Photographs by the author, with the exception of the two rooftop details of the apostles and the chimera, which come from Wikimedia Commons on the Creative Commons Licence, and are the work of Vassil and Siren-Com respectively: many thanks. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) in the case of the other photographs, link your document to this URL or cite the Victorian Web in a text document. Click on the images to enlarge them, in order to see the details discussed.]

Notre-Dame by day Notre-Dame by night

Two views of the monumental west front, by day and night, and in summer and winter.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame dates from the twelfth century, under the same Louis XI (or St. Louis) who ordered the construction of the La Saint-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) nearby on the Ile de la Cité, Paris. It is hard to overstate its importance: A. W. N. Pugin came here in 1827 with his father, and collapsed, apparently overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings and the stress of being set to draw it (Ferrey 39). Its restoration was the first major project led by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), at first along with Jean Baptiste Lassus (1807-57). At La Sainte Chapelle Viollet-le-Duc was Sous-inspecteur to Lassus, and it was while collaborating there that the two architects had drawn up and submitted plans for the competition for restoring Notre Dame. They were awarded the commission, and here were on an equal footing. Lassus's untimely death would leave Viollet-le-Duc in sole command. The work lasted altogether from 1845-1864 (Bressani 133, 407), and was "closely scrutinized by the public" (Hearn 2). The fact was that Viollet-le-Duc had his own ideas of what the cathedral should look like, and had more scope to put them into practice here. Here was an important source for the churches and chapels of the Gothic Revival in Britain as well as in France.

The West Front

The great rose window The central portal, of the Last Judgement Statues next to the Portal of St Anne Ironwork on the portal door

Left to right: (a) The great rose window. (b) The central portal, showing the Last Judgement. (c) Statues next to the portal of St Anne on the south side of the central portal. (d) Intricate ironwork on the St Anne portal door.

Pugin's father Auguste drew the west front of Notre Dame, as shown to below right, some years prior to the restoration. It was for his book, Paris and its Environs, and features very near the beginning of it (see Pugin, facing p. 6). He shows the cathedral not only minus its spire, which had been dismantled during the French Revolution, but also without any sculptural enrichment, either in front of the rose window or in the frieze below it, across the façade. It is generally much plainer, its unadorned roofline extending back along the north elevation to the transept on that side.

Auguste Pugin's drawing of Notre-Dame, 1827

By the time the restoration started, the cathedral was more dilapidated. Like La Sainte-Chapelle, it had been used as storage space. So what is most remarkable in the modern photographs is the amount and nature of the rebuilt and added detail, principally: the figures of Mary with the infant Jesus, and two angels, in front of the great window; the statues of the Kings of Judah below it in what is called the Kings' Gallery, replacing those smashed during the French Revolution "in the mistaken belief that they represented the kings of France" (Hill 64); and the statues and carvings around the three portals.

These add immeasurably to the effect of the façade. The rose window, for example, forms a magnificent halo for the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is, of course, dedicated. The kings make a grand unifying feature as well as proclaiming the cathedral's association with the long tradition of Christian history. The portals also regained a grandeur and significance that had been lost before: beside the portal dedicated to St Anne, for instance, is seen St Denis, the third century Bishop of Paris, holding his head which had been severed in his martyrdom. He is flanked by angels, with the first Christian Emperor Constantine on the far left. The appeal is broadened in true medieval spirit by the grotesques below — and among them, just right of centre, crouches a workman with tools, possibly a mason. At the side of the portal, too, are scenes suggestive of everyday life, as if welcoming ordinary humanity into the great house of worship.

North and South Elevations

Towards the north transept Spires and gables South Transept

Left to right: (a) Towards the north transept. (b) Crocketed spires and sharply pointed gables along the roofline on this side. (c) The south elevation, looking towards the south transept and spire.

How did Viollet-le-Duc rebuild or recreate all this enrichment from the crumbling traces if what remained, and give it a cohesive effect? Notre Dame is considered to be "the first of his extremist interventions in churches ("Viollet-le-Duc"): where they remained in situ, old statues were removed, often to to museums, and new ones designed. David Rieff writes: "In spite of all his scholarship, he still had a Romantic approach to Gothic architecture. The idea of seeing Notre-Dame 'as it was' in fact required him to restart it to an extent that went beyond the consolidation and restoration of missing parts. In some parts ... it was scholarly fancy; and from the few instances of this minor aspect of his restorations, there has risen a general mistrust. But all these changes from literal evidence were only a matter of degree" (30). This reads like a sort of apologia, which many would now feel is unnecessary.

Base of the tower, detail Chimera on gallery

Left: Statues of the apostles on the roof, at the south-west angle of the base of spire. Right: Chimera looking out from the gallery.

