One of the biggest items on my travel to-do list was to visit Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Prior to visiting, my knowledge of the cathedral extended about as far as watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but I had heard how beautiful it was inside and I wanted it to be one of the first places I experienced in Paris.
Notre-Dame Cathedral was built alongside the Seine beginning in 1163. Restorations and alterations have been made since, but the cathedral still has a similar appearance to when it was first completed in 1345. The pointed spires and flying buttresses on the outside of the cathedral are common to many churches built in the Gothic architectural style, but what I think sets Notre-Dame apart, and really any church for that matter, are the smaller details – the statues, carvings, and sculptures that tell the church’s stories.
The most defining characteristics on the front of Notre-Dame Cathedral are the West Rose Window (the circular window at which the Virgin Mary stands with an angel on each side), the Gallery of Kings (28 statues depicting the Kings of Israel and Judah), and the three asymmetrical portals that mark the entrance to the cathedral.
Notre-Dame Cathedral is also well-known for its famous architectural gargoyles. These statues actually do serve a purpose other than to befriend Quasimodo.
I really need to start watching better films. They were added to the cathedral’s exterior to direct rain water downward. (That’s code for fancy rain gutters.) I’ve got some great photos of the gargoyles that I plan to share when we take a look at Paris from the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral, but for now let’s head inside.
I have heard people say that if you’ve seen one cathedral then you’ve seen them all, but I have to disagree. It’s a new experience for me every time. It was unintentional, but our arrival at Notre-Dame Cathedral coincided with Sunday morning mass. What at first seemed like a hindrance (how can I possibly take proper pictures with this many people around?), turned into one of the most spiritual moments of my life thus far.
Never before had I attended a Catholic mass, and it seems so appropriate now that my first be in one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. It was not the service itself that triggered such a reaction in me. That part was in French and might as well have been in Morse code for as much French as I know. But it was the music – the choir in combination with the organ. Never in my life have I ever heard something so beautiful. Heavenly is the only word in my limited vocabulary that I have to describe it. Looking around at the beauty of the situation – being inside Notre-Dame, the smell of incense in the air, and the sound of the choir in perfect acoustics – you may laugh at me, but it made me want to drop to my knees and weep. In the moment, that seemed like the only appropriate response. (I didn’t, in case you were wondering.)
Serendipitous encounters such as this are what keep me traveling. I have a whole collection of moments similar to this one that I keep tucked away for when the draw of spending a holiday on the living room sofa with the TV starts to sound more appealing than going somewhere new. (Nothing worthwhile has ever happened to me while watching television, and yet sometimes I have to fight the urge to park myself in front of it.)
After mass ended, we wandered among the shrines along each side of the nave where visitors were lighting prayer candles and leaving offerings. There is much I don’t understand about the Catholic religion, but you don’t need to understand the nuances of Catholicism to grasp the importance it holds in the lives of those who follow it. Even with hundreds of visitors as distractions, those at the cathedral for worship were focused and intent on making their offerings to the saints within the different shrines. We were careful not to disturb anyone. Photography is allowed in the cathedral, but flash is prohibited out of respect for those there for worship.
While practically everyone who visits Paris is told to reserve a spot on their itinerary for Notre-Dame Cathedral, I’m going to take it a step further and recommend, if at all possible, to try and make your visit coincide with one of the church’s services. Watching the traditions within the mass and hearing the glorious singing of the choir will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
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