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France - Île de la Cité, Paris:
in the context of Abelard
and of French cathedrals

Tour de France 2024

site map

france - île de la cité, paris: in the context of abelard and of french cathedrals
contextual dates
the cathedral of notre dame and its predecessor, the basilica of st. étienne
dimensions of notre-dame de paris
the south rose
the north and west roses
some notes on its construction
jules maigret
end notes

sister page: The fire, Notre-Dame de Paris

Charles Hiatt has well said,

[...] The great cathedral seen at a distance looks ancient indeed, but a closer inspection proves to us that the hands of modern men have been at work on it. Indeed, one writer goes so far as to regret that it has been scraped and patched without, and bedizened and bedaubed within. In the first edition of Victor Hugo's famous novel, Notre Dame, he tells us that
"if we examine one by one the traces of destruction imprinted on this ancient church, the work of time would be found to form the lesser portion the worst destruction has been perpetrated by men especially by men of art."
Since Hugo wrote this much more "restoration" has been carried out at the metropolitan church of Paris. But though I regret so-called "restoration" on principle, I cannot help feeling that the work executed by M. Viollet-le-Duc and M. Lassus is far less objectionable than it might have been." [1902]


new! Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours  Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

stained glass and cathedrals in Normandy illustrated graph
fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes

cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France

Click for an introduction to cathedrals and stained glass in France.

Germans in France
cathedral destruction during the French revolution, subsidiary page to Germans in France

on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
paying at the péage (toll station)

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Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
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France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals
short biography of Pierre (Peter) Abelard

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France - île de la cité, Paris:
in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals

In the time of Pierre Abelard, the Île de France - which is now known as the Île de la Cité - was a small, growing centre of the rising power of Paris. This eventually developed to become France. This page a companion and background to the cathedrals section and the section about Abelard.

Virtually nothing remains of the original Île de France from the time of Abelard. There is just a small section in the Cluny Museum. In fact, very little of Paris extends back to Abelard. There is an abbey tower across the river, and that’s about the lot.

Notre-Dame cathedral, in the photo below, was started after the death of Abelard, replacing an earlier cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen (St. Étienne). That cathedral extended forty metres forward of the west front of the modern cathedral. It was narrower than the present structure.

I believe that the old cloister where Abelard would have taught is probably on the north side and to the north of the current cathedral. The island was, essentially, divided between church and state, with the church at the eastern end of the island where the cathedral now lives.

Google map of the Ile de France, Paris

Ile de france/Ile de la cite, drawing by Melchoir Tarvernier 1630 contextual dates

  • Bernard of Chartres (Bernardus Carnotensis) died c. 1130
  • Pierre Abelard: 1079-1142
  • Pope Alexander III: c. 1100/1105-1181
  • Bernard of Clairvaux: 1090-1153
  • Abbot Suger, founder of St. Denis: circa 1081-1151
  • Maurice de Sully, founder of Notre-Dame: c. 1120-1196, bishop of Paris, 1160-1196

  • 1140: Dedication of Saint-Denis
  • 1160: Notre-Dame foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III
  • 1248: Sainte-Chapelle construction finished
  • 1250: Notre-Dame mostly complete

  • Philip I: 1052-1108; King of France: 1060-1108
  • Louis VI [Le Gros: the fat]: 1081-1137; King of France: 1108-1137
  • Louis VII [Le Jeune: the young]: 1120-1180; King of France: 1137-1180
  • Philip II Augustus: 1165-1223; King of France: 1180-1223
  • Louis IX [Saint Louis]: 1214-1270; King of France: 1226-1270
  • Henry II: 1133-1189; King of England: 1154-1189
  • Eleanor/Aleinor of Aquitaine: 1122-1204. She first married Louis VII, then Henry II, mother of Richard and John
  • Richard I [the Lion heart]: 1157-1199; King of England: 1189-1199
  • John [Lackland]: 1167-1216; King of England: 1199-1216

Timeline chart of contextual dates relating to Notre-Dame and the Ile de /france/de la cite

If you look at this chart, you will see that the French kings invented a marvellous way of becoming important. They managed to rule for unusually long periods. The Angevins (or Plantagenets) had spent several generations marrying the right people. This culminated in Henry II, an immensely effective ruler who dominated the western half of France, holding it against his weak Capetian rivals.

Meanwhile, as you see in the chart, the great innovators on the Ile de France were building the intellectual hothouse of Europe.

