Paris Wanderlust: Neoclassical Columns & Columns & . . .

Neoclassical Columns & Columns & . . .

I admit to having a bias against Neoclassical architecture. During my 50 years in the United States, I’ve seen too many banks that try to look like the Greek Parthenon on the outside and the Roman Pantheon on the inside, some including — with religious solemnity — grandiose murals of allegorical figures extolling the virtues of Industry and Prudence. That’s one kind of appropriation of antiquity. At least two of Paris’ palaces of finance are in Neoclassical style: La Bourse and La Monnaie de Paris. The spirit sometimes infects 19th-century caryatids in Paris, as in Industry and Commerce below:

Passage du Bourg l’Abbé (2e)

Another kind of appropriation is the romanticized Neoclassical imaginary of a lost Arcadian past, envisioned as a temple in a pastoral landscape: in other words, the gazebo. The classic example in Paris is the Temple de la Sybil in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont:


Such clichés aside, in Paris I saw a rich and varied Neoclassicism in architecture, sometimes associated with important historical events. The French Revolution in particular profoundly influenced the evolution of two churches that I’ll ponder below: the Panthéon and La Madeleine. These structures toggled between religious and secular functions — and in the latter instance, monument to the megalomanic Napoléon Bonaparte.

Église St-Sulplice

The façade of Église St-Sulplice reveals the cosmopolitan nature of Neoclassicism: it’s modeled on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Below is the façade of St-Sulpice, the last part of the church to be constructed:

Église St-Sulplice (1646-1732); to the left is Fontaine St-Sulpice (6e)

The nave and choir, however, were built during the heyday of the baroque. St-Sulpice is one of those “cusp” churches whose construction spanned about a century and whose style evolved over time — from baroque to Neoclassical.

St-Sulplice appears strikingly different from any other church in Paris. Its two tall towers and between them, the two-level classical colonnade are unique among Paris churches, owing to the influence of the British Baroque.

Mismatched towers

The towers were originally styled as baroque by the facade’s architect, Servandoni. After he died, his student decided that they should be styled as classical, in keeping with the rest of the façade. In 1780, he transformed one baroque tower to classical, and then the French Revolution froze construction for religious buildings. The south tower was never remodeled to match the classical one and remains baroque. The inconsistency rather suits the façade.

Missing pediment

View of St-Sulpice from Tour Montparnasse

The original facade included a pediment, which rested above the columns and between the towers. The pediment was later removed, and today, there’s something a bit odd about the façade. It’s not so much the mismatched towers, which are more a testament to the facade’s unfinished state. It’s the disquieting negative space between the towers: a broad lacuna, a nothingness.

Restoration of three faded Delacroix murals

St-Sulpice commissioned three murals from Delacroix, which he executed in 1861 in the Chapel of the Holy Angels. All three murals feature angels — not the gentle angel of the Annunciation, but angels in dramatic interactions of struggle or chastisement.

I saw these murals in 2017, before their restoration, and in 2019, when work was completed. The first two images below, from Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, show the transformation from dull to vivid:

To give an idea of scale, each of the two large murals is about 23 feet high.

I’m drawn to Delacroix’s rendition of the pile of clothes that Jacob has thrown off, the better to struggle with the angel:

Below, an equestrian angel drives the greedy Heliodorus from the temple because he was stealing from the widows and orphans fund.

Detail, Heliodorus Driven from the Temple

On the ceiling of the chapel, Delacroix painted St Michael Vanquishing the Demon:

Nuit Blanche at St-Sulpice

Nuit Blanche is a huge deal in Paris. I headed for the Grand Palais for a special exhibition, but seeing the extremely long line, I turned back. On my way home, I caught this respectable display at St-Sulpice:

School of Surgery

As surgery came into its own as a science during the French Enlightenment, Louis XV helped establish an academy to further the study of anatomy and surgery. Architect Gondouin drew up plans for a Neoclassical building, which was constructed expressly for its function.

