Blue door

Historical Portals in the City of Lights

When I was first learning French in high school, I was enthralled by Paris. Not only did I love the language, but the cuisine, the culture, the history, and of course the art seemed as though they were all part of this mystical world I wanted to get to know—and that Paris embodied. But it wasn’t until I went on a study abroad to the City of Lights last spring that I was truly able to see and experience the history that’s embedded in every part of the city.

As I walked through the cathedrals, streets, hotels, and doors, I was able to see almost the whole history of Paris. Roman antiquity left its gladiator arena in the 5th arrondissement, while the Middle Age dotted the city with churches and gothic cathedrals. Then, amid the industrial revolution, the city’s architecture exploded with the Haussmann architectural style. While there are many examples of this transition, my attention was immediately drawn to the doors on the buildings. I came into Paris with adequate knowledge of how much history was there, but I was slightly intimidated about how to learn from it all. I was surrounded with an abundance of architectural history and had absolutely no idea how to dissect it. So I chose the first thing I encountered, which were the entrances to the buildings I visited. Doors are often symbolic of a transition from one place to another, thus signifying a transformation that can be physical, intellectual, or spiritual. For me, the focus on doors brought a unique intellectual transformation in that they were my entry into the history that I was standing in. With their intricate molding and varied decoration, I realized that the doors themselves tell a unique history of Paris.

l’Hôtel de Sens
Cluny Museum

While this can’t necessarily be classified as a door, “le Cloître des Billettes” is a classic example of medieval architecture. As is common in gothic architecture, the pointed arches seen in these images served to guide the eye upwards as a symbol that all knowledge comes from God. The most infamous example of this (although currently inaccessible due to the fire in April 2019) is the entrance to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The tympanum, which can be found in most gothic cathedrals, served as a reminder to visitors of the prophesied last judgement, and would have been recognizable to anyone that entered through the door.

le Cloître des Billettes, courtesy of
Entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral, courtesy of
Chartres Cathedral

The Gothic style then transforms to the Renaissance style, which marks the transition between the Middle Ages and the Modern era. With the style reintegrating more classical ideals, we start to see columns and rounded arches that appear not only in the doorways to churches and cathedrals, but in secular buildings as well. Many of the doors leading into government buildings today reflect this style and appeal to classical ideals such as power and authority, both of which are necessary for a functioning government body.

Saint-Sulpice Church
Institute of France

Under Louis XIV, the style gives way to the French Baroque with ornate and ostentatious decoration, as seen in the Palace of Versailles. This style was meant to emphasize the power of the king and persuade court members to stay in reach of his influence.

Palace of Versailles
Palace of Versailles

After the French Revolution ended, there was a societal awakening to the importance of architecture. Not only had the population drastically increased, but the industrial revolution introduced new ways of transportation that crowded the streets of an architecturally unprepared Paris, rendering certain parts of the city inaccessible. Georges-Eugene Haussmann was named prefect of Seine by Napoleon III, who commissioned him to address this problem. You might be familiar with the Haussmann style buildings that have become a recognizable symbol of Paris, but the majority of the doors that can be seen now are also from this period of reconstruction. While they can be arched or squared, they are often double doors that mark the entry to a courtyard, which allow Parisians to keep their privacy. Although there were many conflicting opinions about Haussmann’s renovations, I think his lasting mark on the city is evidence of a necessary period of reconstruction that allowed Paris to evolve into the Paris of modernity.

Rue du Cherche-Midi
Chausée de la Muette
Avenue Henri Martin

Just as Haussmann completely transformed the architecture of Paris into what we know as the City of Lights today, my knowledge of the rich history was completely transformed simply because I put effort into noticing something small that I liked. I’ve benefited numerous times from a more specific, and even out-of-the-box (or through-the-door, in this case) approach to a variety of humanities topics. I believe that it’s possible for everyone to find a way to connect to the humanities as long as we keep an open mind and want to connect with the things that we enjoy. That is to say, we need to find what figurative humanities door inspires us and walk through it, and then find another door and do it again. In this specific case, all it took for me was observing the beautiful doors everywhere and a desire to know why they were so different. That led me on a transformative journey through doors that were both physical and academic, to discover the rich architectural history that was right in front of me.

Boulevard Haussmann

This post was written by Lynette Martin, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.


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1 Comment

  1. Garrett May says:

    I love this idea of using an emphasized focus on doors as your entry point into the architectural history of Paris. I’d agree that sometimes the things we take as most commonplace can be the richest of subjects for serious thought.

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