Notre Dame’s new bells set to chime with history

Bells will ring on Palm Sunday to mark cathedral’s 850th birthday

The bells of Notre Dame in Paris will ring out for Palm Sunday more clearly and sonorously than they've been heard since the fictional Quasimodo's day, to mark the cathedral's 850th anniversary. Its foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Maurice de Sully, one of the city's longest-serving bishops.

Over the centuries, the bells of Notre Dame de Paris have rung out for deliverances of the city, victories in war, liturgical festivals, visits by popes, state funerals and the coronations of kings. Then came the French Revolution in 1789 and the cathedral was redesignated as a “temple of reason” by the rabidly anti-clerical new regime.

Three years later, the original bell set was torn out and turned into cannon, and was finally replaced in 1856 by "one of the most dreadful sets of bells in France ", according to campanology expert Hervé Gouriou. Made from cheap metal, they were badly tuned and discordant, giving a false sense of a great cathedral's bells.

Cast in bronze
Eight new bronze bells have been cast by the Cornille Havard foundry in Normandy, ranging from 782 to 4,162 kilos, and a huge "drone" bell weighing six tonnes by the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands. This latter will join the surviving 13-tonne great bell – named Emmanuel by Louis XIV in 1686 – in the south tower.


Over the past month, all nine new bells were lined up in the nave of the cathedral after being drawn through Paris on two low-loaders down the Champs Élysées and the quays of the Seine to Notre Dame. No wonder people of all faiths and none queued up, often in freezing cold weather, to see this quite exceptional spectacle.

Day after day, they milled around the shiny bells, taking photographs, reaching out to touch and tap them, or simply standing in awe at the artistry of their makers. For each bell is different, not just in weight but also in decoration, and they’ve all been given names – just as their predecessors had before they were melted down.

The smallest, Jean-Marie, features the four evangelists with their respective allegories – angel, lion, bull and eagle. Next comes Maurice, called after the bishop who laid Notre Dame’s foundation stone; then Benoit-Joseph, commemorating its 850th anniversary, with the keys of St Peter – it is partly named after Benedict XVI.

Then Étienne, in memory of the earlier cathedral that stood on the site of Notre Dame – it weighs in at 1½ tonnes. Larger again is Marcel, in honour of the ninth bishop of Paris; then Denis, in memory of its first bishop; and Anne Geneviève, the names of the Virgin’s mother and the city’s patron saint.

Second-largest is Gabriel, after the archangel – it is even more elaborately decorated than the others, with no fewer than 40 "friezes". Finally, there's Marie – the dull Dutch-forged bourdon (bumblebee) bell – which is intended to recall the earlier one that called the faithful to worship from 1378 to its demise in 1792.

For anyone who went to Notre Dame in February, when they were all on display in the cathedral, it was a real privilege. God knows what they’ll sound like when they’re rung, but we’re assured by Régis Singer, bell heritage expert from the French ministry of culture, that it will be out of this world.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor