Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal: Architectural History

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Introduction

Notre-Dame Basilica is a cathedral built in the historical part of Old Montreal, which is considered as an architectural dominant of the city’s centre. Being the last work of James O’Donnell, a New York architect who moved to Montreal to design the cathedral, he did not live to see it completed.1 The cathedral can be considered one of O’Donnell masterpieces, which was built in the Gothic Revival style (also known as Neo-Gothic) that O’Donnell was a big fan of.2 Notre-Dame Basilica is a significant part of the religious heritage of Montreal that witnessed many historical events since the 19th century. Accordingly, many of the historical and architectural developments in Montreal were reflected on Notre-Dame Basilica as well. Being a significant cultural, historical, and architectural site, the Basilica remains an active place of worship and religious services, which include marriage, baptism, funerals, confessions and others.3 In that regard, the present paper will provide an overview of Notre-Dame Basilica as a significant architectural heritage of Montreal, providing a personal experience of interacting with the building.

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Identification and Description

The building of Notre-Dame Basilica was built between 1824 and 1929, and at the time was the tallest building in both Canadas and perhaps “in all of North America”. 4 It is located at 110 Notre-Dame Street West, the original construction site for the original church on which place Notre-Dame Basilica was built. The address of the Cathedral is unchanged since 1890-91, i.e. the year in which the street received its name. Previously, Notre-Dame Street was referred to as the Upper Lachine Road, when the road between Montreal and Lachine was constructed in 1740. Since 1805 it was known as Lachine Turnpike Road, a section of which was renamed to Saint-Joseph Street in the mid-nineteenth century. 5

The height factor mentioned in the previous section serves as the main identifying characteristic of Notre-Dame Basilica, with the towers being 66 metres high. The nave, under the vault 25 metres high, is about 78 metres long and 41 metres wide. 6 In addition to its height, the building is built in the neo-gothic style, a style which one of many styles available to choose, but the only one approved by the Sulpicians. 7 The selection of the Neo-Gothic style can be assumed to be a determinant factor in choosing James O’Donnell as the architect, a Protestant at the time, who was converted to Roman Catholicism and buried and the church that he designed. The Cathedral consists of a boxy facade of dark grey limestone, 65 metres high, and 41 metres wide, with the central section being almost half the height of the towers, which are the second element of the cathedral. 8 The towers were completed independently being the only element remaining from the old church after the completion of the cathedral. The western tower, nicknamed La Persévérance (Perseverance), was finished in 1841, while the eastern tower, nicknamed La Tempérance (Temperance), was finished in 1943. 9

History

The Cathedral was built on a small chapel that was operated by the Jesuits. The chapel was first expanded into a larger church by the Sulpician Fathers who undertook the construction in 1657, with the Sulpician François Dollier de Casson being the architect of the larger church. When the church also became too small in 1800, the cathedral is known today as Notre-Dame Basilica was decided to be built. James O’Donnell was commissioned as the main architect and designer of the cathedral. The significance of the cathedral in Canadian and Montreal architecture can be seen in that the building was not a recreation of a Gothic monument or European sources of art.10 Certainly, it is not a recreation of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris either.11 It is argued by Franklin Toker that the source of inspiration is O’Donnell’s earlier works, Christ Church in New York and the First Presbyterian Church of Rochester. 12

It is the experience of working on large projects that were a determinant factor in commissioning O’Donnell as the architect of what would be the largest church north of Mexico.13 O’Donnell died before completion, so John Ostell took the job, being responsible for the nicknames given to the towers. Architects, Perreault and Mesnard also contributed to the cathedral, designing the cathedral’s Sacred Heart Chapel, a small chapel that allowed holding small service ceremonies. After a fire that damaged the chapel in 1978, the reconstruction of the cathedral was commissioned by the architectural firm of Jodin, Lamarre, Pratte and Associates, who suggested rebuilding the first two levels to be identical to the original chapel, which was opened in 1982. 14

