On 15th April, the world watched in astonishment and horror as one of Paris's most celebrated historic landmarks was engulfed in flames, causing the main structure of the twelfth-century cathedral to eventually collapse. Notre Dame (meaning 'Our Lady') is approximately 850 years and is much loved for its French Gothic architectural style and for its beautiful stained glass windows, known as the ‘Rose Windows'.
More than merely a religious building, the cathedral has always had a profound cultural and symbolic impact on artists and literary figures alike, from Victor Hugo to Henri Matisse and Marcel Proust. And of course, it was the home to our favourite bell-ringer – Quasimodo.
To celebrate the historic cathedral that has survived centuries of turbulent history including multiple revolutions and two World Wars, here is a selection of artistic depictions on Art UK.
Painted in 1845, this depiction of the cathedral's north door by artist James Holland (1799–1870) was created half a century after the cathedral had been desecrated during the French Revolution.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the newly formed revolutionary state turned hostile towards the Catholic church. According to sources, anti-monarchist forces mistook statues on the cathedral for kings of France, dragging the sculptures to the guillotine where they were beheaded in 1793.
In 1804 (after the violent deposition of the monarchy), Emperor Napoleon I was coronated inside the historic landmark. The moment was painted by the Neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David (1748–1825).
In 1831, Victor Hugo (1802–1885) published the wildly popular Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which detailed the historic site's neglect after years of revolution. Describing it as a 'symphony in stone', Hugo turned France's attention towards the building's dilapidated condition, leading to much-needed renovations between 1844 to 1864.
A French painter whose speciality was depicting the Seine, Stanislas Lépine (1835–1892), captured the apse of Notre Dame in this painting of the Pont de la Tournelle (Tournelle bridge) dated between 1862–1864.
By the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon I) had established the Second French Empire and commissioned Georges-Eugene Haussmann to commence on an ambitious and massive public works project that would renovate and reshape the urban structure of Paris.
Before the 'Haussmanisation' of Paris, the cathedral was surrounded by slums and housing condensed together on narrow, medieval streets. Napoleon ordered Haussmann to 'open up' (or demolish) the area, so that Notre Dame could be viewed properly, thus creating the large public square that stands in front of the cathedral today.
French painter Jules Lessore (1849–1892) depicted the cathedral some time in the mid to late nineteenth century. Lessore emigrated to England in 1871 (during the Franco-Prussian war) and fathered Thérèse Lessore, a painter whose fame would eventually surpass her father's.
This painting by Dutch artist Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819–1891) shows Notre Dame in the 1860s when the effects of Haussmanisation had cleared the area surrounding the cathedral. A precursor to Impressionism, Jongkind painted Notre Dame frequently, with one of his most famous depictions housed today in the Musée d'Orsay.
This painting, showing the effect of the setting sun over the cathedral, was painted for the Bordeaux collector, Théophile Bascle, in 1864.
In 1905, Notre Dame officially became the property of the French state rather than the Catholic Church in a move towards the secularisation of France.
His many depictions of the cathedral painted between 1900 and 1914 show the historic landmark at different times of the day, but also reveal his dramatic artistic evolvement into (what would later be coined in 1905) as the 'Fauvist movement'.
View of Notre Dame (1914) shows Matisse's radical departure from conventional practices of form and colour and a move towards abstraction.
In 1906, avant-gardist Francis Picabia (1879–1953) painted Notre Dame in the Morning Sun. Like Matisse, Picabia was fixated with the cathedral, painting it multiple times at the start of the twentieth century – when he was still dabbling with Impressionism. His depictions of Notre Dame were most likely inspired by Claude Monet's (1840–1926) impressionistic paintings of Rouen Cathedral.
In 1911, shortly before the start of the First World War, artist Dora Altounyan (1886–1964) painted Notre Dame.
Notre Dame survived both the First and Second World Wars, announcing the liberation of Paris in 1944 when its bells rang out triumphantly.
In the post-war era, British artist Bernard Kay (b.1927) created this depiction.
Finally, in 1999, Geoffrey Scowcroft Fletcher (1923–2004) painted Notre Dame, Reflections, showing the iconic north and south towers of the cathedral reflected in the waters of the Seine.
In the wake of the tragic fire that has demolished a large proportion of the Gothic cathedral's original roof – although we do not yet know the full extent of the damage or cause of the blaze – it seems appropriate to reflect on the history of one of Europe's most-loved historical landmarks.
Remarkably, Notre Dame cathedral withstood the test of time – miraculously enduring and surviving many conflicts, revolts and wars. It has also been restored, renovated and rebuilt many times over.
The silver lining to this catastrophe is that the new ambitious renovations will ultimately boost its longevity while reminding us to not take for granted what we have left of this cultural and historical treasure.
Lydia Figes, Art UK's Content Creator
- It took approximately 200 years to build Notre Dame by roughly 1,000 workers during the reign of Louis VII. Construction began in 1163 lasting until 1345
- A fire broke out at the cathedral in the thirteenth century, prompting renovations of the site between 1230 and 1240
- In the sixteenth century, the Huguenots (French Protestants) desecrated statues they believed were idolatrous
- In 1793, during the French Revolution, anti-royalists decapitated statues inside of the cathedral, mistaking Biblical kings for members of the French royal family
- The famous gargoyles adorning the cathedral, featuring prominently in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, were added during the nineteenth-century restoration