The Secrets of Notre Dame Cathedral

In Victor Hugo’s “Book III” you can read not only what Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is, was and will be, but also what it is not and never will be, but perhaps should. In the text, he says, “Glory to the Cathedral!” in ever so many words and ways, tracing the history (and the mystery) of Notre Dame from the laying of the first stone in 1163 by Louis VII, to vandalism by mobs during the revolution. Today, if you find yourself perusing Parisian streets, a stop by the most famous Catholic Church in all the world is undoubtedly on your radar, all religion aside.

The cathedral stands tall on the Île de la Cité, essentially the eye of Paris. To the north and south are the oldest parts of Paris. The Marais and the commercial district between Rue de Bièvre and Boulevard St. Michel lies northerly, and the south side hosts students, clerics and professors. In Hugo’s day, Dante himself was one of them.

Notre Dame emits a lasting first impression. Upon entrance, visitors are swallowed up in strange incense and a sinking darkness. Of course a centuries old church contains endless nooks and crannies complete with a series of secrets deep beneath the surface. Or, just maybe, right before your eyes. Hidden within the dense details of the architecture are countless mysteries that only medieval scholars might notice. Here are a few we thought we’d share.

1. The Spires

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

In the original plans, spires were designed for the front towers of Notre Dame. No one is sure why they were never built, as money certainly wasn’t an issue for anyone involved. Construction of the cathedral continued after the towers stood tall, but they were never expanded upon. Maybe someone decided that the building was high enough already, or maybe the builders just got a little lazy.

The School

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

There had once been huge cloisters to the left of the cathedral; they were destroyed by fire in the 17th century and never rebuilt. But it was inside those walls that the great University of Paris began, as a theological school.
Notre Dame’s architecture was not all made specifically for Notre Dame. Think of it as medieval recycling. St. Anne’s portal (the right-hand doorway) is not in the style of true Gothicism. The rounded arch was the main door to the Roman cathedral that Notre Dame replaced.

The Portal

notre dame 3

Oh and by the way, the men on the recycled arch aren’t Catholic at all; they’re Jewish. You can tell because of their pointed hats. All Jewish men in medieval France wore such pointed hats.

The Crypt

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

But perhaps the best-kept secrets are not within the cathedral at all, but in what lies beneath. The Crypte Archéologique is one of the most important archaeological sites in Paris; it was converted in 1980 into a public museum-like establishment under the square in front of Notre Dame to display archaeological remains discovered from 1965 to 1972.

About the Author: Elsie Sing


Elsie is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; her writing has appeared in a few university publications, under tables and on the sides of trains. She likes taking Polaroid pictures and planning rooftop picnics.