The Lady of Paris
Simonsens, August 27, 2014
Translated by: Stefania

“…to cite only a few leading examples, there certainly are few finer architectural pages than this façade, where, successively and at once, the three portals hollowed out in an arch; the broidered and dentated cordon of the eight and twenty royal niches; the immense central rose window, flanked by its two lateral windows, like a priest by his deacon and subdeacon; the frail and lofty gallery of trefoil arcades, which supports a heavy platform above its fine, slender columns; and lastly, the two black and massive towers with their slate penthouses, harmonious parts of a magnificent whole, superposed in five gigantic stories;—develop themselves before the eye, in a mass and without confusion, with their innumerable details of statuary, carving, and sculpture, joined powerfully to the tranquil grandeur of the whole; a vast symphony in stone, so to speak; the colossal work of one man and one people, all together one and complex, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, whose sister it is; prodigious product of the grouping together of all the forces of an epoch, where, upon each stone, one sees the fancy of the workman disciplined by the genius of the artist start forth in a hundred fashions; a sort of human creation, in a word, powerful and fecund as the divine creation of which it seems to have stolen the double character,—variety, eternity.”

With these words Victor Hugo described the façade of the Notre-Dame cathedral, a fitting introduction for this article.

In this short work I’ll analyze this building, symbol of the city of Paris, using the video material that I was able to find in the various trailers and gameplay footages of Assassin’s Creed Unity. I’ll also try to highlight many of the differences between the real building of that era and the model presented in the game. I’ll be honest, it’s not a simple task, because the cathedral is a fairly complex architecture and the game material that I am using does not show a complete view and is limited to the façade, some interiors and some views from a distance, but everybody knows that, after all, in this environment, “everything is permitted”, so let’s start!

The Façade

Let’s start analyzing the material coming from the single-player gameplay revealed at E3. The video starts with a view of the Île de la Cité, opening a beautiful bird’s eye view of Paris’ downtown. Remember that the video is set in 1793, when the Terror is looming on the city, the most controversial moment of the French Revolution. The scene shifts to Parvis de Notre Dame (the plaza) where, from the top of the cathedral, Arno silently looks at the insurgent crowd.
This video is important for our purpose since it gives us a quite detailed view of the whole façade of Notre-Dame, but before starting it’s better to make a series of considerations, which are essential for understanding the story of this structure.
Fundamentally, the cathedral was built in the 12th century to give prestige to the Parisian bishop and overcome the deep crisis caused by the fall of Jerusalem during the last crusade. Substantially that was the reason why the cathedral underwent repeated and continuous modifications during the years, acts of vandalism during the Revolution (being the symbol of the excessive ecclesiastical power on the city) and the renovation in 1800 meant to bring the cathedral back to its original glory. We can, for this reason, split the architectural story of Notre Dame in three big phases:

Comparison between the
original project and the final one
  • 1163 – 1250 - Construction of the first project of the gothic Cathedral.
  • 1250 – 1344 - Once the construction of the Cathedral was finished, designers realized that, also due to the long duration of the works, it was already obsolete, in terms of size and magnificence, if compared to other, more recent, structures. For this reason, a second construction site was immediately started with the intention of surpassing the size of the first project.
  • 1842 - 1864 - The Revolution leaves a deep scar to the Cathedral. The symbol of Clergy repeatedly was the victim of people’s fury. There even was a demolition proposal. Then Notre Dame was destined to an infinite variety of uses, from Temple of Reason to a wine warehouse. Only with Napoleon Notre Dame went back under the administration of Church and the procedures for the restoration started, assigned to the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

