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Gothic Architecture Research Paper: Notre-Dame de Paris

One of the most influential and well-known Gothic cathedrals is the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. Its history is just as memorable as the structure itself as it took almost the entire Gothic period-two hundred years-to complete because of its craftsmanship and occurring events throughout history. In addition, it encompasses the many prominent architectural styles of this time period, as well as the great influence and incorporation of the Catholic Church in the lives of the Medieval people through the handcrafted statues, intricate stained glass windows, and revolutionary architectural designs that bring the Cathedral to life.

The History of Notre-Dames Construction

The Work of its many Master Masons

The Notre-Dame de Paris first began construction in 1163. Its structure consists of the western facade, the nave, the choir, the crossing transept, the chevet, as well as many small aedicules and chapels. Notre-Dame was not constructed from the ground up as one might think. Rather, it was built in different sections simultaneously by different masons. It is difficult to differentiate the various masons that contributed to the design and construction of the cathedral before one of the most well-known masons, Jean de Chelles. Research and records, however, have helped identify at least five. The first mason began the initial plans and started on the layout of the lower story of the choir in 1164. The second master then moved on to the the nave as well as the beginning of the west facade from 1170-1190. The third master is recognized from 1190-1220 because of the changes in the design and detail of the tribune and upper stories of the nave where walls were thickened, and an oculus was incorporated into the arcading structure.

From 1225-1230 is where the fourth mason is identified, due to his massive work that included the completion of the north tower chamber, and vaulted western bays of the nave. Lastly, the fifth individual remodeled the flyers and clerestory. He also used bar tracery to add to the delicate details of the world-famous stained glass windows. These five masters were the first to approach the construction of this magnificent structure. Jean de Chelles, however, is well known because of his insertion of the transept which is indicative of Rayonnant design in the Early Gothic period. He brought all these part together to conclude with this Gothic masterpiece.

All these parts come together to form a whole, but the structure itself does not mirror this as it physically shows centuries of wear and remodeling. Countless revisions, reconstructions, and modern designs have been applied to this structure as time has gone on. Even after its initial completion in 1245, multiple events led to further construction on the building. One of the greatest destructions that occurred during the progressing lifetime of Notre-Dame was the bombing of Paris by the Germans in WWI. They struck the cathedral causing a lot of damage to the structure. Because this event is historically modern compared to the initial construction of the cathedral, modern designs were incorporated into the structure itself as both the interior and exterior were affected. Some of these affected masterpieces were the stained glass windows that made up the clerestory.

While these were once authentic Medieval stained glass, they have since been replaced by modern artists. The loss of such beautiful art and original glass was tragic to the people of France during the time of WWI, however, because of this destruction, it has allowed many artists – the master masons of modern time – to interpret and create incredible visuals of various Bible scenes that they find important. This variation in style adds a special, creatively unique spectacle for all spectators. Even though the styles are different, they still serve the same purpose, to tell a story and connect the divine through the light admitted through the window panes. The symbolism and function is never lost, even when structures may fall.

Memorable Aspects of Gothic Style


The Gothic period is well known for a few of its staple, architectural designs and details. The first significant detail is the incorporation of statues, both exterior and interior. The inclusion of many statues throughout the entire structure is something that was very specific to the Gothic period. More specifically are the capital friezes that decorated the famous exterior of Notre-Dame. These many friezes became one of the great innovations in portal design as it created the possibility of a continuous narrative within each portal.2  They told the most memorable and important stories of Christ read throughout the Bible and that are taught inside of the cathedral itself.

The exterior capital friezes went in chronological order according to the life of Christ, and were presented in sets of two for each portal. The order goes as follows with Christ’s infancy occupying the western embrasure, and the Passion scenes in the eastern: The Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, the Expulsion, the Annunciation to the Virgin, the Visitation, Joseph’s First Dream, the Nativity, the Bath of the Christ Child, the Journey of the Magi, the Adoration of the Magi, Herod and his Counselors, the Massacre of the Innocents, Christ’s First and Second Temptations, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Three Women at the Tomb, and Christ’s Encounter with Mary-Magdalen.3 This layout produces a spiritual journey for every viewer as they are physically able to walk through the life of Christ and those important figures in His life. The continuous movement of the stories causes the viewer to follow all the events and recognize its presence around the entire cathedral. This, however, is not the only way that the viewers are engaged in the stories. Because of the pairing of scenes from Christ’s Infancy and his Passion, referred to as juxtapose, a series of symbols are presented as contrasting scenes have been strategically put together. As an example, in one of the friezes an angel is announcing the birth of Christ while its counterpart, Christ’s Passion, is depicting His Resurrection. This leads to the symbolism of birth and rebirth, as well as the literal beginning and end of the sequences in the frieze. This detail is breathtaking to look at as each figure is specifically created and portrayed according to a specific role and purpose the individual played in the Bible. They tell the intimate stories of Christ with such beauty and hard work proving that there was a growing awareness of the importance of these stories as they are presented on the exterior for all people to observe. This new form of frieze was recognized for its potential in creating a narrative that really captured its viewers’ eyes while adding to the intriguing facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Black and white picture of frieze on Notre Dame

