Paris Wanderlust: Hybrids at the Cusp of the Renaissance

As I explore Paris architecture, more or less chronologically, I’m most fascinated by the blending of styles as trends change. In a previous post, I explored how the transition from Romanesque to Gothic resulted in hybridized churches — a marriage of the Romanesque elephant, with its heavy columns, thick walls, and rounded windows, to the ostentatious Gothic lion, with its proud and radiant heights.

This blending occurs in the 20th and 21st centuries as well. An old mill is now a university campus. The Citroën car factory was converted, with innovative changes, into an office building. Haussmannian edifices have been transformed into avant-garde curveballs. And sometimes buildings seem to defy any reference to the past, such as the giant green snake that is the School of Fashion and Design.

These kinds of architectural transformations seem to be a trend in itself in Paris — to incorporate and harmonize.

Hybrids at the Cusp of the Renaissance

At the birth of the French Renaissance, Gothic features were incorporated into new trends. The Gothic “lion” married Renaissance reason, ornamentation, and of course Classical elements as the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered and embraced.

In this post, I’ll feature two such churches: Église St-Étienne-du-Mont and Église St-Eustache. In each case, the marriage is harmonious, but not without spirited dialogue.

Église St-Étienne-du-Mont

The church St-Étienne-du-Mont sits atop the Paris hill of Ste-Geneviève. During the 130 years of its construction, architectural style shifted from Flamboyant Gothic to Renaissance.

The facade of St-Étienne-du-Mont (1494-1624). The medieval Tour Clovis is to the right.

The facade, the last part of the church to be built, is one of the most significant examples of Renaissance architecture in Paris. Yet the facade also nods to the Gothic beginnings of the construction of the church. The facade engages a lively dialogue between Gothic and Renaissance.

As to the Gothic features, the sloping roof of the facade is punctuated by Gothic-type pinnacles.

The facade also displays two rose windows. The curvilinear tracery of the smaller rose window hearkens back to the Flamboyant Gothic parts of the church.

The larger rose window echoes Early Gothic, but its simplified geometrical tracery registers calm, not flamboyant.

The facade blends these older Gothic features with the new Renaissance extolling of Classical Greek and Roman architecture. The central part of the facade features four classical pediments, one above the other. Starting from top to bottom: pointed — curved — pointed — curved:

The architect of the facade of St-Étienne-du-Mont made a bold choice to stack the pediments one above the other, making them one of the most striking features of the façade.

The pointed pediment above the entrance is pure Renaissance-Classical. Its frieze illustrates not Apollo but the resurrected Jesus walking from his tomb, to the amazement of his disciples.

The side of the exterior also tells the story of the marriage of Gothic and Renaissance. Below, Gothic flying buttresses support the height of the apse as well as the aisles (giving the interior an extraordinary sense of expanded space). Rounded and rhythmic Renaissance windows are segmented by Flamboyant Gothic tracery.

The interior of St-Étienne-du-Mont also juxtaposes Gothic and Renaissance styles. Below is the high Gothic apse with vaulted ceiling and pointed Gothic windows (more soon about the carved spiral stairs, a one-of-a-kind structure in Paris):

View toward the altar: Gothic apse and Renaissance rood screen (jubé)

The stained glass windows along the aisles and nave are rounded in the new Renaissance style, but their surface is divided by Flamboyant Gothic tracery:

Renaissance “rood screen” (jubé)

In front of the apse is a beauty of a Renaissance-style “rood screen” in the form of double spiral staircases and between them, a loft with railing:

View toward the altar: Gothic apse and Renaissance rood screen (jubé)

On the railing, a crucifix (“rood”) is mounted.

Created in 1540, St-Étienne-du-Mont’s rood screen considered a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture and the only surviving example in Paris. The Renaissance penchant for ornamentation is on display in the carving of the stone in interlocking motifs that recall Celtic knot patterns.

The carved portal on either side of the rood screen is part of that structure.

Such screens in Catholic churches were associated with roods because the elevated loft was deemed an ideal place on which to display a crucifix. Why was the crucifix displayed on the rood screen? Why the rood screen in the first place? And why were so many rood screens removed from Catholic churches and destroyed?

Rood screens were added to churches starting in the 12th century. One of their primary functions was to create a separation between clergy and laity. Clergy performed certain rituals out of sight of the congregation. The congregation, in turn, meditated on the crucifix — not on the clergy performing their legerdemain high up on the rood screen, away from the scrutiny of ordinary people.

During the 16th century, the Reformation shone a spotlight on abuses of the Catholic clergy such as the selling of indulgences. The Reformation movement also criticized the idea that Christian doctrine must be filtered to the laity through the mediation of clergy, rather than directly engaged by each person. The rood screen physically enabled the shroud of secrecy and authority separating clergy from laity. And it symbolized the position of the Catholic Church as the only conduit from which ordinary folk could receive and interpret Scripture.

The back of the rood screen, with a view toward the north side of the church. Note in the background the long, straight gallery between the pillars, an unusual and harmonious feature.

During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church reasserted primacy over Protestant ideas. But the Church also conceded the necessity to address corrupt practices among the clergy, as well as to provide congregants with a more direct experience of rituals performed at the altar, rather than keeping them hidden behind a screen.

