Tag Archives: Paris

Paris Wanderlust: Gothic Meets 19th Century — Notre Dame

Gothic Meets 19th Century

The Early Gothic churches of this post and the next — Notre Dame and Église St-Germain-l’Auxerrois — collided with 19th-century renovations, with arguable results.

Notre Dame: Gothic Matriarch & Time Capsule

Notre Dame, fall 2017

Notre Dame is celebrated as a spectacular example of early French Gothic cathedral, constructed 1160-1260. And like all surviving medieval churches in Paris, Notre Dame has not come down to us in its original incarnation, but was modified over the centuries.

Time Capsule of Notre Dame

Notre Dame and its site are a time capsule, from Gallo-Roman temple ruins excavated below the cathedral, to the cathedral itself during the 12th and 13th centuries, to its de-christianization during the French Revolution, to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century restorations, to the 2019 fire and ongoing restorations. What does it mean that the vicissitudes of history are traceable (or not) in Notre Dame?

The fire provoked a major debate about what Notre Dame should look like in the future. But what does its appearance before the fire tell us?

Wounded by wind, wrecked by revolution

Natural forces took their toll. On the eve of the French Revolution, the aging cathedral had fallen into disrepair, and wind damage necessitated removing the spire.

A few years later, the French Revolution was in full swing. Sans culottes, decrying the power and abuses of the First Estate, desecrated and ransacked religious buildings, including Notre Dame. They smashed statues and other religious icons, but they were equally enraged by symbols of the aristocracy that had traditionally bolstered the power of the Catholic Church. Rioters at Notre Dame pulled down and beheaded the statues of the Kings of Judah along the Gallery of Kings, mistaking them for French kings.

Revolutionaries appropriated religious buildings as public property and repurposed them for secular functions. Notre Dame was transformed into a Temple of Reason and a year later, a Temple of the Supreme Being.

Notre Dame, limping into the 19th century, was returned to its ecclesiastical function during the reign of Napoleon I. Later in the century, the cathedral narrowly escaped demolition before officials decided that it was worth salvaging and set about finding a suitable candidate for the restoration job.

Enter Viollet-le-Duc

Viollet-le-Duc was a top contender. He had restored many crumbling churches and chateaux across France, famously (or infamously) taking ahistorical liberties. His restoration of the fort at the ancient Gallo-Roman and medieval town of Carcassonne (in the South of France) was especially criticized. He used slate tiles rather than native terracotta ones, and he topped the towers along the ramparts with conical roofs.

Carcassonne, in the South of France

These architectural materials and forms were more characteristic of castles in the North of France, such as those in the Loire Valley. When I was in Carcassonne, I heard visitors derisively comparing Viollet-le-Duc’s turrets to those of a Disney castle.

In Viollet-le-Duc’s defense, however, he rescued many dilapidated structures from almost certain destruction. Another feather in his cap was the recent restoration of Sainte Chapelle (the royal chapel on Île de la Cité), along with fellow architect Lassus.

For twenty years (1844-1864), Viollet-le-Duc was the primary architect in charge of renovating Notre Dame. One of his most remarkable changes to Notre Dame was the creation of a new spire over the transept to replace the 13th-century spire that had been removed pre-Revolution due to wind damage.

Viollet-le-Duc’s changes, far from being literal and faithful reconstructions, added his own substantive signature. He created a new, enlarged Gothic-style spire, extending its reach to new heights and adding groups of bronze statues at its base, which aged to an ethereal patina. Viollet-le-Duc himself posed for the center top saint (below).

Another major innovation was Viollet-le-Duc’s addition of decorative chimères (gargoyles with no rain spouts) perched along the exterior upper balustrade. The grotesque and impish gremlins, dreamed up and sketched by Viollet-le-Duc, captured the nightmarish side of the Gothic imaginary. In effect, Viollet-le-Duc had reinvented the Gothic.

The 2019 fire

In April 2019 the world watched in horror as fire destroyed significant parts of the cathedral, namely, Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and the roof — and came perilously close to reaching the two bell towers of the western facade.

