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Remembering the Notre Dame de Paris Interior, Part 1

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Notre Dame de Paris was engulfed in a terrible fire in 2019. Here, I include some of my photos of the interior, taken in 2018. I don't know whether the choir screen is intact. The stained glass is safe (at the moment--the building's stability is still in doubt).

Ambulatory with Radiating Chapels

This is the ambulatory (the walk behind the altar, which usually allowed pilgrims to visit relics kept beneath or below the altar), with several distinct chapels, on the east side of the cathedral. Note the peaked gothic arches and the vaulted ceiling.

The Nave

In the fire, the roof collapsed in three places, sending a cloud of toxic lead over the whole interior. There are plans to reconstruct the roof in the original medieval style, but also proposals to modernize the roof.

The Choir Screen

This is the south side of the choir, with this 13th century screen, depicting scenes from the life of Christ. I hope it survived the ceiling collapse and lead cloud from the burning roof.

In the scenes on the choir screen, all of the holy figures are dressed as medieval royalty would be, even if they're fleeing persecution on a donkey, or giving birth in a manger.

Each scene in the sequence on the screen encapsulates one story from the gospels of the life of Christ. Figures recur in different scenes, but remain consistent in how they look and are dressed, with the exception of Mary, whose face is remarkably individualized and expressive.

Slaughter of the Innocents

This is a grim display, but, from what I've seen all over France, Italy, and Spain, an immensely popular (if that's the word) subject for medieval art--Herod's slaughter of the innocents. This one is less gory than most, but the expressions on the faces are particularly vivid. Mary on the flight into Egypt is on the right.

Herod, Possessed by Demons

I particularly like this representation of King Herod. He's being egged on by 4 demons. One right on his shoulder, reaching for his crown, and three above his throne. Note that his crown and sceptre are very similar to the Fleur de Lys, which were featured in the sceptre and crown of the kings of France.

The Visitation, Shepherds, and Nativity

Here is a panel with three scenes: The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the shepherds follow the star of Bethlehem, and the Nativity itself. What's striking about all of these panels is that Mary's expression is different in each one, and she looks more like an individual than a generic type. Lots of others I've seen have Mary with an enigmatic expression of secret knowledge, or just sadness. Here, she starts with joy, and looks decidedly less pleased when she's staring at Joseph after the birth.

Visitation Closeup

Here's the close-up of the Visitation. Mary has that hip-jutting stance that was apparently considered quite fetching in the Middle Ages. Also, her knee bends to present her contrapposto, which lends a sense of realism to her. Again, kind of uncommon for a 13th c. sculpture.

The Shepherds and the Announcing Angel

The shepherds and their sheep are just as cute as can be. I can't help but think that they're in miniature compared to all the other figures because of their social rank. The announcing angel has multi-colored wings and a big smile, with a great "Alleluia" banner. The shepherd under the tree looks philosophical about it all, the one below and left cocks his head and looks up. The guys to the right are out of here. The sheep are so squee, with their shaggy coats and expressive faces. The ram at the bottom looks as though he's heading out with the unimpressed guys. And then there's the dog--he looks more contemplative than anyone else in the scene.

The Angry Nativity

This is one extraordinarily disgruntled Nativity. Woof. I am amazed at the disenchanted look Mary is giving a pretty diffident-looking Joseph. Even the baby looks annoyed. The livestock are quite alarmed. I'm wondering about that bedspread. It's distinctive, but not luxe and detailed, like the royal garments all the holy figures wear.

Please go to Part 2 of the Notre Dame Interiors post for a continuation of the choir screen analysis!

1 Comment

Hopefully the restoration is going well. We visited Notre Dame way back in 1991.

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