I’d want you to focus on the first two points. From the image above you can notice how the structure was expanded after the end of the first construction site. We notice that the transept (the part perpendicularly intersecting the nave), which once stuck out laterally, was incorporated inside the structure with the expansion of the apsis zone and extended by 9 meters. Looking at the plan it seems that the structure gained a certain majesty and surely a greater heaviness because of the addition of further building structures, but it isn’t like that. The Gothic architecture is dedicated to lightness and luminosity, and an essential characteristic of this style is the vertical development of the structure and the presence of big stained-glass windows that allow a constant lighting inside. For this reason Notre Dame was one of the most demanding architectural challenges of that time. Since its first project, architects had to try and understand how to spread on the ground the lateral pressures of walls due to the thin building structure. The solution was the use of the rampant arch, which greatly increased the size of the structure, as well as reinforcing it. Unfortunately at the end of the first construction site in 1250, architects realized that the cathedral wasn’t luminous enough and so the clerestory (in other words the upper level of the nave, where usually the windows are placed) was further opened.

After this little historic and architectural digression I’d like to add and reveal you that Ubisoft’s designers opted for an extremely accurate representation of the structure, but at the same time also for an anachronistic and historically inaccurate re-creation. The Notre Dame we saw in the demo, which I think is the final one, shows all the characteristics of its current version, with the sum of all the modifications introduced during the centuries, even after the Revolution, and so it’s different from the one we would have seen at the end of the 18th century. This stylistic choice is probably meant to show a more romantic reconstruction of Notre Dame, which with the nineteenth-century restoration moved the hearts and imagination of Parisians and non-Parisians. As a matter of fact, the Gothic style was glorified and, if one wishes, redefined by the new romantic trend and the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc worked hard to give the whole cathedral a new life. In fact Notre Dame surely became the symbol of the sublime sentiment innate in the medieval and gothic architecture, the structures of which raise the city to the sky and look at passers-by with their high stained-glass windows and complex decoration. It’s not by chance that the writer Victor Hugo himself, like many other artists at that time, sets the events of his works in the shadow of “Our Lady”.

Arno's descent
That said, we can begin the real analysis. Arno goes down to the plaza, diagonally crossing the façade of the cathedral, from right to left (to be precise from South to North). So it’s possible to identify, item by item, all the sections on which he passes and gradually proceed analysing every single area of the façade.

Initially Arno is on the cornice of the Galerie des Chimeras, a part of the cathedral located at a height of 46 meters and on which the two towers are placed.
We need to give more precise information. We have to distinguish between two architectural decorations: Gargoyles and Chimeras.
Gargoyles is a French term indicating the decoration of the gutter drainage in the Gothic architecture (1-A). The word Gargoyles comes from the Latin term “gurgulium”, onomatopoeic, which recalls exactly the gurgle of water flowing in the drainpipe.
Also, a legend tells (in an imaginary way) how this decoration was born. The dragon Grand’Goule (or Gargouille) started threatening the citizens of Paris during the 7th century. Opening his mouth he released, instead of the classic flames, great quantities of water that flooded the streets of the city, devastating it. The only way to placate his anger was to offer him tributes every years. So St. Romanus traveled to Paris with the intention of driving the dragon out and, after he exorcised and defeated him, he set his body to fire. The only parts that survived the flames were the head and the neck, which were mounted on the walls of the city. Since that day stonecutters and sculptors re-created this act in the stone and on the façades of churches.
The Chimera is a sculpture (1-B) with monstrous features, mainly anthropomorphic, that has a purely decorative function. For example Arno, in this moment, is exactly next to the famous Stryge, namely a winged female demon, for somebody the mythological precursor of the vampire, and a famous statue present on the balcony of the cathedral.

Comparison between Chimeras and Gargoyles

Those decorations absolutely need to be distinguished, at least for their functionalities, and here come the issues: even though the gargoyles have existed since the 13th century, the chimeras next to Arno only appear during the restoration of the nineteenth century and so they were not on the façade during the French Revolution. Also, but this is excessive pedantry, it's possible to notice how the Stryge is repeated many times, when instead all the chimeras of the gallery are different from one another.
Arno jumps from the balcony, and for the first time we see a descent and not the classic leap of faith. We briefly see the colonnade of the lower level and we arrive on the cornice where the rose window is located (2). Here you can see all the efforts and meticulousness of the Ubisoft team in recreating this monument. Proportions and decorations are perfectly reproduced in the digital model, even the pilaster strips on the side of the rose window and the tympana and ornaments that are present in the buttresses.

