While preparing the exhibition An Enduring Icon. Notre-Dame Cathedral (Getty Center, July 23–October 20, 2019), I discovered many objects I could not include for space and conservation reasons. However, there is one that touched my sensibility in a very particular way—a girl’s notebook chronicling a field trip to Notre-Dame. I read this after we had nearly lost everything of the monument in the fire.
In this journal, written in my native French, a child describes the guided visits of monuments she made with her teacher and her all-girl class in their hometown of Paris. As I flipped through the pages and read the text, I was immediately compelled by the child’s beautiful, careful illustrations and by her narration. She writes notes on many historical events, but also shares her own experience and preferences of the monuments.
Below, you will find illustrations of the pages devoted to Notre-Dame with a translation of the text into English, along with captions for the child’s drawings. I truly hope you will appreciate the love this young girl had for the cathedral and the depth of the historic content she was taught.
MAURICE de SULLY, named canon of the cathedral of Paris in 1159, decided to replace the small Romanesque church erected on the Île de la Cité with a magnificent church. [Instead, rare mistake in this journal, the site was actually occupied by a large Merovingian basilica and other small churches]
The construction starts in 1163 under king LOUIS VII.
In 1250, under king SAINT LOUIS the structural work is finished.
In 1330, under king PHILIP VI of Valois, NOTRE-DAME is completed.
NOTRE-DAME measures 130 m[eters] in length and 48 m[eters] in width.
The height of the vaults is 35 meters
The towers reach 69 meters.
The opening in ogival arches of the towers measures 16 m[eters] in height.
The CATHEDRAL is built with limestone from the Paris region.
In the 14th century, it was a building of a sparkling whiteness.
In the Middles Ages the statues of the portals were colored and stood out from the gilded background.
The front square was very small and the cathedral was surrounded with constructions.
The rose window has a diameter of 10 meters.
Its design is so perfect that none of its elements have moved for the past 700 years.
NOTRE-DAME has witnessed many historic events.
In 1430 the coronation of HENRY VI OF ENGLAND, grand-son of CHARLES VI, who became king of FRANCE by virtue of the treaty of TROYES (1422) took place in NOTRE-DAME.
In 1572 during his wedding to Marguerite de VALOIS, HENRY of NAVARRE who would become HENRY IV, remains outside the door of the cathedral because he is Protestant.
In 1660 the wedding of Louis XIV with Maria Theresa took place in Notre-Dame.
In 1687 the vaults of the cathedral echoed with the funerary oration of the Grand Condé given by Bossuet.
In 1804, Napoleon I is crowned Emperor by the pope Pius VII.
During the [French] Revolution some “sans-culottes” threw ropes around the neck of the statues of the Gallery of the Kings and pulled them down. They thought that these statues represented French kings but they represent the kings of the Bible.
In 1871, during the Commune, chairs are piled up in the middle of the cathedral bythe rebels and covered with oil. The alarm is fortunately sounded when the flames start to rise and Notre-Dame is saved.
The TOWERS: To reach the top of the towers, it is necessary to climb 376 steps of a spiral staircase lit by arrow slits. At the very top, the staircase gets dark because it is built in the buttresses of the corners of the towers.
The scale and solidity of the molding shows that the builder intended to erect gigantic spires on the platforms of the towers. Certainly, it was decided to abandon this project because it would have destroyed the harmony of the proportions of the façade.
In the South tower the great bell of Notre-Dame is suspended, which weighs 13 tons. The bell, given to the cathedral in 1400, was smaller but was recast in the 17th century by the order of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa. They had its weight doubled and it is said that important ladies of the time came to throw their gold and silver jewelry into the molten metal, and that the great bell owes the purity of its tone to the quantity of precious metals that it contains. It is hung from an oak scaffolding, independent from the stonework, in such a way that the tower oscillates only 5 cm when the great bell rings at full peal.
On a rainy day, my female teacher, my all-girl classmates, and I went to visit NOTRE-DAME. The sky was grey and soon it started to rain.
On the Pont Sully, the teacher made us stop to admire the apse, whose light-colored flying buttresses contrast with the darker cathedral.
I prefer to see the cathedral from a bit farther away, where it is possible to admire all of it, and from the Pont Sully, I found it very beautiful.
NOTRE-DAME stands in the middle of the SEINE on the île de la CITÉ, which gives it even more prestige.
We went along the banks of the SEINE from where we saw the transept with its rose window finely cut out. The SEINE appeared silvery as soon as a ray of sunshine appeared.
Arriving in front of the cathedral, we examined the three portals.
On the tympanum of the portal of Saint Anne, on the right of the façade, the bishop MAURICE DE SULLY is represented on the left of the VIRGIN, and the king LOUIS VII on the right.
The tympanum of the (central) portal represents the Last Judgment; we can see resurrected people leaving their tombs.
An angel and a devil are on each side of a scale: they weigh the souls of the dead. Those that have done mostly good go to paradise with the angel while the others go to hell with the devil. We also notice that in hell there are kings, lords, popes, bishops, peasants. We also see that the devil tries to cheat so everyone goes to hell.
The tympanum of the left portal represents the death of the HOLY VIRGIN and her resurrection. Among the statues on the left of the door, there is SAINT DENIS holding his head in his hands.
The doors, in a dark red, are decorated with motifs in wrought iron that are called “hinges.”
When we went in, we noticed right away that the cathedral was a bit dark. It is a very large and very tall church.
We admired the heights of the crossed arches in the vault and we understood better the drawing we had made in our history notebook from some reproductions. This vault is supported by enormous columns.
We were impressed by the vivid colors of the stained-glass windows in contrast with the dark stones. The rose window that I loved the most is on the South side; it has magnificent colors, in particular red and blue. The one on the North side is even more luminous because it has some green in addition to blue and red.
Since the rain stopped, we crossed the front square to admire the facade.
We noticed the fine colonnade and the gallery of the kings of the Bible. A statue of the Virgin stands out in front of the stone muntins of the rose window.
We regretted we could not climb to the top of the towers from which the view of Paris must be very beautiful.
We left by the rue du Cloître [street of the Cloister] that flanks NOTRE-DAME.
A row of mythical animals which we call “gargoyles” decorate the wall(s) of the cathedral. They serve as gutters.
We left happy to have a beautiful cathedral in our city. We turned back to look at it from afar.
An Enduring Icon: Notre-Dame Cathedral is on view at the Getty Center until October 20, 2019.
You can see the entire journal and the student’s reflections on many other Parisian monuments in Getty’s digital collections.
A particular thank you to my colleague, Isotta Poggi, who brought this beautiful object to my attention.
I feel a bit nostalgic now, as I recall those trips to London and Paris with my students. Later I recieved a dozen of students’ reflections for our creative writing class. And I still keep them (handwritten) at home, still re-reading them one by one when I feel lonely and when I miss our classroom atmosphere.