The Mist, the Magic & the Medieval Message: Notre Dame’s Best Kept Secret

Every now and then certain types of weather lend themselves to contemplation of far-fetched ideas of the mystical realm. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m giving for why I was in front of Notre Dame Cathedral that morning, shielding my notes from misting rain as I scanned the Portal of the Last Judgement for a secret stone bird.

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A stone raven actually, one that according to legend reveals the location of a long-lost and powerful secret of the alchemists.

Going all the way back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, alchemy is a hybrid of chemistry and magic that at times lurked in the shadows of respectable science and at others ran parallel to it. One expert described it as “the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality…”

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The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus by Joseph Wright

Layman’s terms: melt and mix the right elements at precise temperatures and you’ll get a substance that 1) turns any metal into gold and 2) offers the bonus of you never dying. Ever. This magic concoction is known as the Philosopher’s Stone.

Enthusiasts of Harry Potter may recognize this idea: J.K. Rowling included the Philosopher’s Stone in the first installment and even used it in the title, though in the U.S. it was changed to the “Sorcerer’s Stone” in order to dumb things down and increase American sales.

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©Warner Bros
But don’t let the frivolity of adorable pre-teens in wizard caps obscure the fact that for some people alchemy was–and still is–a very real endeavor. You’ve heard of Isaac Newton. When not inventing calculus and the entire freaking field of modern physics, he was a die-hard student of alchemy and spent most of his adult life in search of its secret powers.
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© Oprea Nicolae

For centuries mad scientists and respectable men alike have sought to decipher alchemical messages encoded in plain sight, supposedly hidden in medieval structures and visible to only the most enlightened of observers. Which brings us (and brought me) in front of Notre Dame to scrutinize its ocean of intricate details. Because I figure I deserve immortality as much as the next dumb American.

Here are a few of the mysteries that were up for contemplation that morning under the mist:

1) There are a series of round medallions on either side of the central doorway which the church claims represent various vices of Christianity. But according to alchemy lore, they secretly illustrate each step of the Philosopher’s Stone recipe. Decipher the whole set and you can transform any metal into gold. Ka-ching.
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2) There’s also talk of an “Alchemist’s Raven” that adorns the facade, pointing to either the Stone’s current location or the next clue in the quest. Victor Hugo even mentions this raven in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wait–hold on! Did I just—oh false alarm…that’s clearly an eagle. Damn you, hooked beak!
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3) Let’s turn our attention to the doorway’s vertically decorated archways, or “archivolts” if you’re into sexy architectural vocab (which I totally am). A zoom-in reveals that one of the angels–a character easily overlooked amid a sea of sculpted details–is discreetly pointing her index finger across the Seine toward the Left Bank. This is no accident, according to the alchemists.

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4) And that’s not the only heavenly phalange we should be concerned with. Of the 12 apostles decorating the main entrance only one is pointing toward something. Pointing where, pray tell? Directly at the angel with the finger! If we were in a movie this is where the dramatic soundtrack would start to swell…

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Could these biblical effigies be in reality alchemical shepherds in disguise, collaborating to lead us toward vast riches and everlasting life? Are the conspiracy theorists right? Is the cathedral an 850 year-old message board, the beginning of an obscure path of esoteric enlightenment through the medieval streets of Paris?

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I came up a bit short of those answers. And I can’t promise that standing under the rain searching for them isn’t a huge waste of time. Having said that, I’m pretty sure if Newton were around he’d be looking into it. So maybe I’ll go back one of these days to take another crack at the alchemist’s riddle.

Before I go, there’s one last wrinkle to this story that spices things up a bit: I’ve since learned of another symbol that throughout time has represented the ability to transform metal into gold (one of the Philosopher’s Stone’s key properties). And not only is there one of them attached to the central portal, but it seems to be pointing curiously in the same direction as the fingers of the apostle and the angel. What’s the symbol?