During my visit to Paris in autumn 2019, restoration was well underway. Below, the spidery flying buttresses of Notre Dame are themselves buttressed while being strengthened.

At the time that fire broke out in 2019, metal scaffolding was in place to make needed repairs to the roof. Although that scaffolding survived the fire, the intense heat melted the metal, which then fused with the roof. To facilitate the removal of the melted metal during the restoration of Notre Dame, a second scaffolding was erected.

Scaffolding over scaffolding, fall 2019

Below, Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras watch over a crane restoring their fire-damaged home. Perhaps they are waiting to see what their cousins, the spooky succubi of the 21st-century psyche, will look like.

The birth of the university — Collège des Bernardins

The Gothic-style former Cistercian monastery and institution of learning was constructed 1248-1253, its completion coinciding within a few years with that of Notre Dame de Paris. By that time, Paris was already well established as a major intellectual centre of Europe.

Monastic schools of the previous century, such as the cathedral school of Notre Dame, were internationally famous. No longer were monastic schools set up largely to produce educated monks, clergy, and scribes, but they had become flourishing centres of theological teaching and (carefully circumscribed) debate. It was the age of Abelard, rock star professor and extra-tragic lover of the 12th century.

By the early 13th century, the University of Paris was founded, closely associated with monastic schools. University-style secular learning was taking root, as were centres of learning separate from — but associated with — the cathedral and monastic schools. Some colleges emerged from the student residence halls of the monastic schools. One of those halls was established by Robert de Sorbon, and thus the College de la Sorbonne emerged as a place of higher education.

It was into this burgeoning intellectual movement that the Collège des Bernardins was born. In addition to educating Bernardine monks, the school also taught students from the Collège de la Sorbonne and the Université de Paris.

I arrived at the Collège des Bernardins too late for a proper visit, but the entrance hall with its interconnected ribs of the vaulted ceiling is both austere and elegant.

Next: The Gothic “Cruet” Church — St-Germain l’Auxerrois

Camille Martin

Paris Wanderlust: Romanesque Paris — Hybrid Creatures

Romanesque Paris — Hybrid Creatures

One thing that fascinates me most about Paris architecture are the changes that a structure undergoes over time. For example, medieval churches sometimes took so long to build that the style mutated mid-construction, producing hybrids. I visited two hybrid churches in Paris built during the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles: Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre.

Unlike other places in Europe, Paris does not have a “purely” Romanesque church. Although Romanesque was an international architectural style, it didn’t last as long in Paris, where the Gothic mania for height and light had already taken hold.

(Actually, Paris does have a purely Romanesque church, but it’s in a category of its own. I’ll save it for the end of the post.)

Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés

3 Place Saint-Germain des Prés (6e)

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris, was built during the 11th and 12th centuries on the ruins of Merovingian churches destroyed by marauding Vikings. Like those earlier unprotected churches, Saint-Germain-des-Prés was built in the fields (“des prés“), outside city walls.

The squared and heavyset bell tower with its arched windows is solidly Romanesque:

Inside, the church’s nave and choir could be described as a harmonized blend of Romanesque and early Gothic, or Romano-Gothic. The curved arches in the nave echo the older Romanesque style, whereas the vaulted ceiling — while not yet soaring — registers “Gothic.”

The pillars and columns of the interior are being restored to reveal vivid colours and patterns:

Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre

St-Julien-le-Pauvre, with it heavy columns, thick walls, and rounded arches and windows, is the most consistently Romanesque church in Paris. Even so, a vaulted Gothic choir with pointed windows (to the right in the image below) was appended later.

Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre (built mid-12th to mid-13th centuries), 1 Rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre (5e)

Like a hybrid creature in a medieval bestiary, a Romanesque elephant’s body acquired a Gothic lion’s head.

The orphan Romanesque bell tower: Tour Clovis

Another surviving Romanesque bell tower of Paris is Tour Clovis, which was attached to the medieval Abbey Church of Ste-Geneviève. The abbey church was destroyed — not by Viking invasions, but during the French Revolution. Only the bell tower survived, which was later incorporated into Lycée Henri IV.