Thus were hundreds of rood screens across Christendom destroyed, starting in the 16th century. When the rood screen at St-Étienne-du-Mont fell out of use, the carved pulpit below featuring Samson was commissioned.

Keystone of the transept

The central keystone blends Gothic form and Renaissance attention to ornamentation:

Rose windows

A shrine of rocks for Ste-Geneviève

St-Étienne-du-Mont houses a shrine devoted to Ste Geneviève, one of the patron saints of Paris — she of 5th century Gaul who reputedly prevented Attila the Hun and his warriors from shrieking into Paris on horseback.

Her remains were preserved until 1793, when French Revolutionary partisans either burned them or tossed them into a sewer, depending on the account. Eventually, the prohibition on religion relaxed, and the Catholic Church retrieved whatever relics survived.

What do you place in a reliquary if not bones? In the case of Ste Geneviève, rocks, of course. Specifically, the slab on which her former casket had lay. Peering inside Geneviève’s gold filigree shrine, you can see a jumble of rocks that have been deemed sacred by their very proximity to the mortal remains of the legendary saviour of Paris.

Genevieve’s casket of sacred rocks is the strangest shrine I’ve ever seen. It’s so Catholic yet also somewhat pagan, as if the saintly flesh-and-blood Geneviève has metamorphosed into holy stone to be venerated.

Below, a little house with a glass vial reputed to contain actual bodily remains of Geneviève. Did I mention that I have a weakness for reliquaries?

On the completion of the next-door Pantheon (originally destined to serve as a church dedicated to Ste Geneviève), her shrine was to be moved and housed there. However, the construction of that church overlapped with the French Revolution. In 1791, the Revolutionary decision-making body of the National Constituent Assembly voted to retrofit the church into a mausoleum for the more secular bones of writers, scientists, and statesmen.

The Lazarus of stained glass

In a chapel at the back of the church is a secluded gallery of late 16th– and early 17th-century stained glass windows that had been shattered during the French Revolution and restored in 1834. Below are a few details from these colour-saturated windows. Rather than entangling myself in Catholic iconography, I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

Église St-Eustache

Historically, St-Eustache has enjoyed a close relationship to the ancient food market of Les Halles, which faced its south side — especially to the charcutiers (pork butchers). The church also has a strong reputation for offering classical music concerts (assisted by its excellent acoustics). And St-Eustache has positioned itself as a patron of contemporary artists by displaying their works inside and outside the church.

The architectural styles of St-Eustache are just as varied. Like St-Étienne-du-Mont, it harmoniously blends Late Gothic and Renaissance. In addition, its facade surprises with an anomalous (and not stylistically blended) Classical facade.

Gothic flying buttresses & Renaissance windows

Below, the spectacular south side with transept projects its Gothic-inspired flying buttresses in full florid display, like a bird performing a mating dance.

Église St-Eustache (1532-1640), south transept

The rounded windows, however, echo the Italian Renaissance and provide a calm counterpoint to the drama of the buttresses.

At the entrance, a sedate Neo-Classical surprise

The unpretentious Neo-Classical west facade, with its Doric and Ionic columns and central pediment, contrasts with the grand drama of the south facade. Added later, in the mid-18th century, it remains unfinished — note the truncated right bell tower.

West facade of St-Eustache, designed by Mansart and Moreau-Desproux

Interior: a harmonious marriage of Gothic & Renaissance

The interior of Église St-Eustache harmoniously blends of Gothic (vaulted heights) and Renaissance (ornamentation and rounded windows). The Renaissance style was gaining traction mid-construction and influenced the interior decoration.

Chapelle de la Vierge:

Stained glass panel and rose window:

A church dedicated to music

Last year, I heard a moving performance of Fauré’s Requiem in St-Eustache. I was wondering whether the sound would be muddled in such a large space. However, its reputation for outstanding acoustics is well deserved.

Below, Ste Cecile, patron saint of music, is rendered in her death posture using grisaille (a trompe l’oeil technique resembling sculpture).

A church that embraces contemporary art

The Life of Christ, a bronze triptych by Keith Haring
A painting by John Armleder in the Chapel of Butchers
L’Écoute (Listening) by Henri de Miller, south entrance to St-Eustache,Les Halles (2e)

The pork butchers of St-Eustache

St-Eustache’s proximity to the marketplace of Les Halles fostered a close relationship with the vendors, especially the pork butchers. Through their professional association, these charcutiers financially supported St-Eustache, which in turn dedicated the Chapel of Butchers to them.

The stained glass windows in that chapel represent all things pork. Below, sausages and a curly-tailed pig:

Pork butcher practicing his trade in a slaughterhouse:

Presentation of a pork masterpiece on a platter to patrons, eagerly observed by the obligatory dog:

“La présentation du chef d’œuvre,” Chapelle des Charcutiers

Let’s get a close-up of that pork masterpiece . . .

Below: Departure of fruits and vegetables from the heart of Paris on February 28, 1969. Raymond Mason’s chapel installation commemorates the last day that food vendors gathered at the ancient market. Soon afterward, in 1971, Victor Baltard’s elegant pavilions were destroyed and replaced by a shopping mall.

A cul-de-lampe for Église St-Eustache

The sundial on the south facade:

Next: Baroque Twins in the Marais

Camille Martin

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