These were my first glimpses of Notre Dame. A big blue bow and bleachers. At first I was a little ‘underwhelmed’ to tell the truth, but only because I have been to some of the world’s largest cathedrals: St. Peter’s in Vatican City, Italy; Cathedral of Sevilla in Spain; and St. Paul’s in London. As the afternoon progressed, I warmed up to Notre Dame as it is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture. A friend of mine called Notre Dame ‘dark and creepy.’ It is a bit darker than some, I agree, but I wasn’t feeling creeped out at all. It was beautiful.
My first, and only, visit was during the 850th anniversary and they had just installed a couple of new smaller bells, which was a big deal. Good timing. Plus, it was Lent with only a week to go before Easter. And, the day I visited was the last Friday in Lent, which meant it was Good Friday. All these things came into play as I understood more, and as the day went on. Great timing.
Statue of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), created in 1886
From a high vantage point, I stood for a few moments at the top of several tiers of bleachers filled with people sitting to view the cathedral’s façade. I joined a long line forming on the right side of this photo but since entry was free, the line moved quickly.
“In 1450 a pack of man-eating wolves broke through the city walls and mauled 40 hapless civilians to death. An angry mob eventually cornered the wolves by the doors and stoned them to death.” (This was from an article published by Lonely Planet and BBC Travel.) It was referring to this island where the cathedral sits upon the River Seine and the settlement of Paris. Wolves. My goodness. Luckily there are only gargoyles now-a-days.
I also learned via this same article how, during the French Revolution, they turned the cathedral into “a temple to the Cult of Reason.” All crosses and statues were removed and the cathedral was turned into a warehouse for a time. (Which is funny to think about since later I saw a few alcoves inside with statues and/or paintings hanging above stacked furniture and the occasional chandelier resting on the floor making it look like they are still using the space as a warehouse!)
Lastly, historically speaking, who remembers the high-wire artist Phillippe Petit who at the age of 21, broke into the cathedral at dawn in 1971 and shuffled between the two towers on a wire. Then in 1974, he crossed between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Interesting little known facts which happened to pop up on my Facebook page this morning.
The intricacy of the façade was fantastic.
While building on this site began in the 5th or 6th century, when you walk in these days it is the 12th century you are seeing as well as the ‘newer’ rose stained glass window from the 13th century.
After entering, getting the lay of the land, and inhaling the beauty, I noticed people were sitting in pews toward the front of the altar, and, since I was tired from all the walking earlier, I figured I’d grab a seat to get a deeper sense of this 850 year old place of worship. Finding a seat at the end of the pew closest to an outer aisle (for a potential quick escape), I was less than ten pews from the altar.
To my right, I noticed there were white caped priests scurrying around in excitement and seriousness. They were up to something, which I assumed was a mass. But, it did seem weird they’d have a mass at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. It was Good Friday, and as a former Catholic I knew the Stations of the Cross were over, so I was curious what was going on. I asked the woman next to me and in halting English she told me yes, there will be a mass at 4:00 p.m. and she said something about Christ and his crown of thorns. So I waited. I had nothing else pressing on my schedule and for some reason I wanted to ride this one out to the end. That is one of the joys of solo travel. I can go, or not go, at my own pace.
I had bought a glossy paperback book when entering Notre Dame and skimmed the pages, intermittently, while taking photos. I read that during Lent, they bring out the Crown of Thorns which is revered as a holy relic. Apparently I was in the right place at the right time.
The pews were filling up quickly and the din of low murmuring was increasing. I realized my seat was in a fabulous location.
Notre Dame’s special treasure is Christ’s Holy Crown of Thorns. Per the book, “Its’ documented history dates back to the 4th century. Physically, the relic consists of a ring of plaited rushes to which the thorns are attached to form the mock crown. The relic was acquired by King Saint Louis who humbly carried it to Notre Dame on 18th of August 1239……” It is brought out on the first Friday of every month, every Friday during Lent, and on Good Friday. I read it was an entire crown in one place and only a thorn in another publication. Some details get lost in translation.
The ceremony began with hymn singing and the massive organ sounding wonderful thanks to the acoustics in the cathedral. Several of the priests, I had seen whispering to one another in small groups in dark corners earlier, began acting like security guards by taking their places in the main aisles next to the pews. They kept watchful eyes on everything and everyone very closely. I had a sudden jarring memory of my Catholic youth, spent in San Francisco, with nuns watching us to be sure we were not slouching in our pew during services. Fifty years later I found myself again correcting my posture.
An elderly woman holding a flat basket approached my aisle and thanks to the woman next to me translating, I paid the correct amount of Euro for a commemorative 0 carat gold coin celebrating Notre Dame’s 850th Anniversary.
