King Louis VII wanted the world to know that Paris was the economic, cultural, political, and religious center of France, and he wanted grandiose monuments to prove it. The Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris was imagined and built in part to fulfill this wish, and it is now one of the most visited monuments in the world. Over hundreds of years, Notre Dame has withstood civil uprisings, the battery of war, and degradation by the elements and time. Today it faces a new battle as flames from an unknown source engulf the building.
In 1160, the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, came up with the idea to build an ambitious cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the River Seine in Paris's 4th arrondissment. This was, and in many ways still is, the heart of the city, and had been the location of several important religious buildings prior. It once housed a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter before it became the site of two different Catholic basilicas. One of these basilicas, dedicated to Saint Étienne, still stood when Bishop Sully proposed Notre Dame. Saint-Étienne had to be razed to its foundation to make room for the new cathedral.
Pope Alexander III laid the first foundation stone in 1163, and construction carried on for almost 200 years until the cathedral's completion in 1345. It stood relatively unscathed for just over 200 years.
Because it was designed to tell the story of the bible through its ornamentation, Notre Dame became a significant target for Huguenot Reformers as they sought to establish prominence in France in the mid-16th century. The Protestant group opposed the Catholic church vehemently and led iconoclast riots in cities where they developed strongholds. One such riot in Paris at Notre Dame resulted in the Huguenots beheading 28 statues that depicted Old Testament kings and destroying other religious iconography.
Over the course of the next two centuries, Notre Dame underwent a period of significant transformation as King Louis XIV and King Louis XV made efforts to modernize the building. Tombs, statues, and even the 13th-century spire were removed along with the stained glass windows, which were replaced with white glass to let more light into the cathedral.
When the French Revolution rocked Paris in the late 18th century, Notre Dame suffered some of its worst damage. The building was at one point being used as a warehouse to store food and other supplies, and after years of bombardment it fell into great disrepair. By the time the Revolution was over, demolition was being seriously considered.
Napoleon ultimately saved Notre Dame from destruction when he signed an order in 1801 that gave ownership back to the Catholic Church. There was no major push for renovation, however, for the next thirty years.
It was the publication of Victor Hugo's classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame which spurred the public's interest in restoring the iconic cathedral. King Louis Phillipe ordered a massive restoration in 1844, which was spearheded by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. The process took 25 years and included the reconstruction of the spire, restitution of sculptures carried out by 15 different sculptors, elevation of a new sacristy, complete reconstruction of the great organ, the addition of murals in side chapels, and restoration of stained glass windows.
The cathedral faced new challenges in the 20th century as both World Wars raged in and around Paris, causing stray bullets and shrapnel to riddle the exterior. During WWII, fears arose that Nazi soldiers or their bombs might damage the spectacular stained glass, most specifically the Rose Window, and so it was all removed until after the war.
In 1963, Notre Dame underwent its first major cleaning campaign which returned the facade to its original color after hundreds of years of accumulating weather damage, grime, and scars from war. A second cleaning campaign spanning nearly a decade from 1991-2000 restored the Cathedral to the level of splendor that 21st-century vistors have become accustomed to expect.
As flames eat away at Notre Dame today, many wonder if this will truly be the end of one of Paris's most iconic monuments, or if it is instead another defining moment of the cathedral's deep and storied place at the heart of Paris.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.