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5 Things you didn't know about Notre Dame

Paris is beautiful to look at, that’s a given. But there’s plenty beneath the surface too, and here at Localers we’re always on the lookout for the hidden details and forgotten stories that really bring the city to life. Today we’re taking a closer look at Notre Dame Cathedral by sharing some of our favorite little-known facts from our Paris City Tour. Allons-y!

A Church by Any Other Name

Ever wonder why we call it a cathedral and not a basilica or just a plain old church? It’s not determined by the building’s size or architectural style. In fact the answer is closer than you think -- you’re sitting on it right now.

Each Catholic region in France is presided over by an archbishop whose headquarters -- or “chair” -- is located in a particular place of worship within the region. In Latin, which was the language of the Middle Ages, the word for chair is cathedra. So to describe any religious building that held the seat of the archbishop, the honorable title of “cathedral” was used. Deciphering the “Notre Dame” part is more straightforward: it translates to “Our Lady” (a.k.a. the Virgin Mary), to whom the building is dedicated.

The Imposter Saint

By the mid-19th century Notre Dame was in need of a major face lift, so to save it from ruin architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was put at the helm of a massive renovation project that would last over two decades. While redesigning the church’s spire he secretly replaced one of its apostle statues with a slightly less biblical figure -- himself! Talk about leaving your mark on the world.

To get a glimpse of this party crasher, turn your gaze up toward the green figures standing at the base of the central spire. All of them look out across Paris except one who’s turning in the opposite direction, hand to the forehead, there to admire his handiwork for centuries to come. Which apostle did architect Viollet-le-Duc choose to replace? Saint Thomas the carpenter, of course!

The Devil’s in the Details

Tens of thousands pass through the cathedral’s entrance each day without knowing they’re walking through the echoes of a most devilish legend. Biscornet, the medieval metal smith commissioned to decorate the doors of the church’s main portals, produced ironwork so beautiful and technically proficient that his superstitious contemporaries could think of only one explanation -- he must have sold his soul to the devil.

Rumors swirled. A visitor to Biscornet’s studio claimed he found the artist unconscious and fever-stricken on the floor, with the masterpiece having been mysteriously completed by supernatural forces. According to the Notre Dame priests who installed his artwork, Biscornet’s locks refused to work until splashed with holy water. The artisan’s untimely death soon after only reinforced the suspicion that Lucifer had come back to carry out the contract. And oddly enough, even today’s metallurgy experts can’t quite explain how he pulled it off with the limited tools of the time.

Playing a Hunch

We all identify Notre Dame with its famous hunchback, but surely Victor Hugo’s tragic deformed Quasimodo was a fictional character, right? Well, maybe not.
Recently an archivist in London made a startling discovery in the memoirs of sculptor Henry Sibson. In the early 1800’s Sibson was part of a project to create new sculptures for the cathedral, and he writes of a man “whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers." Fellow workers had given a nickname to this reclusive sculptor: Monsieur Le Bossu, the French equivalent of Mr. Hunchback.

What strikes historians as interesting is not the fact that a hunchbacked man once worked on Notre Dame, but that the timing of this story puts him near the cathedral at the precise time that Hugo would have been visiting to research his novel. It’s therefore not difficult to imagine a chance meeting between the two -- perhaps a conversation or a cup of coffee -- which would have made an impression on the author and sparked the genesis of a literary classic.

Holy Honey!

Finally, the sacristy building along the south side of the cathedral is home to a surprising group of residents. In the spring of 2013 a working bee hive was installed on the roof as part of a Parisian trend that has developed in recent years. While this might conjure up uneasy thoughts of pollution-flavored honey, in fact the opposite is true -- bees collecting nectar in Paris benefit from a lack of pesticides, slightly warmer temperatures than surrounding regions, and a constantly renewed source of flowers from the city’s balconies and gardens.

No need to worry about getting stung though; these are respectful church-going bees according to the Notre Dame website, which states “Bees of this hive are Brother Adam bees in which one of the main characteristics is gentleness, an essential virtue for urban beekeeping.”

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