An Architectural and Theological Analysis on Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, France

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By Emily Evans, Holy Apostles College

During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250), the Gothic style came to replace the Romanesque style of the early Medieval period with noticeable innovations in style and construction, particularly through the flying buttresses and pointed vaults. With this then, arguably, one of the most famous and earliest examples of the Gothic style is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. This Cathedral that was dedicated to Our Lady, represented the highest ideals of Medieval faith and culture as it reveals the innate order, beauty, and harmony of creation as a whole, and at the same time, according to Brenton H. Cook, “communicat[ed] an incarnational and holistic worldview centered on the reunion of God and man through Christ.”[1] Ultimately, then, Notre Dame Cathedral, reflective of scholastic philosophy and theology, beautifully expresses the deep spiritual longing of man to be reunited with God forever in Heaven.

Built between 1163 and 1260 A.D., Notre Dame Cathedral’s construction was initiated by the Bishop of Paris, who desired to convert two remaining basilicas into one Church. As was largely the case in the Medieval era, the architects were largely unknown; this was because the building of Churches was a community effort, where everyone contributed: labor, money, time, and particular skills. In other words, the Medieval world saw that one man should not be glorified or praised above others; this was reflective of St. Paul’s admonition that, “. . . you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 RSV) So, because the Medieval world sought to create an earthly heaven within the Church itself, Notre Dame beautifully characterized this spiritual ideal. Like, other Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame Cathedral was geometrically coherent in order to show the innate proportionality, order, and beauty of the universe itself. Medieval architects did this because they believed, that “geometry was a means [of] linking human beings to God . . .”[2]

Through this, the Cathedral of Notre Dame utilized pointed arches instead of rounded arches; this made it possible for Notre Dame to attain its enormous height. Moreover, the flying buttresses (arches of masonry on the outside of the walls)[3] dispersed the weight of the vaults and added stability. The result of all of this was a soaring interior, where man’s eyes were brought ever upward to contemplate Heaven itself. Furthermore, with the innovation in design, this allowed Notre Dame to have large window filled with stained glass, where light flooded into the church itself. This represented the deep spirituality and devotion of the times, particularly as the windows of Notre Dame were decorated with depictions of saints and ecclesiastical themes intended to foster prayerfulness and inspire reverence. So, with this emphasis on verticality and translucency,[4] Notre Dame created, according to Michael Rose, “a heightened sense of aspiration toward God and Heaven. Coupled with this was the use of natural light as a means of creating a mysterious, other-worldly feel.”[5] Ultimately, this enabled the Cathedral of Notre Dame to offer a forestate of the delights and joys of the Heavenly Jerusalem itself.

From this, Notre Dame Cathedral adopted many of the elements that characterized the classical architecture of the Roman basilica. This is most evident by the fact that  Notre Dame was constructed in the cruciform plan, which basically meant that the Church was constructed in the shape of a cross. But more particularly, Notre Dame Cathedral utilized the interior floor plan of the Roman basilica. This can be seen by the fact that Notre Dame’s interior consisted of an open central area, which is the nave. Additionally, along either side of the nave were two aisles that led to the entrance, which opened into the narthex. Opposite the narthex was the apse, a semi-circular alcove set into the top of the Church itself. This entire floor plan possessed deep Christian symbolism as it meant, according to Michael Rose that, “. . . the basilica leads the Christian from the profane outside world toward the sanctuary in distinct stages.” [6] This was reflective of the interior structure of King Solomon’s Temple as there was a natural progression from the profane to the Holy of Holies. So, since Notre Dame beautifully manifested this reality, the Tabernacle of the Wilderness further emphasizes this point because the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was the archetypal instrument that demonstrated the separation of the sacred and the profane. This is why the tabernacle of Notre Dame is positioned in a place of honor as this is the most sacred area in Notre Dame itself since Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity dwell within it. As Denis McNarama articulates, “[The Tabernacle] is the place where Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us,’ dwells on earth in our earthly image of heaven: the church sanctuary.”[7]

