The Basilica

Art & Architecture

Cropped Minus Mc Cord Reference

Notre-Dame's neo-Gothic architecture and decor has undergone several phases and evolutions over the years. It was first decorated by James O'Donnell (1774-1830), then underwent an interior redecoration by Victor Bourgeau (1809-1888), which contrasted sharply with the church's sober exterior.

Old Decor

The initial phase of the decoration planned by the architect O'Donnell—very different from today’s—attracted much criticism. In fact, the wall behind the altar, which was very flat as dictated by English Gothic church tradition, had a large window that blinded worshippers by backlighting the ceremony.


The Fabrique, under the direction of pastor Benjamin-Victor Rousselot (1823-1889), then decided to redevelop the interior and hired popular Montréal architect Victor Bourgeau (1809-1888) for this project.


From 1870 to 1900, Rousselot and Bourgeau worked on a style and symbolism inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, especially through the use of colour, gold-leaf motifs on the vault ceiling, and details on the columns.


Six paintings from the old Notre-Dame were preserved and added to the current decor, as well as a Christ on the cross attributed to Paul Jourdain né Labrosse (1697-1769) hung on the east wall near the entrance. The high altar from the old church was placed in the side chapel dedicated to Saint Margaret of Youville.

Current Decor

At the request of Pastor Rousselot (1823-1889), the sanctuary’s decoration provides a “theological lesson” on the Eucharist. This sacrament commemorates Christ’s sacrifice and presence in Christians’ faith.


At the very bottom of the altarpiece there is a high relief of the Last Supper carved on wood. It is the institution of the Eucharist on the eve of Christ’s death.


The Crucifixion is in the centre of the altarpiece: Christ is shown dead on the cross, the Virgin and St John stand on either side of the cross, and Mary Magdalene is kneeling at his feet.


Around the Crucifixion you can see four Old Testament scenes heralding the sacrifice of the cross and of the Mass.


At the top left, Moses prays in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in which is kept a pot of manna; he legislated on rules of worship.


In the upper right, high priest Aaron immolates a lamb according to tradition.


In the bottom right, the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.


In the bottom left: Melchizedek’s bread and wine offering.


In the upper part of the altarpiece, the Virgin Mary (after whom Notre-Dame is named) is crowned by her son, Jesus Christ. His royal attributes signal his victory over death through his resurrection.


The composition draws the eye upwards towards the vaulted ceiling, indicating the path to heavenly happiness, with its angels and stars on an intense blue background.

Since the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), priests must celebrate Mass in front of people. In 1998, a new altar and a removable ambo were installed. They were inaugurated on Christmas that year. Sculptor Denis Duguay (born in 1951) drew inspiration from the architecture of the raised high altar behind the choir to design them. Reliquaries under the altar contain relics of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700), Saint Marguerite d'Youville (1701-1771) and Blessed Brother André (1845-1937) among others.


The pulpit is one of the Basilica’s treasures. In the past, the priest used to go up on it to pronounce his sermon. During the second interior decoration phase for the Basilica, architect Victor Bourgeau (1809-1888) adapted Henri Bouriché’s (1826-1906) original drawings, Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917), a renowned Quebec sculptor, made the ornamentation. The Pulpit of Truth was the very last work created under Bourgeau’s direction before he passed away in 1888. It represents the components of Christian faith.



At its base are the two Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah carved in basswood. Above at the level of the guardrail, there is a series of statuettes representing Jesus Christ, Saint Peter and Saint Paul among others. A dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, is depicted under the sounding board, accompanied by a shining triangle with the name of God in Hebrew written inside it.

Casavant Frères from Saint-Hyacinthe built the Basilica’s organ, which was finished in 1891. The instrument has undergone some restorations since then. On its 100th anniversary, its number of pipes was increased to 7,000; the largest measuring 9.75 metres (32 feet) and the smallest, 6.35 mm (¼ in.).



Since 2002, the organ has had 92 ranks arranged on four keyboards with a pedalboard. The current console dates back to 1962.

This glass chapel allows the faithful to pray in peace and to worship the Blessed Sacrament preserved in the tabernacle of the altar dedicated to the blessed Sulpicians martyred in the French Revolution. Next to it is the altar dedicated to Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, whose statue was sculpted by Elzéar Soucy (1876-1970) It is surrounded by Ozias Leduc’s (1864-1955) paintings.


To mark Notre-Dame’s centennial celebrations in 1929, pastor Olivier Maurault worked on constructing new stained glass windows in the Basilica, for which he had raised the necessary funds. He decided on the theme for the stained glass windows on the ground floor that recount life in the days of Ville-Marie. The west-side windows feature scenes from Montréal’s history, and the east-side windows show moments in famous parishioners’ religious lives. Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé (1868-1946) designed the cartoons. The stained glass was made in Francis Chigot’s (1879-1960) workshop in Limoges, France.


Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Cœur Chapel Decor

This chapel is striking because of all the natural light it lets in and its many decorations. The altarpiece designed by sculptor Charles Daudelin (1920-2001) is an imposing 20-tonne bronze piece measuring 52 feet high and 17 feet wide (15.85 x 5.18 metres). The French mechanical organ was built by the Guilbault-Thérien company from Saint-Hyacinthe. It has 1,648 pipes and its consoles has 25 ranks on two keyboards with a pedalboard.