But Henry II had a fatal flaw. His child-raising skills left much to be desired. So when Richard I took over, he was far more interested in adventure and becoming one of the greatest generals of all time. In the end, this got him killed. Poor John tried his damnedest to hold together the huge empire his father had built, but those pesky French kings with their long experience steadily outmaneuvered the Angevins and their successors, slowly eroded the Norman grip in what is now France.

You might surmise that, if you were an English nationalist, that it was the French who were better at being perfidious, or you might call it crafty.

the cathedral of notre-dame and its predecessor, the basilica of st. étienne

The basilica of St Etienne existed for about six hundred years before Maurice de Sully, the new bishop of Paris, decided to raze the dilapidated building and construct and much bigger and more beautiful edifice, dedicated to Our Lady.

Church administrative offices, student accommodation, cloisters and the nascence of the University of Paris grew out of this melee to the north of these cathedrals. Today, this area comprises small roads, such as

  • Rue Chanoinesse
  • Rue d’Arcole
  • Rue de la Colombe
  • Rue des Chantres
  • Rue Massillon
  • Rue des Ursins
  • Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame

Floor plan showing both the previous cathedral, St. Etienne, and the current cathedral, Notre Dame
Floor plan showing both the previous cathedral, St. Etienne, and the current cathedral, Notre-Dame
this plan shows the chapels inserted between the buttresses and the transepts extended between 1250 and 1267
Note how the central ceiling is supported by sexpartite vaulting.

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Satellite view, cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Image: google.com
Satellite view, cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Image: google.com
Larger scale satellite view of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris

1160: The foundation stone for the vast new Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame was laid by Pope Alexander III on a visit to Paris
1250: Cloister portal to the north completed
1345: Construction completed

Notre-Dame is one of the earliest gothic cathedrals, constructed as a very solid, stolid building, as gothic cathedrals go. However, the problems were still not worked out fully and some structural weaknesses occured, especially in the south transept. By the time the builders were working on Reims, experience allowed the building of an even more solid structure. So much so that the main building of Reims cathedral even withstood the vandalism of the German batteries in the First World War. It is said that Reims cathedral was hit by an estimated 1,700 missiles. [Reims cathedral is thus almost entirely a modern restoration job.]

Reims cathedral, after German bombing Reims cathedral, after German bombing
Reims cathedral after bombing

As the form developed and experience was gained, the builders realised that between the pillars there was very little load-bearing. The structures then became increasingly ambitious, and ever more airy and light-filled. This development can be appreciated in the nearby Sainte-Chapelle, started less than a hundred years later.

dimensions of Notre-Dame de Paris

Total length: 130 m/427 ft long
Transept length: 2.25 m/14 ft
Choir length: 11 m/36 ft
Total width: 48 m/158 ft wide
Height of roof: 43 m
Height of vault: 35 m/115 ft
Height of side aisles: 3 m
Height of spire: 96 m
Height of twin towers: 69 m/226ft
Lancets: over 16 m/50ft high
South tower great bell:
13 tons, with 500kg clapper, tolled only on ‘solemn’ occasions
Total floor area: 4,800 m²
Diameter of north and south [transept] rose windows: 13.1 m/42½ ft
Diameter of west rose: 9.70 m

1,300 oaks, representing 21 hectares of forest, were used in the timbers and woodwork.

the south rose

South rose window, Notre-Dame cathedral

The South Rose or Rose du Midi was a gift from Louis IX. The structure of the facade has been broken at least twice. The whole facade was not built well and so was shored up since 1543.

The facade was further damaged by a fire during the 1830 Revolution, when Louis-Philippe of the Orléans dynasty overthrew Charles X of the Bourbon dynasty.

As a result, another reconstruction was made from 1861. To counteract the sagging masonry, the rose was rotated 15 degrees so a load-bearing spoke was in the vertical, and the facade rebuilt.

Later, in the 1880s, the glass was also repaired, when the cohesive imagery and design of the stained glass was scattered as the restorer randomly filled gaps with salvaged medieval glass.

Beneath the rose is a row of sixteen prophets in lancet windows. The four cental ‘senior prophets’ each have an evangelist sitting at his shoulder, recalling Bernard of Chartres’ words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

The four senior prophets are Elisha, Ezekiel, Elijah,and Samuel. The four Evangalists are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Central four prophets with evangalists from  South Rose

the north and west roses

North transept rose window, Notre-Dame

From the point of view of the stained glass, the North Rose [to the left] is probably the best.

