Ile de la Cité



Ile de la Cité - Overview

For these medieval tours, either on right or left bank, it is really nice starting in the heart of Ile de la Cité with the most magnificent medieval monument: cathedral Notre-Dame.
From the cathedral square, we will go along its left side on rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame. We will admire its gargoyles and statues and also an old canon’s house. Then, we will turn left on Quai aux Fleurs, then we will stop rue des Ursins at the corner of rue des Chantres.

If we continue the tour on the right bank, we will walk towards Ile Saint-Louis where we will take Louis-Philippe Bridge which will take us in the Marais district.

If instead, we continue the tour on the left bank, we will keep on Quai aux Fleurs, cross the Flower Market, arrive in front of the church Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic masterpiece was ordered by King Saint-Louis to the architect Pierre de Montreuil in order to house some fragments of the Holy Cross and the crown of thorns.
Then, we will walk towards quai de l’horloge where we will stop at the corner to see the oldest public Parisian clock (1371). At the top of the tower, there is a bell which replaced an old one, destroyed during the French Revolution. Ringing this bell together with the ones at the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, near the Louvre was the signal to launch the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in the night of 23–24 August 1572, which was a major turning point in the French War of Religion.
Then, we walk along the Conciergerie and its medieval towers : Tour Cesar, Tour d’Argent and Tour Bonbec, the oldest. Here, the name “bonbec” means good beak and refers to the torture room to make prisoners talk.   

We will reach the far end of the island and use the Pont-Neuf bridge to reach the left bank.


Atget - 1907
(Mission du Patrimoine Photographique)

Notre-Dame de Paris

Fortunately saved and now secure, its restoration is now under way. Shortly after the fire, the writer and academician François Cheng, had the following words of simple and profound humanity:

« This cathedral, which has existed for 850 years, despite its wooden frames, has not really experienced a fire. And all of a sudden, this April 15, 2019 at 6:30 p.m., it happened. History will never forget this flame that springs from her womb and rises to the sky with astonishing fury. It will remember this date. But at a higher level, there is this intense emotion that takes hold of everyone. And everyone in the night, stunned, desperate, feels that this emotion is shared by others, and then by a whole people and then by the whole world. At that time we are irresistibly drawn into a universal communion ... We must never forget it.

If you allow me, I add a very brief intimate remark. Let’s not forget that it’s Our Lady so it’s a maternal presence. We know what maternal love is, something natural, normal: we enjoy it, we take advantage of it, we abuse it often, but without worrying too much about it. One day, suddenly, this maternal presence is torn from us. So, we are immersed in infinite sadness, in infinite regret. We say to ourselves: there are so many things we could have told her and we never did. We never told her, "I love you." Now it's too late. This feeling of "too late" grabbed us as the spire turned into a torch and broke. So a cry of terror seized us ... Our Lady is going to leave without us having time to say goodbye. Fortunately, the next day we were reassured ... She is saved. In this case, let's not be forgetful. Let us be full of gratitude and be faithful to this common good. ”

Atget - 1922

“The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.” The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Victor Hugo (1831)

 The Gothic novel written by Victor Hugo generated broad interest in the cathedral which was then in a very poor condition and largely contributed to major renovations led in the 19th century by a brilliant thirty years old architect: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
The degradation  caused by men that Victor Hugo refers to, are for example the ones made mainly during the 18th century: hence, the replacement of the medieval Gothic altar with a new one ordered by Louis XIV, though splendid but also awkwardly suited to a 12th century church; the destruction of the 13th century stained glass panels replaced in 1752 by white glass; the enlargement of the central portal by Soufflot in 1771.
Many outdoor sculptures, damaged by time had been already been removed when the French Revolution finished the degradation. The statues of the biblical kings of Judah, erroneously thought to be French kings were beheaded by the revolutionary people. Fragments of these statues were found by chance a long time after, in 1977 when works were done in a private mansion, 20 rue de la Chaussée d'Antin. They can be seen today in the Cluny Museum.
The statues that can be seen today on the front of the church, like the monumental statue of the Virgin,  were completely redesigned by Viollet-le-Duc who took inspiration from other cathedrals like the ones of Reims and Amiens.

