An 800-year history of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral

This resilient, gravity-defying Gothic cathedral survived centuries of France’s turbulent past. It emerged in the 19th century from near ruin, thanks to a massive restoration project.

Notre Dame de Paris is perhaps France’s most famous landmark: standing tall at the heart of the city for centuries, accepting the people’s reverance one day, then facing their rejection on another. Its history was forever changed Monday when a massive fire broke out causing the medieval structure's spire to collapse.

The cathedral, which houses the crown of thorns relic, sits on the Île de la Cité, an island in the center of the Seine. The town was well-placed to control the passage of goods along the waterway and grew wealthy. By the 10th century, Paris was the center of an emerging new European power.

Trade was key to the city’s burgeoning fortunes, but Paris was gaining a reputation as a spiritual center as well. A saintly cult had been developing around its local martyr, St. Denis. According to tradition, Denis was beheaded on the hill of Montmartre (“martyrs’ mount”) in the mid- to late-third century A.D., after which he ran six or so miles while carrying his severed head. In a spot north of the city, alleged to be where he stopped running, a basilica was built in the 12th century to honor him.

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