In the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris stands one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and possibly the most well-known holy architecture in the world: Notre-Dame de Paris. Notable is the cathedral’s treasury for containing some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.
Unfortunately, Notre-Dame suffered much desecration during the radical and sweeping violence of the French Revolution in the 1790s, as much religious imagery was sought after to be destroyed. Thankfully, restoration lead by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc began in the mid-1840s. Still, the cathedral benefitted from further maintenance in the 1990s.
An outstanding experimentation in Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to use arched exterior supports called flying buttresses, although this was done rather haphazardly in order to alleviate stress fractures that began to occur as the thin Gothic walls stretched to higher heights.
I strain my imagination to recreate an image of Our Lady’s youth in the mid-1300s, most of her exterior and each individually crafted statue and gargoyle and chimera vividly painted to create a magnificent temple in the name of the Holy Father. The Notre-Dame truly is today as Jean de Jandun described it many years ago: “That most terrible church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars…”
The interior of Notre Dame was absolutely stunning. In walking around the church, it becomes apparent that, as with many cathedrals, the interior is fashioned into the shape of a cross; the entrance to the altar is the vertical segment while the horizontal segment is between the two areas that have the large, circular stained glass windows. The vaulted ceilings and the stained glass windows throughout the cathedral help to create an atmosphere of quiet awe that makes it such a suitable place for worship. While we were visiting, a children’s choir was rehearsing songs for what we were guessing was Sunday mass, adding a sense of community and inspiration for future generations to be in an ever present connection with the past. Witnessing their performance was an amazing experience.
We also benefited in our cultural activity by visiting the La Conciergerie, a former royal palace and prison located on the west of the Île de la Cité. It is part of the larger complex known as the Palais de Justice, which is still used today for judicial purposes.
La Conciergerie was a significant structure during the short-lived, but devastating Reign of Terror that ran from September 1793 to July 1794. The radical movement sent 40,000 people to death in the forms of execution and imprisonment, beginning with the Law of Suspects placed on the 17th of September, 1793. The law declared that any person that was considered counterrevolutionary was rendered an enemy of the Republic and guilty of treason. This person would then be condemned to death.
The Revolutionary Tribunal, Dr. Guillotine’s machine, was set up in the Palace of Justice. There were two fates for those sent before the tribunal: acquittal, or death, with no possibility of appeal. Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, a radical, was named public prosecutor. The Tribunal sat in the Great Hall between 2 April 1793 and 31 May 1795, and sent nearly 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine.
As we wandered through the mighty gothic structure, I imagined the vast number of human beings held, without any expectation to escape, to meet their death. I imagined the political prisoners and the hopelessly destitute and the very king and queen of France. The diversity of the population that once rested within the structure walls truly illuminated the goal that France once worked so hard to uphold: privilege for no man, equal treatment for all, even in bloody, gruesome death.
Our tour guide helped to make our visit their one of the most enjoyable cultural activities. Her enthusiasm made her a great story teller and more than capable of holding our attention while she told us about the history of the Palais du Justice and the ancient prison. She was effective in transforming Marie Antoinette from an ignorant and selfish monarch into a sympathetic character in history, describing her lack of power in restructuring policy in a competitive political battle between Louis XVI and the Parlement.
The experience was overwhelming in contrast: a temple of spirituality and eternal life in the east sharing turf with a prison of certain suffering and death in the west. In all that is Paris, France, history abounds, and time has turned these landmarks into examples, learning experiences, if you will, that will stand starkly in vivid memory of those who have placed their hearts and souls into what they truly saw best for the future of their marvelous and beautiful country: France.
La Conciergerie et le Palais de Justice
Kathleen McLean and Brie Johnson