The cathedral of Notre-Dame

On 15 April 2019 a fire ripped through the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris causing the collapse of its spire and roof and significant damage to its stonework, decoration and contents. The building has stood on the Île de la Cité in central Paris for eight centuries and is an icon of the French nation, inspiring countless Parisians and people from all over the world. Thankfully, the emergency services were able to save the building’s essential structure including its distinctive stone bell towers and flying buttresses, but rebuilding, repairing and restoring what was lost or damaged will take many years.

Construction of Notre-Dame began in the 1160s and took a century to complete. It was, and still is, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. But like all major public buildings, it has undergone its share of changes and set-backs over the years. Its buttresses were strengthened in the 14th century; alterations were made to the windows and interior during the Renaissance; its weather-beaten original spire was removed at the end of the 18th century.

Some of Notre-Dame’s statues were destroyed by iconoclasts in the 16th century and others were symbolically beheaded in 1793 when revolutionaries plundered and repurposed the building. It remained in use, albeit significantly damaged, for several decades until Victor Hugo penned his famous novel about the hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831. With public interest in the building revived, a major renovation project began under the supervision of Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Over a quarter of a century, they restored the cathedral’s medieval decorations, added its famous chimera statues, and rebuilt the spire with their own ornamental touches. The cathedral escaped major damage during the First and Second World Wars, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.

Notre-Dame will emerge from the latest setback, altered but recognisable, as it has in the past. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has already vowed to rebuild the cathedral “even more beautifully” within the next five years. In the meantime, we’ve put together a selection of watercolours which celebrate the building and its enduring presence at the heart of Paris. Many of these were painted in the 19th century, and show the building during another period of disrepair and renovation, without its spire, and iconic nonetheless.