Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13
The Cathedral of Paris

IN 1163 Bishop Maurice-de-Sully began construction of the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame on the Île-de-la-Cité in the heart of Paris (figs. 175-185). Notre-Dame of Paris is the exception among Early Gothic cathedrals, primarily as a result of its sheer size. None of the cathedrals discussed had vaults higher than 81 feet above the pavement. In contrast to the huge Burgundian Romanesque church, Cluny III, which rose over 97 feet, the majority of Early Gothic cathedrals were smaller. Maurice-de-Sully's Paris, however, is the exception, since it rose to over 108 feet in height from the pavement to the crown of its vaults. During Bishop Sully's lifetime its 402-foot length was almost completed, and the façade was built under subsequent bishops in the first half of the thirteenth century. The cathedral's dramatic location in the center of Paris, flanked by the two branches of the river Seine and the place or parvis on the west side, has made Notre-Dame perhaps the best-known monument in western Europe. Unfortunately, Notre-Dame has suffered by substantial interior alterations and exterior additions. As one of the main symbols against which the French Revolution was directed, the cathedral sustained considerable damage. Nineteenth-century restorations reveal a lack of understanding of the intentions of the twelfth-century master builders.

The original construction of Notre-Dame embodies primarily the vision of Bishop Maurice-de- Sully, the Horatio Alger hero of the twelfth century. He was born the son of a peasant family near Sully on the Loire; he probably received his early education within the walls of the famous Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire and arrived in Paris in his youth. According to Allan Temko in his book on Notre-Dame of Paris, Maurice-de-Sully was probably born around 1120 and came to the city as early as 1137 to study in the schools there which were gradually growing into the University of Paris. He soon became a clerk in the cathedral chapter and later, at the age of twenty-seven became the subdeacon. Instead of following the traditions of the schools of Paris and developing into a great theologian, Maurice-de- Sully won renown for his sermons. From archdeacon he rose to become the elected bishop on October 12, 1160. His election put him in a position to mobilize all the necessary resources for the construction of a new, huge cathedral. Resources came from cathedral properties, which included castles, towns, mills, forests, and rights to special taxes, together with revenues from the large amount of real estate in the city of Paris itself. Over half of the land on the Île-de-la-Cité was owned or controlled by the cathedral chapter. In order to prepare the site, Maurice-de-Sully demolished the Merovingian and Carolingian churches and had cuts made in the huge Gallo-Roman ramparts. Pope Alexander, exiled in France, is traditionally believed to have laid the first stone of the choir in 1163. Alexander was in Paris during the same year to consecrate the choir of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In the nineteenth century archaeologists probed the foundations under the cathedral and discovered that the footings were over 30 feet deep and consisted of carefully cut hard stone. The intention to erect the tallest cathedral is thus reflected in the preparation of the subfoundations.

-137-

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