Photos of Notre Dame Before the Fire: A Cathedral That Defined a City

When the architects of Cathedral of Notre-Dame set to work some 850 years ago, their goals were nothing if not ambitious.

The church’s sanctuary, they decreed, must be taller than any built before. The nave would rise 108 feet, and the two 223-feet-tall towers would cast a far-reaching shadow over the roofs of Paris.

The 12th century had just entered its second half, and to achieve new heights, the builders made early use of external supports known as flying buttresses.

The cathedral today is one of the most iconic images of Paris, second only, perhaps, to the Eiffel Tower. More than 12 million visitors tour the structure each year, and untold postcards bearing photos of its towers and its rose windows are sent back home.

On Monday, the world was again gazing at Notre-Dame — but now in horror, not awe.

The cathedral sits in the middle of the Seine river, on the Île de la Cité. It took more than 200 years to build, and was begun under King Louis VII.

History had a way of finding its ways through its doors.

Henry VI was crowned there in 1431.

In October 1793, amid the fervor of the French Revolution, antiroyalists forced their way into the cathedral’s Royal Gallery, and used ropes to pull down statues of what they thought were kings.

They were — but not the kings the revolutionaries thought: The statues depicted the old Kings of Judea.

But out they were dragged, anyway, into Cathedral Square, where they met the same fate as so many others during the revolution: the guillotine.

As it happens, it was Napoleon who ended up saving the cathedral. Decades later, in 1804, he was crowned emperor there.

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Notre-Dame is one of Paris’s most famous landmarks, drawing more than 12 million visitors a year.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
The cathedral is a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
The cathedral towered over the city when it was built.CreditNigel Dickinson for The New York Times
Notre-Dame around 1900.CreditRoger Viollet, via Getty Images
Work on the cathedral did not stop once it was completed. A laborer in about 1900.CreditImagno, via Getty Images
At play in the snow in December 1938.CreditKeystone-France, via Getty Images
Ordaining deacons in 1938.CreditKeystone-France, via Getty Images
American soldiers on the cathedral square on Aug. 25, 1944, when Paris was being liberated during World War II.CreditPierre Jahan/Roger Viollet, via Getty Images
Bastille Day, 1970.CreditBruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

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