The West Rose [below] is the oldest, but restored to damnation.

West rose window - exterior, Notre-Dame

It is difficult to see the West Rose from the interior, organ pipes partially obscure the view. Maybe the restorers can take advantage of the current situation and move the organ elsewhere. However, with 5,266 pipes and 80 stops, this could be problematic.

The so-called Enlightenment has generated long conflict between the Puritanical factions and the Catholic Church. In 1741, the brothers Leviel substituted "for the priceless [glass of the cathedral] great sheets of dull, monotonous grisaille with borders ornamented with fleur-de-lis ... described by Michelet as le protestantisme entrant dans la peinture [Protestant contribution to painting]."

This was a terrible loss to medieval glass art.


Building of Sainte-Chapelle was finished in 1248, after an incredibly rapid 33 months of construction. This is a bit later than the medieval glass to which I usually attend. But Sainte-Chapelle is a very special place. Many of the great medieval cathedrals do not have most of their original glass intact. The overwhelming exception is Chartres, followed at a distance by Le Mans.

stained glass restoration complete, 20 May 2015:
To commemorate the 800th anniversary of Louuis IX's birth, the windows of Sainte-Chapelle have been cleaned and restored. During an operation lasting seven years, the fifteen, 50-foot high stained glass windows were progressively removed, dismantled into small sections, repaired and cleaned. Lasers were used to remove over 750 years of grime - on the exterior, Parisian coal smoke and traffic pollutions, and inside, candle smoke. The exterior of the windows has then received a protective, transparent glass "skin", while much of the leading, separating and holding the pieces of glass together, has been replacd by transparent resin, to let in more light. It will remain to be seen whether that is a restoration step too far.

Some of the highly gilded, coloured and decorated interior of Ste. Chapelle
Some of the highly gilded, coloured and decorated interior of Ste. Chapelle

To me, the great interest of Sainte-Chapelle is that it has a full complement of glass, produced in the 13th century and the oldest in Paris, and thus gives an amazing impression of what could be done by the medieval craftsmen. While Sainte-Chapelle is a tourist magnet, it is best to go in off-season, on a weekday, and just find a place to sit and let the incredible light into your soul. It is like sitting in the midst of a magic lantern. Not a place to do too much thinking, but just absorb and absorb.

The church really consists of two chapels, linked by a spiral staircase. It is the upper chapel that is so impressive.

This is what churches used to be like, before the more modern Puritans, destroyers and ‘restorers’ got their hands on them, from Cromwell to Luther to the French Revolutionaries to various tight-assed puritans across the continent. In medieval times, churches were meeting places which hosted markets and great church festivals, full of colour and life.

15th century Flamboyant rose window surrounded by rich, soaring stained glass and painted columns
15th century Flamboyant rose window surrounded by rich, soaring stained glass and painted columns
With the thin piers, you will see that the construction is almost a wall of glass

The glass has 1,134 scenes, with 618 square metres of glass, forming a veritable illustrated bible.

Added lighting highlights the gilding

One of the twelve statues of the apostles Even the floors are decorated!
One of the twelve statues of the apostles Even the floors are decorated!

some notes on the construction of sainte-chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle near the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, a fairly small structure, was built over a period of only five to ten years. It was put up by Louis IX, in a rush, to house the supposed relic, the Crown of Thorns,and so Louis IX could race off on the seventh crusade. Amazingly, Louis had paid more than three times as much for the Crown of Thorns than it cost to build Sainte-Chapelle. Note, a reliquary is the decorated box that holds a sacred relic. The design of reliquaries has been influenced by church design, and visa versa. The shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey is sometimes also regarded as having a visual reference to Sainte-Chapelle.

A reliquary, used to house a sacred relic; from Laon cathedral Sainte-Chapelle, drawing by Decloux 1857 Shrine of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey
A reliquary, used to house a sacred relic; from Laon cathedral Sainte-Chapelle, 1857 Shrine of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey. Image credit

Interestingly, the chapel incorporated a form of iron reinforcement, with two ‘chains’ of hooked bars encircling the upper chapel, the main part of the structure. Further, there were iron stabilisers across the nave (with a vertical tension bar).

