Tag Archives: Neo-Classical architecture

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

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