The lower part of the tower dates from the 11th century; the upper half was added later, in the 15th century.

65 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine (5e)

St-Martin-des-Champs Priory (Musée des Arts et Métiers)

The Musée des Arts et Métiers, located in the Gothic monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, was closed for renovations during my last two visits to Paris. It tops my list for next time.

Below, the Romanesque apse and adjacent Statue of Liberty:


Paris’ imitation Romanesque church: Notre Dame de la Gare

Notre Dame de la Gare (named after the Gare District) offers Paris what she lacks: a Romanesque church from start to finish. To be accurate: Romanesque Revival, of the mid-19th century.

The three apses of Note Dame de la Gare, characteristic of Romanesque style:

Architect: Claude Naissant (1801-1879), Notre Dame de la Gare (built 1847-1859) 4 Place Jeanne d’Arc (13e)

Semi-circular arch above the portal, à la Romanesque:

From certain vantage points, Notre Dame de la Gare appears more Romanesque than Romanesque. Another touch of authenticity: It’s a bit dark inside . . .

The painting on the ceiling of the apse reflects the Byzantine influence on Romanesque churches, consistent with the Romanesque style of the 11th and 12th centuries. Gold stars on a dark green field provide a backdrop for paintings of a Virgin in Majesty and a crucifix.

Félix Jobbé-Duval, Virgin in Majesty with the Infant Jesus (1862)

The choir: rounded, rhythmic arches with modern frescoes:

Anders Osterlind, La Crucifixion (1953)

Next: Gothic Meets 19th Century — Notre Dame

Camille Martin

Paris Wanderlust: Romanizing the Parisii

Romanizing the Parisii

No structure remains from the period before Caesar conquered the Celtic tribe of the Parisii.

In fact, Celtic Lutèce wasn’t even located at the site of the present city of Paris. Recent excavations reveal the primary Parisii settlement to have been along a curve of the Seine in what is now Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. In 52 AD, the Roman conquerors razed the Gallic settlement (oppidum) of half-timber homes with thatched roofs. Then they relocated the town to the present location of Paris and stamped it with their own version of a civilized city.

Only two significant Gallo-Roman structures survive: an amphitheatre and thermal baths, both mere shadows of their former structures.

Paris’ Roman amphitheatre: Les Arènes de Lutèce

Entrance to Les Arènes de Lutèce from Rue de Navarre

Modern steps climbing a berm that leads to the ancient Roman amphitheatre:

The Arènes de Lutèce, located east of Rue Monge, once entertained crowds of Romans and Gauls with theatre, wild animals, water jousting, and gladiatorial combat.

Les Arènes de Lutèce, 1st century AD

One survival from the northern or stage section: part of the actors’ dressing rooms.

Over time, the amphitheatre was filled in, and then pretty much forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 19th century during Haussmann’s excavations to create Rue Monge, and almost completely destroyed in the process. Below, the western section of the amphitheater’s seating was sliced off by the creation of Rue Monge, whose buildings can be seen behind remaining structures of the amphitheatre:

Now, the amphitheatre offers flat ground for players of pétanque (boules), a quiet place for students to relax, and a rendezvous (albeit a public one) for the ubiquitous Parisian lovers.

Below, a game of pétanque underway. The Romans introduced an earlier version of the game to Gaul.

The current tiered seating around the arena is not from the Gallo-Roman period.

In fact, not much remains of the original amphitheatre. It was reconstructed a few decades after its 19th-century rediscovery, doubtless for the benefit of students, pétanque players, and lovers.

A plaque near the entrance explains the role of the amphitheatre in the ancient Gallo-Roman city, as well as suggests its relation to the imagined future city of Paris:

Gift from the Syndicat d’Initiatives des Arènes de Lutèce on the occasion of the bi-millennium of Paris, 1951

It was here in the 2nd century AD that the municipal life of Paris was born. Ten thousand people could be seated comfortably in the Arènes de Lutèce, where water jousting, gladiator combat, wild animal fights, and a theatre of comedies and dramas took place.

