The reclaiming of obsolete train tracks is increasingly popular in European and North American cities. Paris has repurposed two defunct railways to create long strips of urban parks. Both lines were constructed in the mid-19th century, during the Second Empire.
The Promenade Plantée follows three miles of a mid-19th century railway that connected Place de la Bastille with suburbs to the east. The Promenade ends near the Boulevard Périphérique.
Twin bowers at the western entrance:
Where tracks once lay . . .
An elevated portion of the promenade, seen from the grassy Jardin de Reuilly:
Faceoff of Haussmannian facades, viewed from the Promenade:
A common and curious result of urban railways: buildings whose cleanly sliced walls hug the tracks, allowing as much square footage as possible.
Along the promenade, a time-travel tableau — a ramshackle old cart and a few rotting baskets artfully scattered — is exhibited en plein Paris.
In case you need a rest during your urban stroll, a park-within-a-park lies adjacent to the Promenade, complete with nude female sculpture, Wallace Fountain, and pigeon:
Platform from which to view a labyrinth:
Sundial with instructions and the following inscription:
Le soleil luit pour tous (The sun shines for everyone)
The Promenade Plantée is lower than street level in sections. Below, it passes through a tunnel:
Inside the tunnel, a decorative plaque of a mystical cat:
A spiral staircase topped with a futuristic umbrella (mushroom?) punctuates the eastern end of the Promenade Plantée:
La Petite Ceinture
The long-inoperable railway of La Petite Ceinture (the little belt) traces a broad circle around the City of Paris. In its heyday, it carried travelers and merchandise. It also served the Citroën factories (now Parc Citroën) and the slaughterhouses of Vaugirard (now Parc Georges-Brassens).
Since 2007, stretches are being developed as parks, and the landscaping prioritizes the preservation of the railway’s heritage as well as the biodiversity of the corridor that had for decades gone to seed.
Some rails of the defunct La Petite Ceinture remain in place.
The entrance to a developed portion of La Petite Ceinture, accessed from Rue Brancion:
At the top of the stairs is perhaps an old railway station, fallen into disrepair.
Like Promenade Plantée, the Petite Ceinture has its “sliced buildings”:
Across the street from Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is a place devoted to Benjamin Fondane, Romanian-French poet and philosopher who was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 45.
Fondane lived a precarious existence in France, trying to conceal his Jewish heritage from Nazi occupiers and their French collaborators. He was arrested in 1944, sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
An excerpt from Fondane’s “Exodus”:
Whether they burn us up or nail us up whether our luck turns bad or good, Why do you think we should give a damn? The only true songs are human ones
from L’Exode, tr. Pierre L’Abée
Place Benjamin Fondane is, to my mind, one of the most moving spaces in Paris:
The paving stones define a profoundly spare place: a sunken circle at an impasse. Inside that recessed circle is a welling up, at once a refusal to sink as well as a persistence of memory.
A park for a Polish exile: Square Cyprian Norwid
Cyprian Norwid, a Late-Romantic poet, was part of the Great Emigration of thousands of Polish nationals exiled during political upheavals. Many, like Norwid and Chopin, took up residence in Paris.
What’s not to love about a park dedicated to a poet? . . .
Square des Poètes
. . . Or one dedicated to hundreds of poets?
Scores of plaques, each inscribed with a few lines by a French poet, are affixed to boulders along the park’s paths.
Below: Rimbaud recalls his carefree youth of summer, closing his eyes and smelling linden flowers and wine. I can’t think of this poem without hearing Léo Ferré singing it.
In his Testament, Villon regrets his wasted youth.
Alas, if only I had studied during my foolish youth and followed the straight and narrow, I’d now have a house with a soft bed.
Chenier was guillotined at the age of 31, a victim of The Terror. The lines below speak of Auteuil, a neighbourhood where the literati of Paris gathered at their beloved watering holes, united in their poetic rivalry. I hope Chenier is still there.
Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
The excerpt below, from his poem “Tomorrow,” speaks of hope in a suspended state of despair, as if one were waiting for dawn in perpetual darkness.
Now, from the depths of night, we still bear witness to the splendor of the day and all its moments. If we don’t sleep, it’s to watch for dawn, which will prove that we’re finally living in the present.
Île aux Cygnes is a long, skinny slip of land in the middle of the Seine. The artificial island was engineered in 1827 to stabilize the old wooden Pont de Grenelle, which was threatened by river currents.
Oddly, the innocuous-sounding Swan Island is associated with historical moments of despotism, revolution, and colonialism.
First, the despotism of Louis XIV. Swan Island was named after an older Swan Island upstream (now merged with the Left Bank). That earlier island became home to the Sun King’s prized Danish swans, along with an army of swan keepers, catchers, and doctors. The newer Swan Island appropriated the name of the older one, thus retaining the memory of the absolute monarch’s fowl whims.
