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Bilingual Arts: Notre-Dame de Paris

West facade of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On the evening of April 15, thick smoke began billowing from Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral quickly became engulfed in flames as an uncontrollable fire took hold of the building. The whole world watched on in horror as Notre-Dame’s more than 90m-tall spire was devoured by flames, broke in two and was reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes.

The Crown of Thorns, the site of the coronation of Napoleon, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame — nearly everyone feels a connection in some way to Notre-Dame, or Notre-Dame de Paris in French. At the moment when it seemed as if everything would be lost, many people for the first time gained a sense of the significance cultural heritage has within our lives.

Notre-Dame, which means “our lady” in French, is a reference to the Virgin Mary. Construction of the cathedral began in 1163 and took 128 years to complete. It is one of the most representative examples of Medieval Gothic architecture and it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Gothic architecture originated in 12th century France. Its distinguishing characteristics are the pointed arch (see the three pointed arches which form the main entrance of Notre Dame [photo 1]), the ribbed vault and the flying buttress [photo 2].

Ribbed vaults are able to efficiently distribute the weight of the roof through the columns and walls, while exterior flying buttresses [photo 3] provide a horizontal balancing support for the external walls. These architectural elements allowed buildings to be constructed higher, lighter and more robustly than before and made possible the soaring high interior spaces typical of gothic architecture [photo 4].

Highly intricate decoration is another distinguishing feature of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. In addition to pointed arches, carved statues of apostles adorn walls and gargoyles carved from stone nestle within the eaves and protrude from the tops of walls. Gargoyles have a practical function: to get rid of rainwater and prevent run-off from flowing down the walls [photo 5]. Gargoyles are emblematic of Gothic architecture’s pursuit of detail and grotesque style, as well as its fanaticism and decadence.

Notre-Dame’s soaring interior spaces, and its 128m depth, give worshippers a sense of their smallness and insignificance before God. The cathedral’s vast perpendicular lines contrast with the human scale to produce a sensation of vertigo when observed from the ground, creating a contradictory and conflicting emotional response. Light shines through stained glass windows into the cathedral’s dim interior to produce a feeling of mysterious beauty and ecstasy.

Notre-Dame’s spire was used by Parisians to gauge distance and find their bearings within the city. Before the loss of its spire, the cathedral was like a sculpture that had risen up from the surface of the earth and thrust its stone steeple through the city’s skyline. The cathedral’s capacious interior is also a repository of artifacts, people and events — a veritable treasure trove of historical memories.

(Translated by Edward Jones)



巴黎聖母院的法文名稱「Notre Dame」,意為「我們的女士」,指的是聖母瑪利亞 。巴黎聖母院於一一六三年動工,耗時一百二十八年才完成,是中世紀最有代表性的哥德式建築之一,被聯合國教科文組織列入世界文化遺產。

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