Drawing by Lassus of reinforcing bars
Drawing by Lassus of reinforcing bars, with bars and links emphasised

Also, an impressive eight-pointed iron star helped hold the apse together. Its iron bars radiated from a central collar. (The drawings above and below were made by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus during the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle.)

Drawing of eight-ponted iron star by Lassus
Drawing of eight-ponted iron star by Lassus

Because of the rather dodgy stability of the gothic buildings, later additions of iron stabilisation can be seen in many cathedrals, for example in Westminster Abbey.

Iron stabilising bars in Westminster Abbey [indicated with blue arrows]
Iron stabilising bars in Westminster Abbey [indicated with blue arrows]

Similarly, wooden shoring is not uncommon during the recent century, while in Sainte Chapelle this innovatory reinforcement is hidden from sight, incorporated into the building.

For further discussion, see using metal in gothic cathedral construction.

Sainte Chapelle suffered much during the centuries, from repeated fires [1630 and 1736] and even flooding of the Seine [1690]. And then, of course, came the French Revolution, Sainte Chapelle was used as a flour store, a club room and an judicial archive. Sainte Chapelle was not handed back to its intended used for about forty years. After the depredations of the Revolution, excellent restoration and refurbishment was supervised by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus [1807-1857], and continued by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc [1814 – 1879].

jules maigret

At the western tip of the island, is the secluded Place Dauphine, a few steps from the police headquarters where Maigret had his office. Simenon lived round the corner and the Taverne Henri IV was his local. The Brasserie Dauphine was probably the Taverne. Those who enjoy the Maigret books and its main character may wish to visit this real-life heart of his fictional world.

For more about Maigret and 'his' books go to
The psychology of Georges Simenon and Jules Maigret -
reviews of all the 79 Maigret novels


Notre Dame de Paris, a short history & description of the cathedral, with some account of the churches that preceded it
by Charles Hiatt

A useful, if rather scrappy, introduction to Notre-Dame cathedral.
Notre =(Dame de Paris by Charles Hiatt

George Bell & Sons, hbk, London, 1902

Marker at abelard.org

Sagwan Press, hbk, 2015

ISBN-10: 1298986761
ISBN-13: 978-1298986764
$22.95 [amazon.com] {advert}
£16.95 [amazon.co.uk] {advert}

Marker at abelard.org

Forgotten Books, pbk, 2017

ISBN-10: 1330618785
ISBN-13: 978-1330618783
amazon.com {advert}
amazon.co.uk {advert}

        Marker at abelard.org

Notre =(Dame de Paris by Charles Hiatt

        Marker at abelard.org

Notre =(Dame de Paris by Charles Hiatt

Les vitraux de Notre-Dame et de la Sainte Chapelle de Paris
by Marcel Aubert, Jean Verrier et al.
A wonderfully produced and illustrated catalogue raisonné of the windows of both the churches described above. The book could do with a few more colour plates and with writing in modern language, like English!
Notre =(Dame de Paris by Charles Hiatt

 Caisse National des Monuments Historiques, hbk, 1959
Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi - France, volume I

ISBN-10: x
ISBN-13: x

shipping weight: 2.5 kg/5.5 lb!
height: 32 cm/13 inches

$24.27 [amazon.com] {advert}
£15.99 [amazon.co.uk] {advert}


end notes

  1. The inverted v-shaped accent, called a circumflex, over the ‘I’ of Île, is used in French to indicate a silent ‘s’. Thus the French word ‘Île’ is very closely equivalent to the English word ‘Isle’.

  2. The name, Île de France, has changed its meaning from its orginal sense. Now, Île de France refers to a region that includes the eight départements of Ville de Paris, Haute-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne, Essonne, Yvelines, Val-d’Oise and Seine-et-Marne. Back in the tenth and eleventh centuries, Île de France refered to the domain of the Capetians, centred on the Île de de la Cité. They were often weaker than other great duchies in France

  3. The 91.4 metre/300 foot spire reportedly weighed 680 tonnes.

  4. This 15th century Flamboyant window of the Apocalypse is a replacement for a 13th century rose. There is an illustration of that older window in the Belles Heures [Good Hours - a illuminated book of hours] of the Duc de Berry.

  5. A drawing from Histoire archéologique, descriptive et graphique de la Sainte-Chapelle du Palais by Alfred Pierre Hubert Decloux and Doury, Paris: Félix Malteste, 1857.

  6. Image credit: Mark R. Collins

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