Personal Experience

Recalling the visit to Notre-Dame Basilica, it can be stated that the first impression is largely related to the size. I visited the Basilica twice, a more detailed visit during the day, and a brief observation from the outside at night. In both visits, the massiveness of the construction is a very impressive factor. Although it was outlined in the course reading that a comparison between the Gothic monuments of the Middle Ages and Notre-Dame Basilica is certainly not in favour of the latter, lacking such a background for such comparisons, the gothic approach resembles a short journey to the past. With most people rushing to see the church from the inside, the exterior was worth a longer stop for observation. The gothic style is impressive with the dark grey walls of the cathedral, which despite the day being sunny, provided an impression of antiquity and the dark ages. Standing right at the centre of the square before the cathedral, the symmetry of the towers can be acknowledged only from a distance while being close hinders capturing the whole view (fig 1). Attracting elements of the façade include the high windows and the three sculptures right above the entrance arcs. The central sculpture can be distinguished by a golden halo above the head, which represents Mary mother of Jesus. A stylistic contrast can be seen between the Basilica and the surrounding buildings, which include Place d’Armes, a building specifically contrasting with the Basilica in style and colours, while largely equally matching it in height.

The entrance to the main chapel in the cathedral was for a fee, which worth was acknowledged was a step inside the chapel. The first impression can be seen through the abundance of colours, compared to the dark grey colours of the exterior. The prevailing colours inside the chapel are gold, brown and bronze colours, with a green on the ceiling. The altar, on the other hand, has a blue ceiling, a colour that turned to be essential in the Basilica. It can be seen that despite considering the place as a tourist attraction, it is not a museum, and thus, the benches can be seated on, and many people come to pray in the cathedral. The windows inside the cathedral are placed on both sides of the hall, alternating with paintings. Interestingly, the windows are made of coloured stained glass that depicts the history of Montreal, rather than biblical figures. Nevertheless, the history of Montreal depicted on the glass is largely religious, representing the life of the early Ville-Marie settlement. The work on the glass was performed by the Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé, who designed the images, and the windows were executed at the workshops of Francis Chigot at Limoges, France.15

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During the night there is a light show performed in the Basilica. Even without attending the show, the view of the blue illuminated windows at night is certainly impressive, although largely contrasts with the gothic style during the day. With the windows illuminated, the Basilica is given a futuristic style, which is nevertheless beautiful to watch.

Conclusion

Notre-Dame Basilica is a building which significance can be assessed on various levels, historically, religiously, socially, and what is most important in this context architecturally. Although the construction involved many architects, modifications, and reconstructions, it can be stated that the main contribution of designing the Notre-Dame Basilica is of James O’Donnell. The contribution, in that regard, can be seen in depicting the gothic design. The scale of the building was an additional factor that outlines the significance of the construction locally and internationally, and the amounts of effort and responsibility laid on O’Donnell. Almost two centuries since Notre-Dame Basilica was finished, the building still functions as a tourist attraction as well as performing its initial purpose, i.e. religious services. In that regard, combining the overview of the literature and personal experience, it can be stated that Notre-Dame Basilica is a significant building contributing to the development of Montreal architecture. Even such a simple factor as the changes in the name of the street on which the Basilica is located reflects the gradual development of Montreal. Thus, it can be concluded that Notre-Dame Basilica in its current form is an architectural symbol, in which the massive scale and style make him of special significance for Montreal’s history.

Bibliography

“Cathedral of Our Lady of Montreal”. 2010. Glass Steel and Stone. Web.

This website is an architectural encyclopaedia that provides information on various important constructions around the globe. The website contains information on Notre-Dame Basilica, such as the timeline of constructions and modifications. The information was used as an introduction to the paper.

Gray, Jeremy. “Montreal.” Melbourne; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2001. v. Print.