The former École de Chirurgie (1769-1774). Currently it houses the Musée d’histoire de la médecine, 12 Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine.

The innovative plans for the academy included a hemispherical amphitheatre for surgery instruction. The façade is encoded with the plans for the academy’s construction: a bas-relief shows a muse presenting a scroll of the school’s layout to a figure who points to the amphitheatre:

Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe

Neoclassical, in a boxy kind of way:

Architects: Marie-Joseph Peyre and Charles de Wailly; built 1782

Le Panthéon

The Panthéon of Paris started as a church dedicated to Ste Geneviève. It was the most ambitious Neoclassical edifice to date, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

Architect: Soufflot, Le Panthéon de Paris (5e)

The Panthéon was begun in 1758, during the reign of Louis XV. Its completion in 1790 coincided with the French Revolution, whose extreme cultural shift saw the pillaging and repurposing of French churches. Mobs smashed statues and other religious icons and retrofitted religious buildings to serve the new Revolutionary ideals. Leaders saw an opportunity to appropriate the monumental edifice of the Panthéon for a more secular purpose: honouring writers, poets, scientists, artists, philosophers, statesmen, and other notable persons in French history — except kings, queens, cardinals and saints.

The secularization — or more accurately dechristianization — of French churches has always seemed to me like a fantastical thought experiment: bastions of Christianity seemingly turning on a dime to become Temples of Reason. Sometimes, however, religious icons were traded out for new ones. In a syncretistic bow to the cult of Mariolotry, a sculpture of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty (Marianne to the French), was sometimes placed at the altar. This was the case with the Panthéon:

More about this “altar” below.

Since the inception of the Panthéon as a Catholic church and its dechristianization during the French Revolution, the forces of religion, royalty, and republic caused the edifice to alternate between church and secular mausoleum. During the 1870s, the Third Republic conclusively determined the Panthéon’s secular function of celebrating the exceptional contributions of French persons to la patrie.

Below, the pediment in its present secular form: the Motherland (Marianne?) distributes wreathed crowns to civic, military, and artistic greats; below, the emblem: “To great men, from the grateful nation.”

The interior of the Panthéon blends classical forms with Gothic heights:

The domes lead to the apse:

In a Catholic church, the apse shelters the altar, but in the Panthéon, the apse is home to an odd combination of Byzantine mosaic and Revolutionary sculpture:

Academic painter Auguste Hébert created the Byzantine Revival mosaic at the apse in 1884: Christ Showing the Angel of France the Destiny of Her People. From left to right: Jeanne d’Arc, Mary, Jesus, the Angel of France (sword at the ready), and Geneviève holding a ship, the blason of Paris.

The mosaic with its doe-eyed women offers a peculiar 19th-century update of Byzantine style: Mary looks a bit like a Victorian porcelain doll.

Perhaps the Panthéon’s Christian iconography — including many of the paintings and the crucifix atop the exterior dome — was a compromise on the part of secular forces.

Below the mosaic: a 1921 academic sculpture by François-Léon Sicard. Members of the Revolutionary National Convention lean toward Marianne, arms outstretched in an attitude of veneration (is that Robbespierre bringing up the rear?), while soldiers emerge from behind her.

The two works — mosaic and sculpture — are radically different yet formally in sync. Both follow a centered arch or pyramid form. Each enacts an apotheosis: on the one hand, of Christian teleology, and on the other, of Revolution. Both display veneration, backed up by an armed female angel/saint. Where else would they all find a home together but the altar of a sacred-secular temple?

Most of the sculptures of the Panthéon are secular monuments. The one dedicated to Diderot is entitled The Encyclopedia Prepares the Idea of ​​the Revolution:

The sculpture follows the conventional academic syntax of allegory and the form of a pyramid, both suggesting apotheosis.

For his part, Diderot resists any article of faith:

If reason is a gift from heaven, and the same thing can be said of faith, then heaven has given us two incompatible and contradictory presents.