Below: a sleeping swan along the Seine, its beak nestled in its wing. Possibly a royal descendant.
Swan Island is also linked with the overthrow of monarchy by both the American and French Revolutions: a monumental Statue of Liberty raises her torch at the foot of the island. For the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1876, the people of France proposed to the United States the creation of the colossal copper Statue of Liberty by French sculptor Bartholdi. The statue thus celebrates the alliance between the two countries in liberating the American colonies from the royal British yoke.
After the Statue of Liberty was installed on Ellis Island, the 1889 centennial of the French Revolution rolled around. The American expat community in Paris returned the compliment by presenting their adopted city with a quarter-size replica of Bartholdi’s statue, which found a fortuitous home at the downstream end of Swan Island.
A spectacular (if gaudy) spot for night cruises to pause . . .
Lastly, colonialism. At the 1937 Paris Expo, Swan Island hosted pavilions that were devoted to France’s colonial empire: Tunisia, Lebanon, Madagascar, Corsica, French Equatorial Africa, Martinique, Indochina, and on and on. Thus did Swan Island become associated with the subjugation of peoples by the very nation that had earlier thrown off its own shackles.
Today, Île aux Cygnes invites a quiet stroll, the Seine always in view on either side. Not surprisingly, it’s a favoured haunt of lovers.
Apropos of Liberty Enlightening the World . . .
The Flame of Liberty, at the northern end of Pont de l’Alma:
The Flame of Liberty. An exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame offered to the people of France by donors throughout the world as a symbol of the Franco-American friendship. On the occasion of the centennial of the International Herald Tribune. Paris 1887-1987.
The tips of Île de la Cité & Île St-Louis
In contrast to Swan Island’s climactic finale of the Statue of Liberty, the tips of Île de la Cité and Île St-Louis quietly understate their farthest reaches.
Square Barye: a place to observe the waters of the Seine irrevocably split.
Île de la Cité
A willow at the end of Square du Vert-Gallant offers shade and privacy as you approach the point where the waters of the Seine merge again:
A necropolis is a city in its own right — houses along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, lawns, neighbourhoods. Property is bought, sold, and inherited. Water is piped in for ritual house-cleaning and for the gardens and birds — mostly ravens harassing the other birds.
Sometimes the necropolis presents a tableau vivant of the deceased, a portrait that freezes a moment in time. Below, a couple’s tomb is fashioned as a bed in which likenesses of M. and Mme. Pigeon, still under the blanket, recline in the manner of ancient Etruscan spouse sarcophagi. It’s a quiet, tender moment of domestic life. Perhaps they’re chatting about their children or solving the Sunday crossword puzzle.
Or perhaps discussing the family business of manufacturing hand-held lamps.
In a way, cemeteries are as much about life as they are about death.
Sex in the Cemetery
It should come as no surprise.
Cupid awakens Psyche with a tenderly erotic kiss:
The original of Canova’s sculpture of nascent Romanticism is in the Louvre.
Below, Brâncuşi’s limestone The Kiss: lovers in a fused column of sexual embrace.
Brâncuşi’s lovers are not embracing at the tomb of Brâncusi — which yields its own tale, a sort of posthumous ménage-a-trois — but at the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaia, a young Russian woman who committed suicide in Paris at the age of 23.
The quartier‘s fashionable countess
A library for the necropolis
Cinema & photography
A dragon guarding the treasury of French films
Henri Langlois, archivist and preservationist of French films, founded Cinématèque Française and created the Musée du Cinéma. Jean Cocteau called him “the dragon who watches over our treasures.”
Garder le Calme!!! Devant la DISSONANCE!!!
Without the ironic exclamation points: “Keep calm in the face of dissonance.” A good maxim for a film director, or anyone for that matter.
A cinematic spotlight on crimes against humanity
Jorge Cedron was an Argentinian film director who fled to Paris after the military coup d’état of 1976. His films such as Operation Massacre engage issues of injustice surrounding political and military upheavals in Argentina. He died in Paris at 38, under mysterious circumstances.
Photographer of humanity
Philippe Joudiou was a French photographer who traveled widely, starting in the late 1940s, to countries in Europe, the Middle East, India and the Far East, and Africa. His black and white photographs mirrored to the world its own diversity of human culture and spiritual traditions.
The homey photo cube
Never forget . . .
Olivier Greif was a French composer whose parents were Polish Jews. His father survived Auschwitz, a fact that profoundly affected Grief’s music.
Greif’s Letters from Westerbork (1993), for example, is scored for soprano and two violins. Each of the three movements begins with a spoken text from the diary of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish Dutch woman who helped deportees at Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Netherlands. She herself was transported to Auschwitz at the age of 29, where she was murdered. Below is the text by Hillesum that opens the first movement:
We live here in indescribable misery. In the large barracks, we truly live like rats in a sewer. We see many children die for lack of care. Last week, a convoy of prisoners arrived in the middle of the night, their faces waxen and translucent. Never have I seen so much exhaustion and fatigue on human faces. In the morning, they were packed into freight cars.