Well first you have to prove yourself worthy of the quest, of course! Go back up to the beginning of this post: the answer is spelled out by the first letter of each of the first five paragraphs. The alchemists aren’t the only ones who can encode a message after all. :-)

Cue movie soundtrack crescendo…

24 comments

  • Reblogged this on Windows into History (Reblogs and News) and commented:
    Suggested reading – what a fascinating article! Absolutely loved reading this. It is important to keep in mind that sculpture is not all about the instructions of the patron. The most interesting aspects of sculpture are often little choices made by the sculptor, which can often betray different motives to the sculptor’s employer. Reblogged on Windows into History.

  • Hi I’m Shreya!
    Love the post. You have great content on your blog. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.
    I am relatively new to the blogging forum so please feel free to visit my blog and leave some feedback if you even find the time.
    Enjoy your summer.
    Smiles,
    Shreya xx

  • Fantastic article. Had my attention all the way through! Even had me decoding!!

  • BRAVO!! You’ve still got the magic touch, Corey — this post is pure gold! Gratuitous punning aside, thank you for this wonderful peek into some of the hidden symbolism in Notre Dame’s sculptures. I do look forward to your follow-up post, in which you announce that you’ve unlocked the secret and can now turn any material (compost! phalanges!!) into gold. I do hope you’ll remember me when you’re rich and immortal. :)

    PS: BRILLIANT touch with that “first letter of the first five paragraphs” clue.

    • Thanks Heather! You’re fantastically generous with your kind words, as usual. :-) I had a lot of fun writing this one so I’m glad you appreciated it. It feels nice to resurrect the blog again, although I’m reminded right away of just how darn time consuming it is! Hope you’re well. When will we see you Paris again?

      • You’re darn right it’s time-consuming! I’ve toyed with shutting off the comments, because it can be as time-consuming to read them and respond as it is to right. But then I always remember that my favorite part of this whole thing is interacting with readers and other bloggers. Hope you’re finding the same. As for a return to Paris: the fates are favoring sometime late this year. I’ll be in touch with deets. :-)

  • Corey – fantastic article that i will share on our FB page. If you have time July 9/10 perhaps we can grab a coffee [or wine] would be great to meet. Thanks

  • Thoroughly enjoyed this article, especially your eagle eye! Will be back in Paris in October and will go look at Notre Dame with fresh insights.

    • Eagle eye, nice one! I could’ve used that pun in title come to think of it. That’s great that you’re coming to Paris, how exciting! Thanks for commenting Wanda.

  • What a great read, and yes ! I got the answer, it has a hooked beak hehee! Really looking forward to your next post!

    • Thanks Andrea, glad you enjoyed it. So happy to have appreciative readers, it keeps me motivated to continue writing. Thanks for commenting I appreciate it.

  • Corey, you certainly know to captivate and entertain! I loved the whole post and found your hidden message. And now I want to go ogle the Cathedral again!

  • Reading the runes, or deciphering The Da Vinci Code, you’re right about ancient architecture and the subtle ways that hidden meanings were incorporated into the stonework. No such possibilities with the clinical cleanliness demanded of modern architecture.

    • True Maureen, modern buildings don’t seem to have the same mystique, do they? Maybe we need to wait a few hundred years for them to get interesting. :-) That’s for commenting and take care.

  • Love this! I love standing in front of Notre Dame and getting lost in wondering what could be interpreted by the sculptures. Wish I could do it more often!

    • Thanks Bean! Still, after five years as a resident, I’m always drawn to the cathedral. They just don’t build ’em like that anymore. Have a great day!

  • Very clever. Loved it! I have soooo many photos of Notre Dame. Sacre Coeur, too. And Chartres, (OK, not in Paris), and unfortunately, all on slides. As you know, Paris is simply paradise for anyone with a love of art and architecture, so this was a treat. Since you came from the U.S., did you know that one of the country’s, (maybe the world’s), largest cathedrals is actually in Newark NJ? Sacred Heart Cathedral, building started in 1899. Unfortunately, it’s not surrounded by Paris.
    I’ll be back – loving the tours. Jeanne

  • I came across a book in the early nineties that suggested that there was a message written in symbols in the wall of Norte dame , I lent the book out and never got it back . I don’t suppose you have ever come across it ? I am having trouble locating it

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