Notre-Dame Basilica

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on April 22, 2006

The grandest building in Vieux-Montréal, if not the entire city, is the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal, an amazing structure constructed in just five years between 1824 and 1829. For the next few decades, this was the largest religious building in North America, until it was surpassed by New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Compared to some of the mega-churches that exist in the larger American cities today, the Basilica may not seem all that large by modern standards. But in the third decade of the 19th Century, the Basilica was an incredible symbol of French Catholicism in a city that was becoming increasingly more Anglophone and Protestant.

While the exterior of the Gothic-Revival Basilica is impressive, it’s really rather average. The structure’s interior is where the real beauty is found. Walking into the dimly lit Basilica, visitors’ eyes are immediately drawn to the stunning carvings, gilded columns, and the enormous altar, all dramatically bathed in theatrical lighting that highlights the sanctuary’s deep hues of cobalt blue, green, red, and gold. This striking interior is the work of architect Victor Bourgeau, who transformed the originally stern interior into the current design between 1874 and 1880. Inspired by Paris’s Ste-Chapelle, Bourgeau designed an interior creates the illusion of a night sky, with a deep blue vaulted ceiling adorned with hundreds, if not thousands, of hand-painted gilded stars. This "sky" is broken by three large rose windows in the ceiling, through which natural light is filtered through multi-colored panes of glass into the sanctuary. Surrounding the sanctuary are a series of wood columns, carved by hand, and adorned with gilt tops, that support the two balconies that run the sanctuary’s full length. About halfway between the narthex and the altar is the graceful circular pulpit, reached by a spiral staircase. At the staircase’s base, several carvings of prophets can be found. Turning around, toward the narthex, visitors will see some of the approximately 7,000 pipes that comprise the Basilica’s four manual, 97 stop Casavant-Frères organ, parts of which date to 1891.

As beautiful as the rest of the sanctuary is, the real highlight is the massive altar. Centered around the crucifix are nearly life-size sculptures of Biblical figures, including Moses, Abraham, Aaron, St. Peter, St. Paul, and Mary. All of these are centered around the theme of the Eucharist, with angels surrounding them. All of this is dramatically lit from behind, and cast against a wall of deep cobalt blue, giving the altar an almost heavenly glow. It’s almost impossible to take it all in at once, because there is so much detail to the scene.

There is a nominal admission charge to enter the Basilica, but it is well worth the small donation to witness this incredible place in person. No matter what your faith or personal beliefs are, it is almost impossible not to feel the presence of something greater than mankind here.

For more information on tours and services, see the Basilica’s website.
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
110 Notre-dame Street West
Montreal, Quebec, H2Y 1T1
(514) 842-2925

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