Etty Hillesum, July 1943
Lhote was a French cubist painter and art theorist strongly influenced by Gauguin and Cézanne. Notable for his use of colour, he said that “to use color well is as difficult as for a fish to pass from water to air or earth.”
His drawing of a pensive angel is affixed to his grave.
Self-Portrait as Angel:
Maryse Bastié, pioneer aviatrice
Bastié smashed the glass ceiling for women aviators who came after her, setting multiple records for duration and distance during the 1930s.
The grave of sculptor Henri Laurens is decorated with one of his own works, La Douleur.
Grave of Mexican artist Julio Ruelas:
Flowers of remembrance
Hands of remembrance
Perhaps it was Rodin’s sculptures of hands that started the popular practice of having one’s hands modeled, or of adorning graves with intertwined ones.
Twenty-five years after the death of Charles Baudelaire, the literati of Paris decided in 1892 to erect a cenotaph dedicated to the poète maudit.
Rodin was commissioned to sculpt the monument, but he only got as far as the head of Baudelaire before funding lagged. Rodin would later state:
What’s a statue, in fact? A body, arms and legs covered in ordinary clothes? What use are they to Baudelaire, who lived only through his mind? His head is all that matters.
Enter José de Charmoy, a relatively unknown French sculptor. Having already designed a sculpture dedicated to the poet, Charmoy offered it to the committee. His cenotaph now stands at the end of a path, against a wall.
More than just a head, Charmoy’s monument to the poète maudit consists of three figures. A shrouded corpse lies rigid and insensate:
An elongated, skeletal bat clings to the vertical monolith. So Baudelaire.
And at the pinnacle, a square-jawed thinker leans forward, chin on fists, sunken eyes gazing into nothingness with acute . . . ennui.
A lifesaver for Robert Desnos
Poet Robert Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
At the end of one of his poems, Desnos writes:
You’ll put a life saver on my grave. Because one never knows.
His devotees have obliged.
A mailbox for Cioran
On the grave of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran sits a mailbox. When I was there, several messages had been deposited.
To conceive the act of thought as a poison bath, the pastime of an elegiac viper.
Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations
Parma violets for Tristan Tzara
Has Dada ever spoke to you about Parma violets
NEVER NEVER NEVER
Here we are dropping our anchor in fertile ground.
“Life is a gift that is lost . . .”
La vie est un don perdu pour celui qui ne l’a pas vécu comme il aurait voulu.
Life is a gift that is lost to those who haven’t lived the way they would have liked.
This adage by 19th-century Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu has a whiff of impossibility. Can a person really arrive at the end of life and have no regrets? It would require predicting what the future you would deem to have been a squandered gift of life.
But loosely interpreted as a memento mori — follow your passions before it’s too late — I can live with that.
Le Musée Montparnasse
The Enlightened Centaur
I first met Baldaccini’s iconic Centaur at a busy intersection in Paris. Baldaccini used scrap metal to create the bricolaged man-horse.
Yes, garden tools and a violin scroll protrude from the centaur’s anus. Even so, he radiates extraordinary dignity. His front leg and arm are poised as if he were about to impart reason.
Perhaps this centaur is more related to the Houyhnhnms, the tribe of intelligent horses in Gulliver’s Travels, than to the concupiscent man-beasts of ancient Greek myth.
The same sculpture poses on the grave of Baldaccini:
The Pilgrim by Baltasar Lobo
Le Pèlerin is exhibited on the tomb of its creator, Spanish-French artist Baltasar Lobo.
On the grave of Polish-French artist Léopold Kretz stands his sculpture Le prophète:
Images of women
Philippe Hiquily was a sculptor whose wide-hipped female forms de-emphasizing limbs and heads recall prehistoric Venus sculptures, which magnify childbearing potential. Hiquily sometimes gives his metallic women spindly limbs and oddly shaped heads, lending an insectile humour to their provocative eroticism.
Here lies one such enigma, in her otherworldly glory, on Hiquily’s tomb:
Some hybrids & metamorphoses
Fish boobs? Huh?
The secret of the bronze Fish Siren? The breasts on one side.
Inscription on the other side of the female fish:
Il fait son choix d’anchois et dine d’une sardine. Essentially, if less elegantly: He ordered anchovy but ate sardine.
On the grave of painter Gérard Barthélémy stands a bushy pelican that seems to be morphing into a plant.
The pelican emerges from a tree stump; its legs and toes resemble the roots:
The pelican’s feathers appear like leaves:
And the pelican’s body sprouts flora:
Perhaps an Ovidian metamorphosis is happening?
