it also constituted didactic narra-tives of such events as the Last Judgment, the Coronation of the Vir-gin, and various episodes in the life of the Virgin, for example, her Visitation and the Annunciation. Such is the case with Notre Dame, where the façade faces west and reveals a tripartite division, with three arched entrance portals, each with a set of double doors sur-rounded by portal sculpture. The portal sculpture is arranged around the doors to include standing figures, called jamb figures, which flank the entrance, while a central figure stands in the trumeau,a carved post located between the double doors. Above the doorway is the lintel, and the tympanum is the space that extends from the lintel to the point of the arched doorway frame. Both are intricately carved with scenes related to the Virgin Mary and then framed by a series of stone blocks called voussoirs, which attach together around the arch into registers called archivolts, which are also carved.
   The main façade of Notre Dame also has three horizontal registers, with the entrance portals at the ground floor, topped by a round, cen-tered rose window, which allows light into the nave entrance. The rose window is flanked by bifurcated (two-part) arched windows on either side. The registers are then divided by a frieze of carved fig-ures standing in niches. Above the second register is a carved lattice-work entablature that one can see through in the center of the church. This feature gives the appearance of weightlessness to the upper por-tions of the structure. Finally, twin towers appear on either side of the façade. Notre Dame in Paris is rare in that its façade towers match. Very often, due to the extensive time frame needed for the comple-tion of the Gothic cathedral, the towers were completed in different Gothic styles. Differing Gothic styles can be seen inside Notre Dame, however; the clerestory windows in the nave were reconstructed in the latest building campaign after 1225 into larger double-lancet windows topped by smaller rose windows. Although in the coming centuries, architectural styles would shift toward a more classical de-sign, appreciation for these Gothic churches continued in northern Europe, and the Gothic style was revived periodically into one Gothic Revival or another. In any event, Gothic churches continue to inspire people to think about the high motivations, the huge cost, and the incredible logistically complex construction that fueled an entire economy centered on architectural endeavors in the Middle Ages.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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