The central rose window

The central rose window is in the middle of the façade (2-a), a hole of about 10 meters with the intention of illuminating the central nave of the cathedral. It’s composed of three concentric stained-glass windows, each of which has different decorations and biblical characters. In front of this window there’s a composition of statues including the depiction of the Virgin on the throne with the Child and two angels to the sides (2-c). That statue was present during the French Revolution, but was incredibly disfigured due to vandalism and bad weather, and indeed the statue we see now is a work of the restoration.
Arno walks along the whole balcony and goes down further. It’s interesting to notice how the banners with the various revolutionary mottos are hanged on the walls. As previously mentioned, Notre Dame was repeatedly stormed by the revolutionists who devastated many of its internal and external parts. So it’s not a mistake to imagine that, during those years, the cathedral was “adorned” with this kind of banners.
After that, we reach the niches of the Galerie des Rois (the gallery of kings) (3).

This is composed by a series of niches, each of which contains a statue representing the Kings of Judea, even if allegorically (as it was in the habit of the art of that time) these portray the royal house of France. With time, indeed, the number of these niches changed, increasing from 20 to the 28 that are currently visible. It is interesting to notice the attention with which Ubisoft's designers reproduced not only the proportions, but also every little detail of this area. As you can see (3-d) the niches have their trefoil arch (i.e. composed of three little arches) and even the characteristic styles of the columns (i.e. Corinthian, notice the acanthus leaves on the capital) on which it rests. Not only the architectural design is perfectly recreated, but also its decorations are present, like the drops on it. This meticulousness makes the 3D model identical to its real counterpart (3-b).
However, historically there are some problems. As a matter of fact, in 1793 the statues were removed from their niches exactly for their connection with the monarchical regime. They were re-sculpted and put back only in 1800.

Eventually we touch the ground, in front of the portals. The visible material of the demo ends here, but fortunately, thanks to the other recently released videos, we can analyze the central portal: the Portal of the Last Judgement.

The Portal of the Last Judgement is the access in the middle of the cathedral’s façade (4-a). The most noticeable characteristic is the pointed arch, symbol par excellence of the Gothic architecture. The arch has, like in other areas of the cathedral, decorations portraying some anecdotes of the Bible, and, like the name suggests, this represents the events of the Last Judgement. At the base of the arch there are the twelve Apostles (the game shows 8 of them, fig. 4-b) while the archivolt shows some angelic figures. The lunette (the part immediately above the door) shows the bas-relieves of the key moments of the Last Judgement with Jesus Christ on the throne absorbed in judging the mortals’ souls. However there are some historical inconsistencies between the version in the game and the one of that era. In the image 4-d you can see the portal in 1850 (you can notice the absence of the statue in the aforementioned Gallery of Kings). Indeed in 1771 architect Jaques-Germain Soufflot got rid of the trumeau, in other words the pillar that divided the portal in two, to facilitate the stream of believers. The change affected also a portion of the bass-relief of the lunette. Everything was however restored with the restoration in 1842. That said, it’s obvious that Arno couldn’t see the portal with those characteristics, because during the revolution the portal was different (4-d).

The Plaza

Once touched the ground, we can look at the plaza in front of the cathedral. Parvis de Notre Dame keeps all the traits that can be found in the historical representations, although probably this appears considerably downsized. From these representations we can see that there’s a church to the north of the cathedral and, in the game, a fountain in the middle of the plaza. The ecclesiastical structure close to the cathedral is the Saint-Jean-Le-Rond baptistery, a simple, rectangular plan building. Its façade was restored in the 17th century. In 1748 a motion was proposed for its demolition, which occurred in 1751. So its absence in the game is accurate. Another element you can see in the plaza is the Fontaine du Jeûneur (Fountain of Fasting), a canopied structure that supplied the citizens of Île de la Cité with water. This structure was destroyed (due to some problems during the restoration) in 1748, so it can’t be present during the French Revolution.