A bejeweled turtle for Huysmans
Novelist Karl-Joris Huysmans turned Zola’s naturalism on its head in À rebours, the novel championed by a generation of writers embracing Decadence as an aesthetic.
The connoisseur Des Esseintes, in his mania to fashion ever-refined sensory experiences, decides that he needs a living creature moving about an oriental carpet in order to set off its colours and texture. He purchases a turtle, whose shell he plates in gold and encrusts with precious stones.
However, the embedded jewels weigh down the animal until it expires. The doomed turtle is one of the most arresting images from Huysmans’ novel — a sort of Faustian demise by proxy.
A Porcelain Cat for Ricardo Menon
Sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle created a colourful cat for the grave of her close friend Ricardo Menon, who died of AIDS in 1989.
Aside: Another work in Paris by Niki de Saint Phalle is the Stravinsky Fountain at Centre Pompidou (with co-creator Jean Tinguely). Below is her fantastical Firebird from that fountain:
A delicate mantid
The shiny blue-and-red creature by Agathon suggests a praying mantis’ delicate structure and pose.
Agathon’s sculpture, with its bright colours and fantastical shape, recalls the sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle.
Stained glass & mosaics
A medievalist in the Belle Époque
Bellery-Henri Desfontaines was a decorative artist of the late 19th century. As the mosaic on his tombstone suggests, he embraced the Belle Époque interest in Medieval art and tapestry.
Simple blue stars — unpretentiously notable . . .
The intriguing sculpture on this Jewish-Christian tomb is the opposite of simple:
Perhaps the numbers, counting down from 12 to 1 and starting over at 12, represent a clock or sundial?
A planet for Urbain le Verrier
French astronomer and mathematician Urbain le Verrier specialized in the motions of bodies in outer space. Using only mathematics, he played a key role in predicting the existence and position of Neptune.
An ammonite for Caillois
I assumed (incorrectly) that a scientist was buried at a tombstone embedded with an ammonite fossil:
The grave is unmarked, but a bit of research reveals that it belongs to Roger Caillois, a sociologist and literary critic who wrote classic works on the sociology of the sacred and of play. Good to know. But why the ammonite?
Caillois was fascinated by mineralogy, and in The Writing of Stones he speaks of precious stones and fossils with an odd mixture of poetry and science. He views the patterns created by fossils inside stones as if they were inscriptions in the book of evolution:
“Meanwhile, the tree of life goes on putting out branches. A multitude of new inscriptions is added to the writing in stones. Images of fishes swim among dendrites of manganese as though among clumps of moss. A sea lily sways on its stem in the heart of a piece of slate. A phantom shrimp can no longer feel the air with its broken antennae. The scrolls and laces of ferns are imprinted in coal. Ammonites of all sizes, from a lentil to a millwheel, flaunt their cosmic spirals everywhere.”
from L’écriture des pierres, tr. Barbara Bray
A curious episode in the history of 20th-century poetry involves a debate between Caillois and chief Surrealist André Breton about the inner workings of the Mexican jumping bean. Caillois, whose poetic prose reflects on the patterns and colours inside jasper and petrified wood, proposed cutting open the “bean” to understand it. Breton, however, adamantly preferred to keep the object intact and to delve into its mystery solely through the power of his imagination.
Such are the debates of poets. The upshot? Breton excommunicated Caillois from his (very) exclusive club of Surrealists. Caillois is in good company in Montparnasse Cemetery — other poets ejected from Breton’s club include Robert Desnos and Tristan Tzara.
Just a couple more tombstones before the guard walks through the cemetery ringing his bell to signal the closing of the gates . . .
Keep smiling . . .
De notre sourire gardez le souvenir. Souriez-vous pour nous! Remember our smile, and smile for us!
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
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.
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:
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:
Merovingian Architecture — Does It Even Exist in Paris?
For almost 500 years, Celtic Lutetia was a colony of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t even the most major colony in Gaul — Lyon was more significant.
Toward the end of Roman control, from the 3rd to 5th centuries, the Gallo-Roman culture underwent major changes: the introduction of Christianity, the invasion of Germanic tribes (including Franks and Attila and his merry Huns), and the defeat of the occupying Romans, chased out of Paris by Frankish ruler Clovis I.
Clovis I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty, professed allegiance to Christianity, a conversion of convenience. His successors of the Merovingian dynasty (5th to 8th centuries) built many Christian structures, including two basilicas, a cathedral, and monasteries.
However — in short — no architecture from the Merovingian dynasty has survived. None. With one tiny exception . . .
If you enter Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés — itself one of the oldest structures in Paris — look about midway up at a structure called a triforium. You’ll see marble Merovingian columns. A few tiny finger bones remain of a once-whole body. The small Merovingian columns have been repurposed to form an arcade below Romanesque arches and Gothic heights.