Thus speaks Diderot of the Radical Enlightenment, who rejects the marriage of faith and reason.

But the sculpture The Encyclopedia Prepares the Idea of ​​the Revolution glorifies not so much Diderot the philosopher as Diderot the encyclopedist — perhaps deemed to be the safer choice. But Diderot the encyclopedist nonetheless writes for his entry on “irreligious”:

Immorality and irreligion should not be confused. Morality can exist without religion and religion can exist and even often does exist alongside immorality.

The bones of Diderot the unvarnished freethinker have over the centuries steadfastly been denied formal entry into the mausoleum of the Panthéon — perhaps that has changed recently?

Allegorical figure of Truth with a mirror

The Foucault Pendulum

The little scientist in me feels a frisson seeing proof of a principle as fundamental as the rotation of the earth. Foucault’s ingenious 1851 demonstration could hardly have found a better home than the Gothic heights of the former church.

Foucault’s scientific pendulum swings from a rod installed in the oculus of a dome:

I wanted to experience for myself the timepiece whose giant gear is the earth. Below, the pendulum lines up a quarter of the way between 14 and 15:

The frisson:

The Crypt

A plethora of great men (and a sprinkling of great women) are interred in the labyrinthine crypt below the Panthéon:

Église de la Madeleine

The Panthéon started as a church and ended as a secular mausoleum. La Madeleine took the opposite path. After a couple of false starts as a church, La Madeleine was built as a monument glorifying Napoleon’s military prowess and ended up a church.

Construction of La Madeleine the church began before the French Revolution but it wasn’t until the reign of Napoleon I that it gained traction in 1807. Napoleon practically started his Temple de la Gloire de la Grande Armée from scratch along his own vision: a Neoclassical monument modeled on a Roman temple.

Below: a view from La Madeleine toward the Assemblée Nationale, whose strict Neoclassical style was added to mirror that of the church. From the Place de la Concorde, the Luxor Obelisk juts out between the two edifices.

Construction of La Madeleine wasn’t completed until after the fall of Napoleon I. The structure was ultimately consecrated as a church during the Restoration of the monarchy.

A view of the three domes in the nave leading the eye toward the apse:

Napoleon upstages Jesus and Mary Magdalene

The 1837 fresco in the apse of La Madeleine represents the history of Christianity with much pomp. The circular sweep of figures and fluffy clouds is littered with gold crowns worn by clergy and monarchs alike.

Jules-Claude Ziegler; apse of La Madeleine (painted in 1837)

Napoleon, wearing his bright red coronation robe and gold laurel leaf crown, sits front and center as if viewing an historical play. He upstages the central drama of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and even turns his head away from them. Napoleon is the center of attention in his own drama of the Concordat. He seems to be negotiating, from a position of power, the agreement to restore the institution of the Catholic Church after the French Revolution crushed it.

Meanwhile, the menacing black eagle with sharp beak upstages them all by turning away from the entire spectacle and gazing intently at a vulnerable male nude reclining on a cloud.

Mozart’s Requiem

The day that I visited La Madeleine, I happened upon a rehearsal of Mozart’s Requiem.

That work is part of the history of La Madeleine. Chopin, whose funeral was held in that church, had requested a performance of Mozart’s mass for the dead. La Madeleine was thrown for a loop: how to handle Mozart’s female vocal parts in a church that had never allowed them in the choir? A compromise was reached: the women sang behind a curtain. I suppose the church considered female voices like the interval of the tritone in Gregorian chant: the devil in music.

Entrance doors: The Ten Commandments and The Last Judgment

One of many bronze bas-reliefs on the entrance doors, on the theme of the Ten Commandments:

The pediment at the entrance, depicting the Last Judgment:

Next: Mansions of the “Tax Farmers”

Camille Martin

3 responses to “Paris Wanderlust: Neoclassical Columns & Columns & . . .

  1. Pingback: Paris Wanderlust: Baroque Twins in the Marais | Rogue Embryo

  2. Brilliant post. Thank you.


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