A Getty exhibition illuminates the medieval cathedral’s role in European history and spotlights wondrous objects that survived the recent fire.
By Tristan Bravinder
Social Media Producer
Getty Research Institute
The world came to a collective halt on April 15, 2019, when news broke that a fire was taking over Notre-Dame, an 850-year-old cathedral in the heart of Paris. Despite its age, the cathedral had managed to survive multiple wars, revolutions, and reconstructions.
In light of the tragedy, curators at the Getty combed through the collections to present a closer look at the architecture and history of Notre-Dame. These come together in the exhibition An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral, which examines the worldwide significance of the Parisian landmark.
“It’s always rewarding to dig into the very rich collections of the Getty,” lead exhibition curator Anne-Lise Desmas told me. “I know they are full of surprises. In addition to some obvious artworks that would meet the expectations of our visitors, I wanted to include some hidden gems to enrich the show and our audience’s experience.”
Here, a guided tour of some of these gems and the stories they tell.
Notre-Dame as City Center
Notre-Dame is quite literally the center of Paris. Known as “point zero,” an octagon-shaped bronze marker in the middle of Notre-Dame’s plaza was once used to measure distances across the city and across France. Because this marker is in the middle of an island, which is itself in the middle of the Seine River that runs through the middle of Paris, Notre-Dame’s square is the true center of the city.
For over 500 years Notre-Dame was also the tallest building in Paris—making it not only the physical center of Paris, but the metaphorical one, too. It wasn’t until 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was erected, that another building in Paris was able to compete with its size.
The cathedral’s massive towers, standing at 226 feet high, can still be seen from nearly any vantage point in the city, and dramatically stand out in Paris’s relatively flat landscape.
Notre-Dame also fulfills its original mission as a religious center for the city. Since its original construction started in 1163, it has welcomed countless visitors for Mass and holy days such as All Saints’ Day, Easter, and Christmas.
For centuries, says Anne-Lise, artists have been drawn to depict this iconic building. “It’s a masterpiece of architecture that you see from afar,” she explains. “Its two towers are so beautiful, so majestic, and its placement on the island adds such an evocative effect. It’s a hypnotic artwork.”
In the photograph above, for example, André Kertész captured Notre-Dame’s looming presence over the city. Eugène Delacroix even included the building in the background of his masterpiece Liberty Leading the People, where it joins other French icons such as the flag and the female embodiment of liberty.
Notre-Dame as Historical Stage
Notre-Dame has also been used as a powerful tool to orchestrate historical moments. For the Getty exhibition, Anne-Lise chose just two to make this point.
On August 26 and 27, 1660, French king Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain celebrated their recent marriage with an elaborate “joyous entry” into the capital city and a religious service within Notre-Dame, as seen in the etching by Jean Marot commemorating the event. The wedding was particularly significant because of Maria Theresa’s status as a Spanish heiress. Not only were two people uniting, but two countries as well. The marriage marked a historical turn in French-Spanish relations, transforming the two countries from warring rivals into allies.
On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor of the French inside Notre-Dame. While traditionally French kings were coronated in the cathedral of Reims, Napoleon sited his in the heart of Paris—thus also signaling Notre-Dame as a symbol of the expanding French empire.
Notre-Dame as Art Treasury
Notre-Dame is itself an art object, both in its architecture and in the art contained inside. It boasts dramatic arches, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows; its rose windows are a particular standout.
Erected by the architect Jean de Chelles, the north rose window measures about 42 feet in diameter and contains a breathtaking display of vibrant colors that shine onto visitors inside—cleansing, transforming, and purifying the outside light. At the center is the Virgin Mary, encircled by 80 medallions featuring scenes of the Old Testament.
Anne-Lise found intricate 19th-century chromolithographs of details of the window tucked into an album in the Getty Museum’s collection with photos of the building.
Notre-Dame is also an important repository of artworks. These objects “keep attracting us to this day, whether you’re religious or not,” Anne-Lise notes.
One of the greatest of these is a life-sized stone statue of the Virgin Mary—fitting, because Notre-Dame means Our Lady, the Virgin. (“Among the images of the Virgin in the cathedral, it is the most famous and venerated,” adds Anne-Lise.) The sculpture was at one time part of the building’s exterior, which was captured by photographer Bisson Frères around 1855, as seen in the exhibition. However, the beloved sculpture was moved inside in the mid-1800s to preserve it.
During the April 2019 fire, debris came crashing down mere feet from this 14th-century masterpiece, but the Virgin miraculously survived the fire.
The cathedral also houses paintings collected over decades by the Parisian goldsmith guild of Paris. Every May from 1630 to 1707, to commemorate the Virgin Mary, the best painters in Paris presented monumental religious scenes to honor the saint—giving these paintings the nickname “the Mays of Notre-Dame.”
These so-called “Mays” were entrusted to the most celebrated French painters. The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew is one such example created by Charles Le Brun, one of the foremost painters of Louis XIV’s reign. The Getty is lucky to have a preparatory painting and an etching of the composition.
Luckily, the 13 paintings of this series that belong to the cathedral, including Le Brun’s, all survived the 2019 fire.
Notre-Dame as Enduring Icon
The 2019 fire was not the only misfortune Notre-Dame has endured. At the start of the 1800s, the cathedral was in terrible disrepair. When France was dedicated during the French Revolution to a “Cult of Reason,” Notre-Dame underwent a tumultuous period of looting and damage. Many of its sculptures—associated with the despised monarchy— were deliberately destroyed. Damaged in the unrest, the building soon fell into disrepair.
Victor Hugo noted with alarm the dilapidated state of Notre-Dame, which he called “a symphony in stone.” His iconic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in French as Notre-Dame de Paris (1st ed. Paris, 1831) helped to spark renewed interest in the cathedral. The book has been reprinted many times, often with the inclusion of beautiful illustrations, some of which are part of the exhibition, and adapted countless times in movies and other media.
Hugo was successful in drumming up public attention, and a competition for the restoration was mandated by the French government. The position was awarded to two architects, Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc; Lassus died during the reconstruction, leaving Viollet-le-Duc with the majority of the public credit.
During the restoration, a dramatic new spire was erected. The building had been spireless from the late 1790s until the late 1800s, because the original spire had threatened to collapse; that’s why early photographs of Notre-Dame, like the one above, do not show a spire.
Viollet-le-Duc constructed the new spire with life-sized sculptures of the apostles as ornamental features. Their sculptor, Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, designed Saint Thomas after Viollet-le-Duc himself.
This 19th-century spire burned and collapsed in April 2019, but, luckily, the sculptures had been removed just a week prior to the disaster.
“As art historians, as soon as we heard about the damage to the cathedral we were thinking about the gothic sculptures, the masterpiece paintings, the relics, the stained glass possibly being burned,” Anne-Lise notes. “The fact that they all survived the fire is really a miracle,” she adds, “but we are still all anxious about the stability of the cathedral’s vaults.”
An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral is on view at the Getty Center through October 20, 2019.