An architectural mashup at the birth of French Gothic. Talk about your layered history.
Why didn’t Merovingian edifices survive in their entirety? During the 9th century, Vikings invaded and destroyed (several times) the ancient church of Saint-Germain. Vikings also wrecked the basilica on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève and Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. As for the Merovingian Basilica of St-Denis, it was rebuilt in Early Gothic style to accommodate the throngs of pilgrims worshiping the relics of Denis, beheaded martyr-saint of Paris.
I’m not sure what happened to the Merovingian monasteries. But if they were destroyed during the 9th century, Vikings might be a safe bet.
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
The choir: rounded, rhythmic arches with modern frescoes:
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 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 on Île de la Cité are a time capsule, from the 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, and most recently to the 2019 fire and ongoing restorations. What does it mean that the vicissitudes of history are traceable (or not) in Notre Dame?
The 2019 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
By the 18th-century, natural forces had taken their toll on Notre Dame. 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 biblical 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. Toward the middle of 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.
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.
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 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. His new, enlarged Gothic-style spire, extended its reach to new heights and he added 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 metal scaffolding was erected.
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.
The Gothic church of St-Germain-l’Auxerrois is an unusual animal — not so much because of stylistic hybridity (mostly Gothic with Renaissances touches), but because the church seems to hold a mirror to itself.
Below, only the edifice circled in red is the Gothic church:
The Neo-Gothic tower and church-twin to the left are both Haussmann’s 19th-century additions. The building to the far left is actually the city hall of the 1st arrondissement — a mirror image of the Gothic church, but flanked by an office building (a dead giveaway for modernity).
Why did Haussmann append whole Neo-Gothic buildings to the authentically Gothic St-Germain-l’Auxerrois? Was it to confuse tourists who don’t know whether to go left or right to visit the church?
Actually, the answer involves a massacre of Protestants . . . but first, a look at the church itself.
Gorgeous Gothic interior
Considering how long it took to build the church, the interior is surprisingly consistent with its 13th-century Gothic beginnings. After the Hundred Years War interrupted the construction, the church was mostly completed during the 15th century.
The soaring Gothic choir:
21st-century stained glass
The church also harbors a 21st century stained glass window:
Saints, hell, apocalypse
The well-preserved carvings and statuary at the entrance, protected by a porch, reward a closer look. Above the doors is a traditional “arc of judgement,” and to the left and right of the doors are groups of remarkable medieval statuary.
The arc of judgement::
At the top center of this arch are images from the Book of Revelation. I enjoy finding such representations. They appeal to my sense of the surreal. Plus — lots of action and drama. (I went to town with the rose window at Sainte Chapelle, which contains only scenes from Revelation.)
For example, in the detail below, the lower carving depicts events after the breaking of the Sixth Seal: the sun turned black and “the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together.”
The upper carving? The ensuing Apocalypse: earthquakes collapse crenelated castles into jumbled ruins.
Below: The arc on the right side ends with a horrific image of hell. An enchained devil with cleft feet grins approvingly as a monkey-demon torments the damned. Three heads grimace in pain as they roast over a fire. Bosch-worthy.
The left side of the arc ends in a representation of the Trinity. The three smiling heads resting in the lap of unitary God counterbalance the three heads burning in hell.
Below, a closer look at the statues to the right of the portal. Saints and an angel sport archaic smiles . . .
. . . as they trample demons and a damned soul underfoot:
The arms of the demons have, it seems, been rubbed clean by visitors, perhaps making a wish as they do so.
The middle figure, Saint Genevieve, holds a candle in her right hand, which the demon peering over her shoulder tries to extinguish. The two present the very image of the self divided.
Fast forward to the 19th century. St-Germain-l’Auxerrois, heavily damaged by the French Revolution and by an 1831 political riot, was in sore need of restorations. Among other changes, artists were commissioned to create fresh decorations to the Chapel of the Virgin. Amaury Duval was commissioned to paint the fresco surrounding the stone sculpture of Virgin and Child:
The gold background and halos suffuse the fresco with a Byzantine aura. Duval’s paintings inherited a quiet stillness from his teacher Ingres. Below: an angel, suspended for eternity within a space defined by the ribs of the vaulted ceiling.
Let’s return to the exterior for the story of the massacre and the cruet.
In spite of the church’s renovations earlier in the 19th century, St-Germain l’Auxerrois might well have fallen victim to Haussmann’s massive erasure of medieval Paris. Haussmann’s Protestantism played a part in the preservation of the Catholic church whose very bells had signaled the start of the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots by Catholic mobs. Haussmann didn’t want a legacy as the Protestant who razed the church to avenge its role in the massacre. Whatever Haussmann’s motivation, the church was spared when all around it, ramshackle buildings were flattened, opening up a vast space all the way to the Louvre.
