Ideas | Aimee Ortiz

Notre Dame’s long and storied history speaks for itself

In this image made available on Tuesday April 16, 2019 flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. An inferno that raged through Notre Dame Cathedral for more than 12 hours destroyed its spire and its roof but spared its twin medieval bell towers, and a frantic rescue effort saved the monument's "most precious treasures," including the Crown of Thorns purportedly worn by Jesus, officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Thierry Mallet)
Thierry Mallet/AP
Flames and smoke rose from the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

FOR NEARLY A thousand years, Notre Dame cathedral has watched over her beloved Paris. Standing at the city’s “Point Zero,” the official marker from which distances are measured in Paris, she is both the symbolic and literal heart of the city. But she is so much more.

Notre Dame, Our Lady, is Paris, and all of France. She’s honeymoon photos and semesters abroad, childhood visits and religious pilgrimages. She is art made immortal, not just by the people who built her, but also by the painters, writers, and artists she inspired.

And through it all — coronations, revolutions, and two world wars — the gothic structure has witnessed the best and worst of times.


Which is why, when an inferno ripped through the cathedral on Monday taking with it her iconic spire, people around the world found themselves riveted to their screens, watching yet another major moment in her long history unfold. The 856-year-old stone edifice would not, and should not, burn alone.

“[Notre Dame] was crucial as a place where people came together,” said Anne E. Lester, a professor of Medieval History at Johns Hopkins University. “It was a place of refuge for people in need, a place of charity, and a place of support for the community.” Notre Dame was also the place where, over the centuries, clerics convened to debate the nation’s Catholic beliefs and heresies.

A landmark in time and place, Notre Dame’s long and storied history deserves a closer look:

The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911. It was originally published in 1842.
Pope Alexander III.


On the site of a Merovingian cathedral, construction begins under King Louis VII, forever establishing Paris as the center of French life, religion, and culture. The first stone of the cathedral was laid in an elaborate ceremony presided over by Pope Alexander III.


The first Mass is held inside the unfinished structure — likely the first French cathedral to be designed with flying buttresses.



Louis IX accepts the Crown of Thorns relic from Baldwin II, the last Latin emperor ruling from Constantinople. This is just one of the artifacts that firefighters and church officials, forming a human chain, raced to save from Monday’s fire.


The cathedral’s iconic South Rose window (measuring over 60 feet high) is installed.


The Gothic version of the cathedral is completed, 182 years after construction began.

A photo taken on June 26, 2018 shows stained-glass windows at the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read
Stained-glass windows at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.


Bubonic plague arrives in Paris where one of Europe’s oldest hospitals — Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, built kitty-corner to Notre Dame as part of the Île de la Cité master plan — treats upwards of 500 sufferers.


During the Hundred Years War,
Henry VI of England is crowned King of France at Notre Dame, a very public expression of English domination. French Kings were traditionally coronated at Reims, about 80 miles northeast of Paris.



At the height of the Reformation, Huguenots raid the church, destroying statues in their zeal to expunge idols from Christian worship.

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The French Revolution begins, Catholicism is outlawed, and the cathedral is ransacked and pillaged. Sculptures and statues, notably those portraying 28 kings of Judah (which raiders mistake for French monarchy) are destroyed. Even the church’s bells are melted down to make cannons, according to reports.


During the Age of Reason, Notre Dame is deconsecrated and turned into a Temple of Reason. Its altar is dismantled and replaced with an altar to liberty. A year later, Maximilien Robespierre holds an official festival for the Cult of the Supreme Being and dedicates the church to the cult.

Napoleon 1.


Napoleon Bonaparte’s government strikes a deal with the Holy See to return Notre Dame to the Catholic Church in time for Napoleon’s coronation on December 2, 1804.


Victor Hugo’s popular “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” showcases the cathedral as a central character in his novel, highlighting the importance of the then-neglected building, ultimately igniting a movement to restore it.


Architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc begins a nearly 25-year restoration project, alongside partner Jean-Baptiste Lassus. The pair redo the cathedral’s flying buttresses, and add its signature (though historically questionable) central spire. The design process of this 19th century revision offers many lessons for the reconstruction work that lies ahead.
Galerie des Chimères
A drawing of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.


Burned at the stake 478 years earlier, Joan of Arc is beatified by Pope Pius X at Notre Dame.


During WWII, against Adolf Hitler’s wishes, Nazi command chooses not to raze Paris. Concerned citizens had removed and stored Notre Dame’s stained glass windows, and shored up the structure with sandbags.


Days after the fire destroys the church’s roof, French President Emmanuel Macron announces that Notre Dame will be rebuilt within five years.

Aimee Ortiz can be reached at