As you pass through this first monument of Paris, consider that the city of the past is also the city of the future and that of your hopes.

Roman Forum in Underground Carpark

Last year in Paris, I was on the hunt for a tiny area of stone wall belonging to the Roman forum. I knew that it was tucked away in an underground parking garage. It started raining, and I ducked into a brasserie on Boulevard St-Michel for a bite to eat and a glass of wine to take the edge off a day’s urban hiking.

I was snapping pictures of passersby with their colourful umbrellas reflected on the wet street, when I glimpsed it across the boulevard — the pagan carpark!

The gate and door weren’t locked, so I walked down the stairs to a landing where a small patch of the two-thousand-year-old forum wall is on display, framed and illuminated.

I was prepared for viewing a pile of rubble under glass, so the experience wasn’t anticlimactic. In fact, I felt a frisson as my mental map of the Roman roads and landmarks of Lutetia came into focus.

The underground location of the forum wall viscerally underscores Paris’ topographical changes over two millennia. During Gallo-Roman times, ground level was several metres lower. Nonetheless, even then the Roman forum was perched strategically on a hill (Montagne Ste-Geneviève) with a fine view of the Seine.

Today, the once-bustling civic arena, buried under the rubbish of the ages, has a fine view of parked cars.

The Boatmen’s Pillar

The forum, baths, and amphitheatre were important architectural spaces for the Romanization of the conquered Gauls. Over time, the Gauls were assimilated into Roman laws, culture, mores, and municipal life. Such sophisticated amenities as spas, running water, central heating, gladiator entertainment, and pétanque must have been powerful incentives.

But how did the Romans get the Gauls to accept new gods and goddesses? A stone pillar carved in bas-relief during the 1st century AD offers a glimpse into the early stage of a syncretistic process of blending two polytheistic cultures.

The Boatmen’s Pillar (so-called because it was sponsored by a guild of boatmen) consists of four blocks, each carved on its four sides with images of deities: some Roman, some Celtic.

The Roman god Vulcan, with his hammer and tongs:

Some sides of the blocks are engraved with purely Celtic deities, such as this portrait of Cernunnos, whose horns sport torcs (metal rings worn around the necks of prominent persons).

Cernunnos was a god of . . . what? Perhaps wilderness, or perhaps fertility, or perhaps . . . who-knows-what. So why don’t we know more about these Gaulish gods?

We know all about the Greek and Roman gods, whose escapades were immortalized in writing by poets over hundreds of years. But pre-Roman Gauls used written language (Greek, interestingly) mainly for commerce. The Druid priestly caste placed a taboo on writing about the Celtic pantheon. Only highly trained Druid priests could serve as intermediaries between the divine and human worlds. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, the oral tradition of the Druidic religion atrophied.

Below, the enigmatic Gaulish god Tarvos Trigaranus (Bull with Three Cranes):

I’m struck by the similarity of “Tarvos” and “Tri-” to the Latin words for “bull” and “three.” Had the Romans translated the name of the Gaulish god into Latin?

Apparently not: Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots informed Celtic languages as well as Latin. The words for numbers and everyday things remain remarkably stable as a language evolves, so it’s not surprising that the PIE root “tréyes” (three) closely resembles its descendants in both Celtic (“treis”) and Latin (“trēs”). Same goes for the PIE root and derivatives of “bull.”

Strange to think of Romans hearing an echo of Latin in the language of the Celtic peoples they conquered.

The Gaulish Language

One needn’t go to a museum to experience Gallo-Roman cross-pollination. Modern French retains some loanwords words of Gallic origin:

bruyère (fog)
cloche (bell)
berceau (cradle)
jaillir (to gush)
mouton (sheep)
sillon (furrow)

Lovely Gallic words, stubborn survivals in the conquered people’s Vulgar Latin, which evolved into modern French.

Presumably, the Académie Française knows all about these Gallic impurities in the French language.

Next: Paris Wanderlust: Merovingian Architecture — Does It Even Exist in Paris?

Camille Martin