To balance the church in relation to the newly empty space surrounding it, Haussmann commissioned the construction, adjacent to the church, of a neo-Gothic belfry and a town hall mirroring the church’s facade. Twins in their Gothic faces, the bureaucratic echos the ecclesiastical.
The symmetrical complex has earned a banal nickname: the “cruet.”
I can’t leave St-Germain-l’Auxerrois without having a peek at two altarpieces and a statue of Mary of Egypt that have found a home in the church. My apologies. I can at least promise crooked stairs and a preternaturally hirsute female saint.
Two Flemish altarpieces
The older altarpiece, carved from oak, displays highly ornate scenes packed with throngs of figures within a defined space. No nook or cranny is wasted in this claustrophobic world-unto-itself:
Detail, crucifixion scene:
The other Flemish altarpiece is a triptych whose outer wings display painted scenes of Eden and the Annunciation. The inner portion consists of carved and painted wood panels representing scenes from the life of the Virgin:
I was drawn to a carved scene that included a painting. The scene represents the ancient Jewish rites performed in the temple following childbirth: the purification of the mother (from the “contamination” associated with giving birth) and the presentation of the baby Jesus. The three women entering the temple bring a small cage, perhaps an offering of turtledoves.
The framed painting within the scene is a full-length portrait of a Jewish high priest wearing the official vestments characteristic of the time of Jesus:
Around the neck of the high priest hangs a breastplate encrusted with precious stones:
Gold bells were sewn along the hem of his robe. When he entered and exited the temple, the tinkling bells became an amulet against death.
The high priest in the portrait is obviously Jewish. But the actual priest performing the rites for Mary and Jesus anachronistically wears a Christian bishop’s mitre.
Another blending of Jewish and Christian symbolism inheres in the lamb, toward which the bishop gestures:
The Jewish rite of purification after childbirth might involve the sacrificial offering of a lamb. The parallel with Christian iconography is evident, bringing Old and New Testaments together in one symbolic image.
These carved scenes are more naturalistic than the jam-packed earlier Flemish altarpiece. Even so, there’s something a bit primitive about them, as in the presentation of Mary at the temple (below). The staircase was not given the benefit of perspective, and the upper treads tilt perilously to the right.
In his description of the church, Huysmans calls the stairs “amusing.”
Mary of Egypt
Below, a polychrome statue of a heavy-lidded Mary of Egypt. According to hagiographers, she was a prostitute (like Mary Magdalene, with whom she is sometimes conflated). Mary of Egypt converted to Christianity, embraced celibacy, walked into the Jordan desert with three loaves of bread, and became a hermit.
She’s often depicted naked (her clothes having worn away), sporting long hair or else displaying various stages of hirsutism. According to legend, animal-like fur miraculously grew to shield her nakedness. Mary of Egypt, her appearance transformed by the growth of a creaturely coat of fur, would not be out of place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The sculpture is remarkable for the delicate rendition of her wavy golden hair cascading over her thighs. Artists sometimes blurred the line between depicting female saints as voluptuous versus venerable. A sexualized female saint might elicit steamy rather than spiritual thoughts in the viewer. Many a Madonna lactans offering her breast to the infant Jesus radiates eroticism.
The sculptor of Mary of Egypt has it both ways. On the side of sensuality, he gives the hermit-saint a youthful face and blond Lady-Godiva hair/fur that caresses her body.
On side of modesty, her eyes are lowered chastely. A layer of her hair demurely covers her breasts. A cloth drapes protectively in rounded folds over her abdomen. And her swollen belly and stacked loaves of bread register fecundity, like wheat-bearing Demeter.
She is at once erotic and solemn; promiscuous and virginal; nubile and dry as the desert; a symbol of plenty with her stack of bread yet also of indigence, wandering through the barren wilderness.
A coda of fin-de-siècle ennui
To end this meditation on St-Germain-l’Auxerrois with a passage from Huysmans’ description of the church:
And we find ourselves, with this disgust at the beginning of the century, envying this good priest who interrupts himself from his work to wipe his horned glasses amid the great silence of these deaf stone walls broken only by the tired sighs of the wood.
From early French Gothic emerged a resolve to attain even greater heights and to increase the surface area of stained glass, giving the illusion of airy weightlessness and bathing the interior in colour and light. The novel style was called “Rayonnant” (“radiant”) — Gothic on soma. If Gothic architecture arose from a mystical fascination with light as a reflection of the divine, Rayonnant Gothic was the culmination of the desire to invite as much light as possible into the church.
Sainte-Chapelle, constructed in the mid-13th century as the king’s chapel within the palace complex on Île de la Cité, exemplifies the new ethereal.
Below, the gates of the Palais de la Justice (a functioning courthouse), and behind, the apse of Sainte-Chapelle.
