How old are the bells of Notre Dame?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | May 3, 2019

Only one bell remains that Quasimodo might have known

Remember Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo swinging the great bells of Notre Dame?

The “Gabriel,” one of nine new bells made for Notre Dame in 2012, is lifted from a truck in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral Jan. 31, 2013. The nine new bells in the cathedral’s towers rang for the first time on March 23, 2013, which was Palm Sunday. (CNS photo | Charles Platiau, Reuters)

Many feared that, like the deaf fictional bell ringer, none of us would ever hear the bells of Notre Dame again. The devastating fire on April 15 seemed near to silencing the music of the 10 bells in the 856-year-old cathedral forever.

However, those bells were spared and will ring again, though it is not known when.

While the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris dates to the 12th century, the bells in its iconic bell towers are not very old at all. The exception is the largest bell, located in the south tower.  This “Emmanuel” bell dates to the 15th century. In 1681, King Louis XIV ordered the bell recast – making it one of the most perfect sounding bells in all Europe. At the time, the king named the bell “Emmanuel” (God is with us).

Biggest bell

The Emmanuel bell is the only one of the cathedral’s original bells to survive the French Revolution. Perhaps the bell survived because it weighs more than 13 tons.

Revolutionists melted the other nine bells down in 1791. Their bronze — church bells are usually made of bronze — became cannon balls.

While the Emmanuel bell was removed during the Revolution, it remained intact and Napoleon ordered it returned to the south tower in 1802. In 1856, Napoleon III ordered four new bells cast to put in the north tower. However, these four bells were not well-tuned. Still, they rang the hours of the day and the Angelus until 2012.

The great Emmanuel bell has only been rung on special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, and at great events such as the end of World Wars I and II. It tolled after Sept. 11, 2001. When St. John Paul II died in 2005, it rang 84 times, once for each year of the pope’s life.

‘Dreadful bells’

While the Emmanuel bell is considered a jewel of sound, the other bells were not. “This is one of the most dreadful sets of bells in France,” Hervé Gouriou of the University of Paris told The New York Times in 2011.

This is why, in 2012, they were removed and nine new bells were cast for the 2013 850th anniversary of the Paris cathedral. The new bells were hung in place and rung for the first time on Palm Sunday 2013.

The great Emmanuel bell in the south tower was joined then by what is now the cathedral’s second largest bell: the “Marie.” It weighs 6.5 tons and bears the same name as its 14th century predecessor, which had also been the cathedral’s second-largest bell before it was melted down.

The new bells were forged in Holland.

As usually happens with church bells, each bell of Notre Dame was blessed before being put into service. Bells are also named and that name is engraved on the bell’s side along with the year it was blessed.

‘Baptism of bells’

This blessing has sometimes, incorrectly, been called “the baptism of bells.” It is true, however, that blessed bells become sacramentals of the church.

The blessing of bells with oil, water and prayers dates back to the first millennium of the church. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the ritual of blessing church bells was in place by the beginning of what became the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, who was crowned in the year 800.

Bells usually received the names of saints and this was the case with the new Notre Dame bells. They are also engraved with the words to the Angelus prayer – each bell carrying one of eight verses in the prayer. (The Marie bell is engraved with the words: “Je vous salue Marie,” which is “Hail Mary” in French.

The eight bells in the North Tower are:

  • Gabriel: On this bell, named for the archangel of the Annunciation, are the first words of the Angelus: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.” It is the largest of the bells in the North Tower.
  • Anne Genevieve: This bell’s name honors both St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, and St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. It reads: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
  • Denis: Named in honor of St Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who died a martyr in the third century. This bell bears the third phrase of the Angelus: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
  • Marcel: St. Marcel, the ninth bishop of Paris, lived in the fifth century. This bell is engraved: “Be it done unto me according to your word.”
  • Étienne: This bell recalls the fourth century cathedral of St. Stephen that preceded the construction of Notre Dame and stood near the site of the present cathedral. St. Stephen, (Étienne, in French), was the first martyr. On this bell is the fifth sentence of the Angelus, “And the Word was made flesh.”
  • Benoit-Joseph: This bell is named for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) both because he was pope at the time of the blessing of the bells and because 2013 was the Jubilee Year of Faith decreed by Benedict XVI. This bell’s inscription is the sixth sentence of the Angelus: “And dwelt among us.”
  • Maurice: Maurice de Sully was the bishop of Paris in 1163, when the cornerstone of Notre Dame was laid. St. Maurice, a third century martyr, has no direct links to Paris. However, he is the patron of Savoy France. This bell reads: “Pray for us, Holy Mother of God.”
  • Jean-Marie: The 10th and smallest bell of the cathedral’s towers weighs 1,724 pounds. It honors Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was the archbishop of Paris from 1981 until 2005. It is engraved with the end of the Angelus prayer: “That we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

While we do not yet know when the bells of Notre Dame will ring again, this YouTube video reveals what they sounded like before the fire:


Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia;; Dictionary of the Liturgy; Sanctus Bells, History and Use in the Catholic Church;;;; The New York Times (10/18/11) and (4/16/19); and USA Today (2/2/13)

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