I first visited Notre Dame Cathedral when I was 14 years old, and it was love at first sight. Notre Dame was so grand, majestic, and dramatic in a way I had never seen before, and I could feel the centuries of history almost seeping through the walls.
To this day, it is one of my favorite buildings in the world, and when I moved to Paris, one of the first things I did was go to Notre Dame and ask how I could be a part of their daily operations, preferably without having to join the clergy. When they offered me a chance to be one of the building’s English language tour guides, I jumped at the opportunity. As my friends and family will attest, I can talk for hours about this stunning beauty of Gothic architecture, but just in case you can’t join a tour, here are my 5 hidden mysteries to look for when wandering the great medieval halls of Notre Dame.
5 Hidden Mysteries in the Halls of Notre Dame
1) Prior to the start of construction in 1163, a ceremony was held to mark the laying of the cornerstone; the first stone in construction, with both the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, and Pope Alexander III in attendance. When you walk up the steps just past the transept on the south side of the cathedral, look on the wall to the right for the plaque commemorating this event. Fun fact: Historians can’t decide on who actually laid the cornerstone—whether it was Maurice de Sully or the Pope.
2) The three rose windows of Notre Dame are famed for their beauty and craftsmanship, and in contrast to the rest of the windows in Notre Dame, these rose windows still retain the majority of their original stained glass. The best place to view these windows is from directly in front of the altar, as you can see all three at once from this vantage point. Be sure to pay close attention to the north rose window, also known as the Window of Perpetual Motion, because its rotated axes gives this window the illusion that it’s turning.
3) Each stonemason who worked on Notre Dame had a unique symbol that they would carve into the stones once their work was complete in order to be paid. These symbols would later be removed, but a few still remain, scattered throughout the cathedral in plain sight. See if you can find the symbols to the right on one of the pillars on the south side of the nave.
4) Around the base of the black spire of Notre Dame, there are 12 green statues, meant to represent the 12 apostles. However, there are actually only 11 apostles up there, as Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the lead architect of Notre Dame’s great restoration in the 19th century, replaced the apostle Thomas, the patron saint of architects, with an image of himself. Viollet-le-Duc is easy to spot, as he’s the one looking back up at the masterpiece he’s created, located at the top of the southeast corner.
5) On the North choir wall, there’s a scene depicting the slaughter of the innocents from the early life of Jesus. If you look closely at the image of Herod, you’ll see a little figure present on his back. This figure is the devil, implying that it was the devil who was in control of Herod’s actions, and therefore ultimately responsible for this horrific event. Bonus: As you’re leaving the cathedral, be sure to look up to your left. You’ll see a shadow in the shape of a familiar character from Victor Hugo’s famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All these years later, Quasimodo still watches over us from above.