General elements of the structure

This analysis is based on some parts of the structure that can be seen in some gameplay footage and trailers so it’s impossible to see them in their entirety and/or analyze them specifically. Let’s start, therefore, with the Flèche.

The Flèche is a structure on the roof of the cathedral where the nave intersects the transept. It looks like an extremely thin and pointed spire, mainly made of metal, at least its modern version. The original Flèche was built during the first construction of the cathedral, around 1250, but was dismantled in 1786. Le-duc, during the restoration and his attempt to give back to the building its original appearance, rebuilt it with the techniques of his age. During Arno’s adventures, it was being dismantled and so its presence in the game (6-a) (at least in its entirety) isn’t exactly accurate (6-b).
We can also see that anyway its re-creation in game is absolutely true to the original one. An octagonal plan structure with a mullioned window (double opening) on each façade and covered in lead plates (6-c and 6-d). There are also some statues on the side pedestals.

Among the several other elements that we can see there are the towers and the North façade, both accurately reproduced and with all the symbolic elements of the original structure. An interesting anecdote about the Notre Dame’s towers concerns their characteristic form, quite unusual in the architecture of Gothic and French cathedrals. In fact many scholars believe that this form is the result of an incomplete work and that in the original project the towers should have ended with some spires and not with a flat roof. Le-Duc, in his restoration project, wanted to built this new covering and make the profile of the structure more complete. Unfortunately (or not, it’s not for me to say) that work remained on paper, as you can see in the image below.

The interiors

The recreation of the cathedral had to convey the majesty and beauty of the structure, both outside and inside. As mentioned before, the building was planned and built to internally facilitate a series of plays of light that would have made the space extremely bright. Ubisoft's programmers succeeded in reproducing all of that, as we saw in the last demo unveiled at Gamescom. First of all the rose window of the North façade. It rises above the North portal and on a series of eight mullioned windows (seven in the game), which are decorated as well. The whole rose window tells the events of the apocalypse and shows a series of representations of angels and saints in the various concentric sectors of its structure.

Unfortunately it was damaged during the Revolution and the majority of the decoration and also of the load-bearing structure was replaced during the nineteenth-century restoration. So it’s impossible that it was in the conditions shown in the game.

We also had the chance to see the cathedral’s nave. It’s a slender space that gives the observer the impression of a great length and extension. The huge amount of details is impressive and really conveys an air of realism never achieved by the saga, just consider that the pavement is a full-scale reproduction.
The nave’s façade is divisible in three big sections and at the top there’s a covering divided in spans with a sexpartite vault.

Starting from the floor we can find the colonnade and the pointed arches that divide the main nave from the side ones. Immediately above it, it's possible to see the women’s gallery, typical of the ecclesiastical structures. It has (and it may be seen also in the game) some three-mullioned windows with an oculus at the top. Lastly, we reach the clerestory, the highest and most perforated part of the cathedral, designed to allow a greater amount of light to enter inside the structure. This section has high mullioned windows and rose windows.

Our tour of Notre Dame ends here. A cathedral that marked the eras and the history of France and captured the imagination of the men who walked in the shadows of this old lady. Ubisoft was able not only to re-create the walls, but maybe also to extrapolate a bit of the soul of this structure and show, in the adventures of Arno, a bit of the romanticism that it is able to emanate. What can I say? We’re looking forward to visiting and climbing it inside and out!

I leave you with a last anecdote: do you know that Notre Dame was built above a Roman temple consecrated to Jupiter? Think about it.

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