The elements that most clearly speak of "scholarly fancy" are probably the spire, the gargoyles and the chimera. As for the spire, Viollet-le-Duc modelled it on a recent two-storey tower one from Orléans, rather than the original thirteenth-century bell tower ("The Spire"). According to Rieff, this was to make it more impressive. On small projecting platforms at its base, with three on each of four angles, rise groups consisting of a symbol of one of the evangelists followed by three of the disciples. St Thomas, bearing Viollet-le-Duc's own likeness, and holding an aid to draughtsmanship, is one of these. More idiosyncratic are the chimera on the upper balustrade, which, like the gargoyles, seem to have been "wholly his inventions" ("Viollet-le-Duc"). Exactly the sort of figures that would have appealed to William Burges, who admitted to having been influenced by the French architect, these have long fascinated visitors and scholars alike. There were fifty-four of them, and, according to Michael Camille, they were very much the product of the turbulent times during which Viollet-le-Duc created them (157). As well as embellishing the façade, they have been seen (like the Gallery of Kings) as helping to unify it (Rieff 30).

The Interior

Interior, looking towards the apse Apsidal Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows Rose window, south transept Didron's signature on a window

Left to right: (a) Interior, looking towards the apse. (b) Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, in the apse behind the main altar. (c) Rose window, south transept, rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc from 1861. (d) The master glassmaker's Didron the Elder's signature at the corner of a window.

The general criticism of the work on the interior, as well, has been a lack of restraint on Viollet-le-Duc's part. For example, Charles Hiatt writes, in his 1902 account of the cathedral, that the ambulatory and the chapels adjoining it are over-decorated: "The truth is that the colour confuses our appreciation of the fine lines of the architecture, and it is frequently restless and irritating where it should be most reposeful" (91). Similarly, problems have been noted in the gorgeous rose window of the south transept. Rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc from 1861, this was saved from total destruction, and is one of the wonders of the cathedral – a prime example of the successful restoration of the stained glass by the five important glassmakers under his supervision. But during this massive and challenging task, the sequencing of some of the figures was apparently disrupted (see "South Rose Window").

Nevertheless, Hiatt himself admits that "[i]t is quite probable that no such scheme of decoration could be open to fewer objections than that of Viollet-le-Duc" (91). Writing well over a century later, and after all the research that has gone into assessing the work, Reiff reaches a similar conclusion. "Because it was part of the Romantic movement, he carried the restoration further in some places than a purely historical approach would sanction; but from his theories, and the specific example of his restoration of the portals of Notre Dame, we can unquestionably put far greater faith in his work than many have previously allowed" (30). Reiff has decided that everything was done "with great scholarship, and for specific reasons: the decoration to give the chapels a more complete aesthetic effect," for instance, and "the crossing bays reconstructed in twelfth-century form to give art historians tangible proof beyond the traces he found of what they originally were like." Moreover, he argues convincingly that through his example here Viollet-le-Duc "saved literally dozens of churches from destruction, both by decay and by barbaric amateur 'restoration'" (30).

Relevance to the Victorians

Happily, the example proved effective in Britain as well. The restorations of the Victorian period have, of course, been a hot topic here too. Some earlier restorers had achieved notoriety for their cavalier treatment of the precious legacies of the middle ages: James Wyatt of the famous Wyatt dynasty had earned himself the nickname "Wyatt the Destroyer": Pugin called him "a monster of architectural depravity" for his cavalier restorations (qtd. in Hill 118). Not everyone approved of Viollet-le-Duc, either: William Burges, despite his admiration for his scholarship, went so far as to call him a "disastrous restorationist" (qtd. in Crook 94). But on the whole the French architect's reasoned, scholarly and well documented work on the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame – and even the criticisms it provoked – served to set a new benchmark for the architects who succeeded him. Both in Britain and France, they proceeded with greater respect, responsiveness, and care. As a result, their work is generally valued now, like his, for contributing to the beauty of the structures that they have helped to preserve.

Related Material


Bressani, Martin. Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814-1879. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014.

Camille, Michael. The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. William Burges and the High Victorian Dream. Revised ed. London: Frances Lincoln, 2013 [review].

"Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (May 1, 1879)." Jstor Early Journal Content. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 15. 394-99. Internet Archive. Web. 11 December 2014.

Ferrey, Benjamin. Recollections of A. N. Welby Pugin, and his father, Augustus Pugin; with notices of their works. London: Edward Stanford, 1861. Internet Archive. Web. 11 December 2014.

Hearn, M. F. "A Visionary among the Gargoyles." The Architectural Theory of Viollet-le-Duc: Readings and Commentary. Ed. M. F. Hearn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. 1-20.

Hiatt, Charles. Notre Dame de Paris; a short history & description of the cathedral, with some account of the churches which preceded it. London: G. Bell, 1902. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 11 December 2014.

Pugin, Auguste. Paris and its Environs: Displayed in a Series of Two Hundred Picturesque Views, from Original Drawings. London: Jennings and Chaplin, 1831. Contributed by the Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Internet Archive. Web. 11 December 2014.

Reiff, Daniel D. "Viollet le Duc and Historic Restoration: The West Portals of Notre-Dame." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 30: 1 (Mar., 1971): 17-30. Accessed via JSTOR. Web. 11 December 2014.

"South Rose Window." Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Web. 11 December 2014.

"The Spire." Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Web. 11 December 2014.

"Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène [-Emmanuel]." Dictionary of Art Historians. Web. 11 December 2014.

Last modified 11 December 2014