This exterior view shows two major differences from earlier Gothic churches. First, there is no transept — Rayonnant Gothic de-emphasized or eliminated this structure. Also, the heights of Sainte-Chapelle are shored up not by flying buttresses but by thick vertical ribs capped by heavy pinnacles.
The view of the western end shows another striking feature: two separate entrances, one above the other, set within the shelter of a porch:
Each entrance leads to separate chapels: the spectacular light-filled upper chapel was intended for use by the royal family and friends. The palace staff worshiped in the “basement” chapel, whose ceiling was considerably lower and stained glass windows smaller and fewer.
In the upper chapel, the stained glass is the luminary of the Rayonnant drama. The tracery (vertical ribs) play a reduced supporting role, appearing as delicate frames for the windows. The soaring panels of coloured glass wrap around the nave and apse. For the visitor, the experience is akin to surround sound, and the sweet spot is wherever you stand in the sea of light.
Individual frames of eye candy:
The late 15th-century rose window above the chapel’s entrance is characteristic of Flamboyant Gothic, with its elaborate flame-like tracery:
A graphic novel in stained glass
The vertical stained glass panels are chapters in a gigantic graphic novel telling the story from Genesis to Revelation. With a grand sweep of the eyes around the chapel (from the north side, to the apse, to the south side, and ending with the western rose window), Sainte-Chapelle narrates Christian mythology from the creation of the world to the end of the world.
The frame below depicts a scene from the Old Testament Book of Judith. The femme fatale heroine has infiltrated the enemy encampment of Assyrians, who are planning to attack the Israelites. On the pretext of seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, Judith enters his tent, gets him drunk, and, in a pre-emptive strike, beheads him.
At the center of this narrative is the vertical panel of stained glass directly behind the altar, recounting in images the Passion of Christ.
A frame of the Last Supper, in the center of the narrative:
To the far right, the last vertical panel of stained glass relates the narrative of Louis IX’s acquisition of relics from the Passion of Christ. His men traveled to Venice to purchase the alleged crown of thorns and a splinter from the cross. Below, the relics are transported back to Paris by horseback and presented to Louis IX.
Louis IX wanted to add these relics to his collection, which included parts of the Holy Lance, the Holy Sponge, and the Mandylion (image of Jesus’ face imprinted onto a cloth). He commissioned the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to house his burgeoning trove of relics.
These objects were believed to be imbued with a divine power. As such, they proved a useful tool for social cohesion — and control. Kings would parade relics around town, eliciting awe and veneration from their subjects (one of the stained glass frames shows such a scene). They could also be used as barter to replenish the royal treasury in order to fund military adventures. The insatiable hunger for these relics created an ideal climate for hucksters to sell counterfeits to aristocrats.
The culmination of the grand narrative of stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle is the western rose window:
Below: the rose window’s complex arrangement of “petals,” each showing a scene from the Book of Revelation.
This aesthetically stunning stained-glass flower contains some of the most violent scenes of the Apocalypse.
Below are additional scenes from the rose window showing different versions of the multi-headed beast of the Apocalypse. Because I have a soft spot for bestiaries.
The starry-night vaulted ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle
Gargoyles guarding Sainte-Chapelle
Lastly, fine medieval gargoyles protrude from the buttresses, as if ready to pounce on unsuspecting sinners below.
Years ago, a couple lent me their apartment in Paris for six weeks. During my sojourn, I crammed in as many museums, parks, and architecture as I could.
When I saw the couple afterward, the wife asked me which church in Paris I thought was the prettiest. I couldn’t answer! At that time, churches didn’t interest me as much as the Picasso Museum or Art Nouveau architecture.
Now I have an answer for her: St-Séverin is the prettiest church in Paris. Specifically, its grove of “palm tree” columns behind the altar, against a backdrop of contemporary stained glass.
Eglise St-Séverin: From Gothic to Flamboyant Gothic
Of the 13th-century Gothic incarnation of St-Séverin, only the bell tower and the first part of the nave survived. Atop the bell tower sits a lantern, whose light could be seen from the Seine.
A fire broke out in St-St-Séverin in 1448 during the Hundred Years War, and most of the church was destroyed. The Gothic church was rebuilt in the new Flamboyant style of Late Gothic architecture. The entrance gained a large rose window, which puts the flame in Flamboyant.
Only the upper half of the rose window is visible (St-Séverin’s “hidden treasure”), as the lower half is obscured by the organ pipes. Below: the vaulted ceiling of St-Séverin, looking west toward the organ and rose window.
In the new nave, the Flamboyant Gothic style is evident in the flame-like and curvilinear shapes in the window and arch tracery.
Detail: a double lancet window in the triforium displays delicate tracery in the shapes of trefoils and flames.
