Wherever you go in the Western world, the grandest building in town is usually the local church. I’ve seen lavish churches and cathedrals in France, Germany, Austria, Russia, even Mexico and Panama. But to me, the most impressive was the Basilica of Nôtre Dame, in Montreal.
The Basilica doesn’t have the kind of reputation attached to Paris’ famous Nôtre Dame Cathedral. So I wasn’t expecting much when I visited. But like everyone else who steps through the doors, I was struck silent by the beauty on display.
There, spread out before you in a graceful arc, is the great altarpiece, a stunning composition of blue and gold, lit to make it glow from within. And once the initial impression subsides, you begin to see the detail, which seems to go on forever. Surrounding the crucifixion scene are the Last Supper, scenes from the Old Testament, statues of the saints, and angels in flight. The whole piece seems to hold the church in a huge, sweeping embrace.
Built in the 1820s in the Gothic Revival style, the Basilica of Nôtre Dame has been Montreal’s main cathedral for generations. It dominates the Place d’Armes, the historic city square. And while the inspiration for the amazing artwork (added in the 1870s) was the chapel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the rest of the church is pure Quebec. The painted statues are carved from local pine, and instead of Biblical scenes, the stained glass windows down the sides depict moments from Montreal’s history.
The Basilica also boasts a giant pipe organ with a staggering 7,000 pipes, built by Quebec’s Casavant et Frères. And it’s the place where the province’s royalty receive their rites of passage. The funerals of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and hockey legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard were held here. And in 1994, Céline Dion married her late husband, René Angélil, in the rear chapel.
Travel is all about finding hidden treasures. And Montreal’s Basilica of Nôtre Dame certainly ranks as one of those. For sheer beauty alone, it’s well worth the trip. But it’s also a fascinating example of how a European tradition can be reinterpreted, and sometimes brought to new heights, in another part of the world. Like Quebec culture, it’s French, but with an accent all its own.
Hint: Click on the photo to see it full-size