Notre-Dame de Paris - Hinges
Atget - 1908

The portals like the Virgin door are covered with elaborate hinges admired since the time of their creation.
The perfection of their design made people even think that the locksmith Biscornette was helped by the devil. This splendid wrought iron work was destroyed when a new door was built in 1771 by Soufflot.
The ones that we can see today were done by Pierre Boulanger, a wrought iron craftsman directed by Viollet-le-Duc who succeeded in making them almost similar to the medieval ones. 

Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame

Old house,
rue du cloître-Notre-Dame
Atget - 1924
(Musée Carnavalet)

From the cathedral square, we are now walking along the left northern side, rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame.

Let's admire the Portal of the Cloister, built around 1250 by Jean de Chelles. Standing in its center, the delicate Virgin Mother  is a genuine 13th century statue, a very scarce remnant of the destroyed medieval statuary. However, its broken child had not been replaced.

A little bit further, let's stop in front the small red door; the tympanum above the door represents king Saint-Louis and his wife Marguerite de Provence praying Jesus and the Virgin in the center. This door was used by the canons as a direct connection between the cloister and the cathedral. In the medieval times, there was no street where we are. It was an enclosed area with houses and gardens where the canons were living. There was also a very famous monastic school teaching Grammar, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Astrology and Music. This school closed in 1200 when the University la Sorbonne was created by Philip II, known as Philip Augustus. In the middle of Souvenirs shops, we can still see at 18 rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame, an old Canon house, saved from the destruction of old houses led by Haussmann.

Quai aux Fleurs - rue des Ursins

It is quite difficult to recognize this common house photographed by Atget from the one which looks so medieval today … In fact, the house taken by Atget, not that old, had been destroyed and replaced by a pastiche medieval house in 1958; for this, the architect Fernand Pouillon used real medieval elements … 

Rue des Chantres

Rue des Chantres
Atget - 1923
(Musée Carnavalet)

We are now rue des Chantres – Cantor Street; the name of the street reminds us that canons were living in this area, where was standing the Notre-Dame cloister in the medieval times.

This reminds us also the love story between Abélard, Master of Dialectic at the school of Notre-Dame and Heloïse, settled into the house of her uncle, Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame Cathedral. Around 1115  Abélard came to live also in Fulbert's house and very rapidly a passionate love united Heloise and Abélard. They had to flee to Britany where she gave birth to their son Astrolabe. Abelard came back to Paris and later created his own school of philosophy on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. However, the old Fulbert took cruel revenge and came one night with a band of associates and castrated the poor Abélard. Since then, the lovers both took vows in 1119 and exchanged with a correspondence written in Latin for several years. When Abélard died in 1142, Héloise made sure his remains be moved to the Abbey of Paraclet established by Abélard in Champagne, close to Nogent-sur-Seine. Later, she was buried there with him, until 1630 when a prude abbess decided that their mortal remains could not be kept together any longer.  Nevertheless, in the 19th century, some kind and romantic souls thought that the lovers should be back together and a tomb, copy of the one in Paraclet was built in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. These supreme symbols of  absolute love were among the first to be buried in the Parisian Cemetery.  In fact, more pragmatically the idea of this tomb was a publicity stunt to attract Parisians to this new cemetery outside Paris at that time!

  • Quai aux Fleurs and
    rue des Ursins
    in 1902 by Atget -
    (Mission du Patrimoine Photographique)

Spire of the cathedral Notre-Dame

From this street which still looks quite medieval, we could have a nice view on the Notre Dame spire, completely rebuilt in the 19th century by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. It required the specific skills of a Master Carpenter Mr. Georges who mastered techniques used by the medieval builders of cathedrals. Standing in the center, turned towards the spire, the statue of Saint-Thomas, patron saint of architects does in fact represent Viollet-le-Duc himself contemplating his masterpiece.

Then on April 15th, 2019, there was this major fire partially destroying the cathedral, and devastating the roof and the attic made with ancient chestnut wooden beams known as the forest. These beams were delicately adjusted, without any rivet or peg. Then, with profound horror, we saw the spire falling down around 8:00 pm. When I look now at this photo showing the statue of Viollet le Duc, it seems to me that his gesture toward the spire is rather a sad farewell.

Now let's continue either on the right bank or the left bank ...

  • Medieval Paris - Right bank

  • Medieval Paris - Left bank

Year 2016 - Text and photos: Martine Combes