Since Catholic Churches are supposed to be symbolic of the “earthly heaven,” Churches have the role of visually showing forth the image of heaven by utilizing the symbolic imagery of St. John’s revelations, which clearly manifests the mystery and glory of the heavenly Jerusalem itself. In another sense though, according to Denis McNamara, “The Church is an icon of the Heavenly Jerusalem.” [8] Notre Dame reveals this through the beauty of its stained glass, where these images evoke images of Christ and His Church and the seemingly never-ending height of the Church itself. This harkens back to the book of the Revelation, where the city of Jerusalem  is described as “pure gold, clear as glass” and filled with radiant light of the glory of God (Rev 21:15–27).[9] In another way though, the stain glass appears as radiant, precious jewels when the light reflects off of them, which is supposed to draw man’s heart and mind to contemplate the Heavenly Jerusalem itself. Notre Dame, reflective of this reality, participates in the Heavenly glory by manifesting the completeness, order, harmony, and theocentric radiance as a whole.[10] So, by creating Notre Dame in this manner, it leaves the impression upon man that he is a fallen creature and is subject to the almighty God. This is made evident by the largest portal of Notre Dame Cathedral, where Christ at the last judgement, “. . . determines who enters the heavenly City, [] the unhappy demonic gargoyles and chimeras [always] remain [] outside.”[11]At the same time though, the Cathedral of Notre Dame inspires man to not only envision what Heaven is like, but it also induces man to look forward to the hope of ever-lasting life in Heaven.

            As it can be seen then, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France beautifully exemplifies man’s desire to be reunited with God forever in Heaven. Notre Dame, like other classical cathedrals, possesses a sacramental character in the sense that they reveal the mysteries of God Himself. Because of this, the beauty of Notre Dame has the ability to turn man’s mind and heart to the contemplation of God, the Creator of Heaven and earth. Ultimately, then, Notre Dame Cathedral, as the “earthly-Heaven” possesses a transformative effect, where people become more ordered and conformed to Heaven itself, which more perfectly renders man to be more suited to live forever in Heaven.

Bibliography:

Cook, Brenton, H. “Theology in Stone: Gothic Architecture, Scholasticism, and the Medieval Incarnational View of Knowledge.” Christus Cultura: The Journal of Christianity in the Social Sciences vol 2, no. 1 (2020).

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Phaidon Press, 1985.

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

Janson, Anthony and Janson, H.W. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Publishing, 2007.

McNamara, Denis. “Built Form of Theology: The Natural Sympathies of Catholicism and Classicism.” (2015) at the Institute of Sacred Architecture, https://www.sacredarchitecture.org/.

McNamara, Denis, R. Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2009.

Rose, Michael. In Tiers of Glory: The Organic Development of Catholic Church Architecture through the Ages. Cincinnati, OH: Mesa Folio Editions, 2004.

Woods,  Thomas. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington DC: Regnery Press, 2012.


[1] Brenton H. Cook, “Theology in Stone: Gothic Architecture, Scholasticism, and the Medieval Incarnational View of Knowledge,” Christus Cultura: The Journal of Christianity in the Social Sciences vol 2, no. 1 (2020), 16.

[2] Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington DC: Regnery Press, 2012), 120.

[3] E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Phaidon Press, 1985), 139.

[4] Anthony Janson and H. W. Janson, Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Publishing, 2007), 431.

[5] Michael S. Rose, In Tiers of Glory: The Organic Development of Catholic Church Architecture through the Ages (Cincinnati, OH: Mesa Folio Editions, 2004), 56.

[6] Rose, In Tiers of Glory, 25.

[7]  Denis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2009), 220.

[8] Denis McNamara, “Built Form of Theology: The Natural Sympathies of Catholicism and Classicism,” (2015) at the Institute of Sacred Architecture, https://www.sacredarchitecture.org/.

[9] McNamara, “Built Form of Theology.”

[10] McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, 73.

[11] McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, 80.