Soon after the transaction, there was more commotion and I watched a procession form to the right of where I was sitting. A high priest (I am assuming the bishop) carried the crown of thorns in a magnificent gold cradle firmly against his chest. Following him, a small enclave of priests and nuns walked through the nave, round the back of the cordoned off area, and all somberly shuffled down the center aisle. In silence. My schoolgirl religious background came back to me once again as I remembered the pomp and circumstance Catholics perform during ceremonies. I always liked the enormous swinging incense holder for high masses even though I was prone to becoming nauseous, slipping out into the school yard, sitting on a bench, and putting my head between my knees so I didn’t faint. I occasionally did that as I grew older just to get outside during any drawn-out mass.
This is what I always enjoyed about the church, actually. The incense, the repetitive praying, the robes, the drama, luxurious fabrics, etc. Drama! But it was not enough to keep me as a practicing Catholic. But here I was witnessing one of the holiest ceremonies in the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Not knowing how this was playing out, I watched as each row of fervent parishioner stood, filed out of their pew, walked up to the altar, acknowledged the relic held by the bishop, and kissed the ancient Crown of Thorns. The bishop wiped off the lip germs on the protective glass with a cloth. God help me. No pun intended.
I hadn’t practiced Catholicism in years but I figured since I was there….yes, I would do it too. To be part of this ceremony was an unexpected honor and if any of my hopes, dreams, and prayers were answered by participating, then it was a gift for me to receive with an open heart. (All the while hoping I wouldn’t be committing a mortal sin.)
Before long, the white caped priest motioned our aisle to stand. We slowly filed out and used a short, quiet gait to head toward the bishop. I kneeled, I kissed, and I left but instead of returning to my pew and waiting through the next hour(s) for the other participants to take their turn, I took a quick detour out of the special section, excused myself out of the milling crowd of onlookers, and wandered around the cathedral behind the altar examining item after item of rare, interesting art.
An beautiful baptismal.
This is a diorama of workers building the cathedral. There will little figures doing work on the cathedral and reminded me, in a way, of playing with a doll house.
These photos are taken from behind the altar.
Have to admit the Angel of Death and the fellow (Christ?) spilling out of the coffin was a bit on the ‘scale of feeling creeped out.’ It was also terribly sad and Death looked ghastly. I like angels much better.
Look between the caped priests to see a photo of a parishioner, or outsider like myself, paying her respects to the crown.
I have to admit, I had a few scandalous thoughts pass through my mind when looking at the priests. In light of all the awful crimes involving sexual abuse and general mistreatments of children in the Catholic Church, I did wonder if any of these priests or nuns were guilty. I even felt guilty wondering about it. My Catholic indoctrination included guilt-laden confessions for minor slips of the tongue as a child. “Father, I have sinned. I talked back to my mother.” Time to whip out the rosary for my penance.
A few panels in the stained glass had latches on them to open for fresh air.
There were several alcoves used as storage rooms which I found to be interesting. A cathedral has no dedicated storage room for treasures?
Quietly I walked back outside to take in the flying buttresses (this was one of the first churches to use this design) and the gargoyles.
Meandering along the Seine, I caught the view of Notre Dame from a distance and later realized a photo I took caught the moment a man presented his love with a love-lock (see the woman in white on the left).
Those are a lot of love-locks.
If I ever return to Paris, I will take the Batobus. This is public transportation on the Seine River and would be an interesting way to see the city – without a guide speaking through a megaphone.
After tripping over a curb and given a hand by a handsome frenchman, I was thrilled to unexpectedly see Shakespeare & Company across from where I stood above the river. I carefully stepped off the curb and headed across the street. The bookstore oozed with the energy of hundreds of well known authors and readers who, just like me, practically had to walk sideways down the cramped aisles.
This photo of an Isadora Duncan type, was above a doorway and every inch of space was filled with treasures and whimsy tucked in nooks and crannies.
Not long after leaving this delightful bookshop, I came across the Metro stop which is an often photographed subway station with its original Art Deco style.
It was now rush hour on a Friday and people were hurrying to begin their Easter weekend.
This doorway caught my eye and imagination. I would love to know what secret hotel, apartment, or home was safely tucked on the other side.
Getting my bearings I walked in the general direction of my hotel and found realized I was close as I followed along the side of St. Sulpice Church. There I also found an alley with restaurants where I could stop for dinner.
In O’Neil’s I was introduced to flammekueche! (The lights in here were red, hence the photos are red, too.) This dish is a pizza of sorts only the crust is very thin and there was no tomato paste.
After a full day of walking, I looked forward to my ‘nun’s room’ in the Hotel Bonaparte which was only a short distance away. It was almost time to pack up for my return to Seattle. Three days is too short of a time to see Paris.
NOTE: I am reissuing this post from March, 2013. On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame’s spire and roof fell due to a tragic fire. It was on a Monday, the beginning of Holy Week and there will be no special masses or Easter celebration now that much of the cathedral has been damaged. No one was hurt and I heard they managed to save the crown of thorns relic and other irreplaceable historical items. Remarkably the stained glass was spared from destruction but there were other relics stored inside the spire which are now lost.
It was a sad day for Paris, and much of the world, to watch this beautiful piece of architecture and of history fall into the flames. It could have been much worse and will likely be years before the public can wander or pray inside the famous cathedral.