The Jewel of Montreal: the Blue Hued Notre Dame Basilica
Updated: Jan 9
The Notre Dame Basilica is Montreal's most famous landmark and a must see site in Montreal for culture vultures. Built in the Gothic Revival style, its azure blue interior is a revelation. You feel like you're admiring a rather gaudy classical painting, not standing inside a church.
Built between 1824-29 by James O'Donnell, the basilica was constructed on the site of a former church. Despite its name -- Notre Dame -- it wasn't inspired by the Parisian cathedral. In fact, it was inspired by another favorite Paris site and Gothic gem, Sainte-Chapelle.
Like Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame boasts intricately painted columns, gold leaf, and carved wood. There's no stone or marble. With its double level galleries supported by Ionic columns, the basilica looks more like a theater than a church.
The story goes that architect James O'Donnell was so moved by his dramatic creation that he, rather dramatically in response, converted to Catholicism. O'Donnell is the only person buried in the basilica's crypt.
Outside, Notre Dame's two towers define Montreal, much like the Eiffel Tower does Paris. The western tower, dubbed La Perseverance, was completed in 1841. It houses a massive bell nicknamed Jean-Baptiste, which weights nearly 11 tons. The eastern tower, dubbed La Temperance, was completed in 1843.
But the outside is nothing special, compared to other Notre Dames in France. It's the inside that's unique and dazzling.
Because Notre Dame is dedicated to Our Lady, Mary, it's a florid blue inside. Yes, that's Mary's flagship color, not just the whimsy of the artists. Blue is meant to reflect calm and tranquility. To heighten the drama, the azure ceiling is studded with tens of thousands of 24 karat gold stars.
The basilica can seat 4,000 people. Its eye catching altarpiece is a showstopper, depicting the sacrificial element of the Eucharist. In the center is the Crucifixion, with Christ depicted edad on the cross. The Virgin Mary and Saint John flank Christ. Mary Magdalene is kneeling at his feet.
Under the altar, is The Last Supper, based on Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece. Above the altar is the coronation of Mary.
The pulpit is also a marvelous work of art itself. It was designed by Louis-Phillipe Hebert during the basilica's renovations in the 1870s. It has an intricately carved wooden staircase. Crouching at its base are the fierce looking statues of Ezekial and Jeremiah.
At the opposite end from the altar is a massive Casavant pipe organ. Constructed in 1891, it has over 7,000 individual pipes and is the largest in Canada.
In 1929, during the centennial celebration, Notre Dame received new stained glass windows. The windows were designed by Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé and made at Francis Chigot's workshop in Limoges France. They tell the story of the history and founding of Montreal.
Behind the altar lies the Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Sacre-Coeur, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Chapel. This is where dozens of brides get married each year. The most famous bride was Celine Dion, who helped put the church not the map. Unfortunately, when I was there, I could only peak through the glass door at the chapel because the skylights were being restored.
In 1978, a fire set by an arsonist almost completely destroyed the chapel. In 1979-82, it was rebuilt in a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Its most eye-catching element is the colossal modern floor-to-ceiling bronze altarpiece by Montreal sculptor Charles Daudelin.
At night, you can return to watch the spectacular sound and light multimedia spectacle called "Aura." With 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm showings, Aura highlights the basilica's features and brings it to life.
It's rather dark inside the basilica during a day visit, with the lights very dim. The light show allows you to see Notre Dame's exquisite details. Though I will concede it's rather expensive show at $26.50 Canadian dollars.
If you're visiting Montreal, don't hesitate to go inside this gem of a basilica. Notre Dame Basilica is a joyous must see site in Montreal. It's likely like nothing you've ever seen before!
Practical Information for Visiting Notre Dame Basilica:
Address: 110 Notre-Dame St. W, Montreal
Hours: Monday to Friday : 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, Sunday:12:30 pm to 4:00 pm. On Saturdays, the last admission is at 1:45 pm due to weddings.
Entry fee: $8
Metro: Take the Orange line to Place-d’Armes Station. Exit on Saint-Urbain Street and walk uphill toward Place D’Armes.
Mass times: Mon-Fri at 7:15 am and 12:15 pm, Sat at 5:00pm. and Sunday at 8:00 am, 9:30 am, 11:00 am, and 5:00 pm.
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