The Bells of Notre Dame

The (New) Bells of Notre Dame

“That’s Little Sophia. And Jeanne-Marie, Anne-Marie, Louise-Marie. Triplets, you know.”

Soon, Quasimodo will have more introductions to make as the bells of Notre Dame will once again number ten and Parisians will hear them toll as no one has heard since the Middle Ages. In celebration of the 850th Anniversary of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, a full complement of immense bells has been cast and will be on public display until 25 February before being hoisted into the towers to ring for the first time a week before Easter, on 23 March.

The nine new Bells of Notre Dame during the blessing ceremony on 2 February 2013.

The nine new Bells of Notre Dame during the blessing ceremony on 2 February 2013. (Photo by Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

When construction of the world’s most notable Gothic cathedral began in 1163, it was already customary to ring church bells before service and to commemorate certain events and occasions. Building was largely completed by 1345 and the bells of Notre Dame rang across Paris, providing a musical backdrop to the City of Light for centuries. By 1769, the cathedral had 20 bells, including eight in the North Tower and two bourdons, or great bells, in the South Tower. Ten other bells were located in the Spire and the North Transept. However, during the French Revolution, the bells were stolen, melted down and reportedly made into cannon between 1791 and 1792. Only the great bell Emmanuel survived and, by order of Napoleon I, it was reinstalled in the South Tower in 1802.

The great bell Emmanuel.

The bourdon Emmanuel resides in the South Tower of Notre Dame. Emmanuel was originally installed in 1683, though recast several times, and now can be rung only sparingly due to its age and condition.

Over the centuries, bells were cast and re-cast. Four bells were installed in the North Tower in 1856. A decade later, three were installed in the Spire and three more in the transept; these six were linked to the monumental clock. The bells in the North Tower, though, were flawed; made of poor material, incorrectly sized and out of tune with each other. The sound spilling over rooftops and pouring through the streets and open windows grew increasingly discordant, eventually characterized as “the awful cacophony of the most dreadful bells in all of France.” Fortunate, perhaps, that Quasimodo was deaf.

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Now into the 21st Century, plans were made to restore the original luster and design to the bells of Notre Dame, and nine new bells were commissioned. Eight of them, named after Saints or prominent Paris Catholics, and bearing the Latin inscription Via viatores quaerit – “I am the path looking for travelers” – will be placed in the North Tower. The tenth bell, Marie, is inscribed with the French Hail Mary and will hang in the South Tower alongside Emmanuel, now more than 330 years old. Marie, incidentally, is the only one in the set not cast in France, instead coming from the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry in the Netherlands, making her kin to the 2012 Olympic Bell in London.

Great bell Marie

The new bourdon, or great bell Marie, which will join Emmanuel in the South Tower. Marie is named after the Virgin Mary as well as the first great bell at Notre Dame, which was cast in 1378.

Among the new bells are Maurice, named for Maurice de Sully who launched the construction of Notre Dame as the 72nd Bishop of Paris, and Étienne, honoring St. Steven, the first Christian martyr. Saint-Étienne was also the name of the Merovingian Cathedral constructed in 690AD and demolished by Sully to make way for Notre Dame. While Sully had argued that the church in Paris had become the “Parisian church of the kings of Europe” and thus had outgrown the former Cathedral, 20th Century archeological examination showed it to be an enormous, highly developed structure. Though Sully made the construction of Notre Dame his life’s work, the Bishop died in 1196, centuries before his vision was completed.

Notre Dame receives more than 20 million visitors a year, making it the most visited site in Paris and one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. Free cathedral tours in a variety of languages are offered year round, but there is a charge for the Tower and Treasury, which are not administered by the church. Notre Dame is a functioning church where mass is celebrated daily.

The Bells of Notre Dame

The new bells of Notre Dame will be on public display only until February 23rd but will be heard throughout Paris beginning the week before Easter. Each bell is unique, with different construction and decoration, and is tuned to a specific note.

Except where noted, photos courtesy of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, ©NDP

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