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The book by Jeremy Gray provides a practical guide on the sightseeing locations in Montreal. The book contains a brief section on Notre-Dame Basilica, including working hours, addresses and what to look for. The information used was the misconception of the tourist on the origin of the Neo-Gothic inspiration.

Historic City Center. “Notre-Dame Basilica “. 2001. Old Monteral. Web.

The website is an informational portal on the old city of Montreal. The website contains a section devoted to Notre-Dame Basilica. The information used in this paper was introductory notes on the Basilica, such as the importance of the construction at the time of building.

Lord, Kathleen C. “Days and Nights: Class, Gender and Society on Notre-Dame Street in Saint-Henri, 1875–1905.” McGill University (Canada), 2001. Print.

The thesis traces the development of Notre-Dame Street, and the mutual influence on the people living on it. The thesis mainly provided information on the historical developments and the name changes of Notre-Dame Street, on which Notre-Dame Basilica is located.

Marsan, Jean Claude. Montreal in Evolution : Historical Analysis of the Development of Montreal’s Architecture and Urban Environment. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1981. Print.

This course reading provides an extensive overview of the architectural development in Montreal. The book contains a section on Notre-Dame Basilica, in which the information used was mainly related to the implementation of the Neo-Gothic style by O’Donnell.

“Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal”. 2010. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Web.

This is the official webpage of Notre-Dame Basilica, which contains information such as the history of the Basilica as well as its significance to the religious life in Montreal. The webpage was used to outline the religious services currently provided in Notre-Dame Basilica and the history of the construction process.

Toker, Franklin. The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal : An Architectural History. 2nd ed. Montreal ; Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. Print.

The book is an important source of information on Notre-Dame Basilica, tracing its architectural history and the influence of the chosen style in its design. The book was used to provide information on O’Donnell’s source of inspiration in designing the Basilica as well as different background information.

Illustrations

The central entrance to the Cathedral.
Figure 1 – The central entrance to the Cathedral.

Works Cited

“Cathedral of Our Lady of Montreal”. 2010. Glass Steel and Stone. Web.

Gray, Jeremy. “Montreal.” Melbourne; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2001. v. Print.

Historic City Center. “Notre-Dame Basilica “. 2001. Old Montreal. Web.

Lord, Kathleen C. “Days and Nights: Class, Gender and Society on Notre-Dame Street in Saint-Henri, 1875–1905.” McGill University (Canada), 2001. Print.

Marsan, Jean Claude. Montreal in Evolution : Historical Analysis of the Development of Montreal’s Architecture and Urban Environment. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1981. Print.

“Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal”. 2010. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Web.

“The Basilica of Notre-Dame De Montreal”. 2010. Images Montreal. Web.

Toker, Franklin. The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal : An Architectural History. 2nd ed. Montreal ; Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. Print.

Footnotes

  1. Cathedral of Our Lady of Montreal, 2010, Web.
  2. Cathedral of Our Lady of Montreal.
  3. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, 2010, Web.
  4. Jean Claude Marsan, Montreal in Evolution: Historical Analysis of the Development of Montreal’s Architecture and Urban Environment (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1981) 157.
  5. Kathleen C. Lord, “Days and Nights: Class, Gender and Society on Notre-Dame Street in Saint-Henri, 1875–1905,” McGill University (Canada), 2001.
  6. Marsan, Montreal in Evolution: Historical Analysis of the Development of Montreal’s Architecture and Urban Environment 157.
  7. Historic City Center, Notre-Dame Basilica 2001, Web.
  8. Franklin Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal: An Architectural History, 2nd ed. (Montreal; Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991) 2.
  9. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.
  10. Marsan, Montreal in Evolution: Historical Analysis of the Development of Montreal’s Architecture and Urban Environment 158.
  11. Jeremy Gray, “Montreal,” (Melbourne; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2001), vol., 44.
  12. Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal: An Architectural History 26.
  13. Gray, “Montreal,” vol., 44.
  14. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.
  15. Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.

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