[Figure 1] Notre-Dame, West Frieze (Note 4)

Stained Glass

Stained glass windows were seen as expressions of the divine and gave onlookers a feeling of understanding and unity with the heavenly being portrayed within the colored glass. Stained glass windows were not only looked upon with awe because of the symbolic weight they carried, but they also defied the rules of the weight that ceilings bore on its walls. The architecture behind the inclusion of numerous windows around the structure is revolutionary and became a desired feature for buildings to come. The genius behind its success are the use of massive piers and the newly introduced architectural feature, flying buttresses.5 Both of these structures allowed for the weight of the stone ceiling to be distributed outward, rather than straight down through the glass windows which would cause them to shatter. Because of the experimentation with flying buttresses as a form of outward support and weight distribution, freely flowing light is able to fill Notre-Dame and create a physical presence of the divine as one worships such Deities. What an incredible phenomenon to have included in an already revolutionary building in the Gothic period.

Aerial Photo of Notre Dame

[Figure 2] View of the northern side of Notre-Dame Cathedral. (Note 6) Etampes, Notre-Dame, west frieze (photo: Arch. Photo., Paris/SPADEM)

Flying Buttresses

Never before had flying buttresses been seen as support systems until the Gothic period, when the construction of Notre-Dame commenced. The buttresses were designed as exterior support for the structure as a whole. They served as extensions to the building, where the weight could escape from the walls and interior supporters and go straight into the earth, creating a much more stable support system that preserves the building.

The buttresses were not simple structures, however. One can see that because of the many other architectural designs of the time that were incorporated into these support systems, they also carried a vast amount of ornamental value. They were decorated with miniature gables, pinnacles, cusped arches, spurs, and various textures and angles. These different characteristics created feelings of contrast, visual pleasure, and sharp detail as the arrangements of these various details are syncopated to express Gothic effects.7

Drawing of Notre Dame

[Figure 3] Flying Buttresses, eastern view of Notre-Dame Cathedral. (Note 8)

The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is a very prominent piece of art and history that has given architects and historians a better look into the innovative period of Gothic art. From the incorporation of numerous statue friezes, to the experimentation of flying buttresses,

Notre-Dame is the pinnacle of Gothic Cathedrals and stylistic features that make it so unique. Without the incredibly creative vision of so many original artists, and many more following, there wouldn’t be such a magnificent structure standing today; carrying so much history and determination within every wall.


1 “Reimes Cathedral.” Khan Academy. Accessed November 05, 2017.

2 Nolan, Kathleen. “Narrative in the Capital Frieze of Notre-Dame at Etampes.” The Art Bulletin 71, no. 2 (June 1989): 167. Accessed November 05, 2017.

3 Nolan, “Narrative in the Capital Frieze of Notre-Dame at Etampes” 171

4 Nolan, “Narrative in the Capital Frieze of Notre-Dame at Etampes,” 170

5 “Reimes Cathedral.” Khan Academy. Accessed November 05, 2017.

6 “World Art.” Annenberg Learner. Accessed November 07, 2017.

7 Davis, Michael T. . “Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris, 1290-1350.” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 1 (March 1998): 38-39. Accessed November 05, 2017.

8 “Engineering Breakthroughs in Gothic Architecture.” Synonym. Accessed November 07, 2017.


“Engineering Breakthroughs in Gothic Architecture.” Synonym. Accessed November 07, 2017.

Bruzelius, Caroline . “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris.” The Art Bulletin69, no. 4 (December 1987): 540-69. Accessed November 05, 2017.

Davis, Michael T. “Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris, 1290-1350.” The Art Bulletin80, no. 1 (March 1998): 38-39. Accessed November 05, 2017.

Nolan, Kathleen. “Narrative in the Capital Frieze of Notre-Dame at Etampes.” The Art Bulletin71, no. 2 (June 1989): 166-84. Accessed November 05, 2017.

“Reims Cathedral.” Khan Academy. Accessed November 05, 2017. reims-cathedral.

“World Art.” Annenberg Learner. Accessed November 07, 2017.

Keywords: Gothic, Construction, Stained Glass, Statues, Flying Buttresses

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