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The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris (before the fire)

Notre-Dame de Paris, an iconic Gothic cathedral, symbolizes both spiritual and worldly power. Its towering stature, achieved with flying buttresses, surpassed all other churches of its time. Filled with light from expansive windows, the cathedral's interior evokes a sense of wonder. Despite suffering damage during the French Revolution, Notre-Dame continues to be a beloved historical landmark. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris, begun 1163 (recorded before the fire). speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] The ancient Romans founded the city of Paris in the middle of a river on an island called the Ile de la Cite, and that's where we're standing in front of one of the great Gothic cathedrals, Notre-Dame de Paris. - [Beth] So we're really in the heart of Paris, the theological center of Paris, with the church of Notre-Dame, but also the political center of, we're right near the Louvre, which was the Palace of the King. - [Steven] And before the Louvre, the King's Palace was even closer to this cathedral. The cathedral is a potent symbol, both of theological power, but also of worldly power. - [Beth] And so it makes sense that the church was attacked during the French Revolution. We can see it in the background of Delacroix Liberty Leading the People, that image of a revolution. - [Steven] That's right, from 1830 and in that painting, we can actually see the symbol of revolutionary France, the tri-color flag, flying from one of the towers. And of course before that revolution in 1830, Napoleon had been crowned here as Emperor of France, and so there really is this powerful, historical tradition that begins in the medieval world, but goes right up to the modern. Notre-Dame de Paris was the tallest gothic cathedral when it was built. It out-stripped all of the previous gothic churches and was taller even than the largest church in the world at that point, which was at Cluny. - [Beth] And the gothic architects employed a number of methods to achieve that verticality. The most obvious among them are the flying buttresses. - [Steven] So these are beautiful external skeletal forms that help take the lateral weight that is produced by the massive vaulting, the massive stone roof and draws it outside the church so that the inside of the church, the walls of the church, can be opened up and as much light can be brought in as possible. - [Beth] The gothic architects wanted to open up the walls to windows. - [Steven] And of course, glass is not weight-bearing. Glass can't support the weight of, especially, the vaulting. And here's the important issue, is they can't bring the weight straight down because it actually pushes out, and therefore, you need to have fairly massive walls, or in this case, buttresses and flying buttresses. So the difference between a buttress and a flying buttress is pretty straightforward. A buttress is a solid masonry wall perpendicular to the walls of the cathedral that's meant to keep the walls themselves from being pushed outward. A flying buttress is not a solid wall. Really, it's just a rib that allows for the thrust to be brought down into the more solid mass of the buttress below. - [Beth] And we can see that all around Notre-Dame. - [Steven] Now much of this was restored in the 19th century but it's important to understand that the church has been under construction and renovation since it was begun. - [Beth] Well, there were several building campaigns just in the 12th and the 13th century. - [Steven] And moving up to the 14th century and onward, a series of changes. - [Beth] It's really not unusual for a gothic church to have such a long building campaign. And then they were often restored later in the 19th and in the 20th century. - [Steven] This church looks spectacular though now, doesn't it? - [Beth] It does, and clearly, a lot of people today are enjoying it. - [Steven] When you first walk in and you look down the length of the nave, you're in this long, narrow, very tall space. And that's in part because the three part elevation is closed off to you from that angle as one looks down the length of the church. But as you walk down, especially the aisles, the full width of the church in its complexity open up. - [Beth] And the way that this shrinks the walls of stone and replaces it with walls of glass felt really miraculous, I think. - [Steven] If you look up at the clerestory, you have these panes of glass, these sheathes of light that seem to almost float. And there is really a sense of the miraculous. Then as you move down to the gallery, you've got an unprecedented delicacy in the columns, that seem to miraculously support everything above it, including the vaulting, but of course, in truth, the weight is borne outward. And then as you move down to the first level, the part of the church that's doing the real work, you can see those huge buttresses that had been made into separate chapels in the 13th century. If you look at the giant piers, that really a series of bundled columns, many of which soar all the way to the roof. - [Beth] And they're bundling together all of these narrow elements, one loses sight of just how massive those piers are. - [Steven] That's the brilliance of this kind of masking and this emphasis on verticality, this emphasis on line, all of these key characteristics of the gothic. - [Beth] That soaring quality, that almost feels as though it's lifting you up toward the heavenly.