The first stone laid in 1163 for the construction of Notre-Dame de Paris was actually not quite the first! No less than four churches have succeeded on the site of the Ile de la Cité: a Paleochristian church of the fourth century dedicated to St. Stephen, a Merovingian basilica, a Carolingian cathedral and a Romanesque cathedral. Its stones were reused by the builders of Notre-Dame who also sometimes gave a second life to the ornaments. Thus the Virgin in majesty on the portal of the tympanum Sainte-Anne, masterpiece of the Romanesque art dates from the years 1140-1150!
Did you know that the cathedral did almost disappear in the 19th century? Devastated by the French Revolution, transformed into a temple of Reason and then into a warehouse, the building was so dilapidated that it was in question to destroy it purely and solely. It was without counting on Napoleon I who made himself emperor in 1804, and especially on Victor Hugo who with his great eponymous novel published in 1831 campaigned for the rescue of Notre-Dame de Paris! The writer was heard: in 1845, an extensive restoration program was entrusted to the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
During the Revolution, the statues of the gallery of the kings of Judah, above the portal, disappeared and were decapitated. The sans-culottes (French revolutionaries) thought they were the kings of France! It was not until 1977 that 21 of the 28 heads were found in the building site of a mansion in the 9th arrondissement. Meanwhile, the portal had found its statues in favor of the restoration program. And the original heads are now on display at the Cluny Museum, the national museum of the Middle Ages.
The statues of the 12 apostles surrounding the spire of the cathedral were all made during the restoration by Viollet-Le-Duc in the 12th century' style. But the architect allowed himself another boldness: he represented himself as Saint Thomas contemplating his work! For the record, Saint Thomas is the patron saint of architects.
While the gargoyles look like fantastic animals extending the gutters dating back to the Middle Ages, the chimeras that populate the heights of the building are born of the imagination and readings of Viollet-Le-Duc. The most famous of these strange devilish critters, the Stryge, "the insatiable vampire" allegory of lust, inspired by an engraving by Charles Meryon, has become one of the emblems of the imagery of the capital.
The rooster that crowns the spire completely rebuilt in the 19th century, is not a wind vane like the others. Since 1935, it contains a relic of Saint Denis, one of Saint Genevieve and even a fragment of the Holy Crown of Thorns reported by Saint Louis in 1239. Monseigneur Verdier, then archbishop of Paris, had wanted to make a spiritual lightning rod protecting the faithful!