Bees, Bells, and Other Notre Dame Secrets

12 things to discover about Paris’s Gothic masterpiece.

Heavenly Honey. Notre Dame’s sacristy roof houses several busy beehives. Installed in 2013, these honeybees belong to a larger Parisian initiative to promote urban biodiversity. The city now boasts over 700 official beehives. Keep an eye out for bees buzzing about Notre Dame’s peaceful gardens.

All that Glitters. Notre Dame was originally painted — in bright colors no less — and many of the statues were gilded as well. Time and weather have long since removed these adornments. The massive interior was painted too, creating a brighter, lighter effect. If we think of Gothic today as dark, at the time it was quite the opposite.

A Modern Pilgrimage. Begun in 1163, Notre Dame is over 850 years old. Today it surpasses both the Louvre and Eiffel Tower as Paris’s most visited monument with 12 million visitors a year. Mass is held several times a day, with international mass for non-French speakers at 11:30 am on Sundays. Check their schedule here for special events and evening concerts.

Reaching for the Heavens. Notre Dame was among the first Gothic cathedrals, built in a bold new style born in the Paris region. Pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses allowed medieval builders to reach new heights and free up the walls for heavenly stained glass. With a record breaking vault (ceiling) of 108 feet (33 meters) Notre Dame was Europe’s tallest building when completed.

The Dream of a Peasant’s Son. A cathedral is the seat of a bishop, and the 12th-century bishop Maurice de Sully led the cathedral’s construction. Before earning fame for his sermons, Sully was born to a poor peasant family. While studying at the University of Paris he met the future King Louis VII — Notre Dame’s royal patron — and the two became friends. Neither saw their dream realized in their lifetimes however, as the cathedral took over 100 years to complete.

Sacred Ground. Before Notre Dame, a cluster of 25 churches crowded onto the island of the Cité. Even earlier, Romans worshiped at a Temple to Jupiter on the site Notre Dame stands today. Notre Dame specifically replaced a church dedicated to Saint Stephen (Saint Étienne) and he is now commemorated twice on the west facade. Look for the palm branch which denotes martyrdom in Christian iconography.

The Fate of Kings. In 1793 French Revolutionaries attacked royal effigies all over Paris. Notre Dame was not spared: 28 statues of biblical kings were removed and beheaded in the anti-royal furor. The kings on display today are 19th century replacements. But the story didn’t end there. The original heads were discovered by accident in 1977. You can view them up close and personal today at the Cluny Museum.

An Emperor Crowned. Napoleon chose Notre Dame for his coronation in 1804, and although he compelled the pope to attend, in the end Napoleon crowned himself. He then crowned Josephine his empress, the moment captured by Jacques-Louis David in his iconic painting at the Louvre. While David took liberties with the interior, you can still recognize Nicolas Coustou’s Pietà statue behind the altar. The candelabra, meanwhile, is on display in a side chapel.

Quasimodo Among the Gargoyles. Left in a terrible state after the Revolution, and lacking in funds for repair, Notre Dame barely escaped demolition. It took Victor Hugo’s bestselling 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to spark a revival of interest in the medieval past. Thanks to Hugo, Notre Dame was restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, an often controversial figure who not only replaced missing statues but added a few mischievous-looking (but not medieval) gargoyles to the bell towers.

A Massive Weight. The original spire was dismantled in the 18th century due to structural concerns. Its taller 19th-century replacement stands 315 feet (96 meters) tall and weighs 750 tons. The green figures around the base represent the 12 apostles. As the patron saint of architects, Thomas was given the likeness of architect-restorer Viollet-le-Duc. Look closely and you’ll recognize Thomas as the only apostle turned back towards the spire. Is he shielding his eyes from the cathedral’s beauty?

A Day of Liberation. On August 25, 1944, Notre Dame’s bells rang out signaling the liberation of Paris after 4 years of Nazi occupation. The next day, Charles de Gaulle led a victory parade that ended at the cathedral, even as fighting continued around the city. Every year on August 26th Notre Dame holds a special mass to commemorate the war and mark the anniversary of Paris’s liberation.

A Project for the Ages. Since 1163, Notre Dame has survived wars, vandalism, storms, flooding, and near-demolition. Today the Friends of Notre Dame Cathedral are raising funds for overdue conservation works. Read more about this important project here.

Experience the remarkable details that make Notre Dame one of Europe’s most cherished monuments on our 1.5-hour Notre Dame Cathedral tour. Traveling with children ages 6 -12? Don’t miss Notre Dame for Families: Stories in Stone, a 2-hour interactive tour for kids.