Below, the semi-circular apse with 14th-century stained glass, double ambulatory (aisles) and twisted column behind the altar:
14th-century stained glass
The top portion displays the flame-like and curved shapes characteristic of the Flamboyant Gothic:
“Palm trees” and modern stained glass
Like a grove of palm trees, columns in the double ambulatory of the apse splay into a complex interplay of vault ribs. The use of star-burst decorative ribbing is also characteristic of the Flamboyant Gothic.
That torqued column is genius.
The apse features modern stained-glass windows (1970) by Jean René Bazaine.
The organ and its cabinet
St-Séverin’s 1748 organ is housed in a fine carved wood cabinet. I hear that French Baroque music sounds really good on it . . .
Bits & bobs
Inside St-Séverin, a medieval well has survived, its water illuminated and glassed over.
Before encountering the relief below, I had never seen a depiction of the circumcision of Jesus. Seems like I’d remember. Interestingly, a Catholic bishop performs the honors of the mohel. The monkish figure upper right appears green around the gills.
Gargoyles of St-Séverin:
Tour St-Jacques sticks out like a flamboyant thumb. Once part of an early 16th-century Flamboyant Gothic church, the bell tower is the only structure to have survived the French Revolution.
The church was called St-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (St James of the Butchers) because its main patrons were the butchers selling at the nearby market (now Les Halles).
Below, the elaborate tracery of the bell tower screams Flamboyant:
A bit of context: Paris wasn’t always the capital of the Frankish kingdom. But about a thousand years ago, the first kings of the Capetian dynasty made Paris the center of royal power and built a palace complex on Île de la Cité and a fortified wall around the city. The palace complex included the living quarters, the king’s chapel, the Great Hall, the Conciergerie, and the fortified Louvre Castle on the north side of the Seine (now destroyed).
All that has survived of these medieval edifices are Sainte Chapelle, three towers of the Conciergerie, and ruined segments of the Wall of Philippe Auguste.
Wall of Philippe-Auguste: from gladiator arena to fortified walls
From my earlier post on Les Arènes de Lutèce, it’s apparent that Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is mostly a reconstruction. One might well ask, what amphitheatre? Hardly any of the original stones remain. It’s nothing like the Gallo-Roman Arènes de Nîmes, whose still-standing form echoes the Colosseum of Rome. So what happened to the stones of Paris’ ancient amphitheatre?
The short answer: many of the stones were carted off to build defensive walls around Paris — first, for reinforcement of a wall on Île de la Cité built by Gauls and Romans following barbarian invasions, and later, for the Wall of Philippe-Auguste (built 1190-1220). The wall, which was begun shortly after the start of Notre Dame, is one of the earliest medieval structures to survive (albeit in a ruined and sporadic state).
Finding these remnants of the wall is like a scavenger hunt.
The fortified wall, which protected both the Right and Left Banks, proved inadequate during the Hundred Years War, so Charles V built an expanded city wall. A few remnants of the older Philippe Auguste Wall have survived as monuments that physically invoke Paris’ history.
Below, the ruins of Tour Montgomery, one of 77 towers of the Philippe-Auguste Wall:
On Rue du Louvre, part of a tower belonging to the wall lives on:
La Conciergerie towers
The saint-king Louis IX built Sainte Chapelle in the 13th century to house Christian relics. Soon afterward, Philippe IV (reined 1284-1314) built the fortified facade along the Seine to protect the expanding castle complex. (The facades between the towers date from the 19th century.)
House of Nicolas Flamel
Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) was a scribe (pre-printing press), landlord, wealthy philanthropist, and reputed alchemist. He’s one of those extraordinarily malleable historical figures whose real and mythical lives are so far blended that — in the popular imagination, at least — they can no longer be disentangled. Which makes Flamel’s biography susceptible to appropriation.
The myth of Flamel-as-alchemist apparently arose in the 17th century, hundreds of years after Flamel’s death. But what was the motivation? To sell a book creating a legend? To popularize the tenets of alchemy? Regardless, the myth gave rise to 19th-century Flamel sightings at the opera (alchemy was believed to make its successful practitioner immortal as well as rich in gold). The myth of Flamel’s ties to alchemy was recently popularized in the Harry Potter series.
Thus the expression: “À chacun son Flamel” (To each his Flamel)
As to the house of Nicolas Flamel: Not only is it possibly the oldest residential structure in Paris (1407), but it also retains its original medieval appearance. It served as a hostel for the indigent, one of Flamel’s philanthropic endeavours.
The inscription above the doors and windows of the ground floor exhorts the auberge residents to pray for the “poor deceased sinners.” The columns feature angels. As far as I know, no alchemical encoding.
Tour Jean Sans-Peur (Fearless John’s Tower)
The fortress-tower of aristocratic Jean Sans-Peur (aka Duke of Burgundy, 1371-1419) is all that remains of a larger castle complex. The castle connected with the Wall of Philippe-Auguste, but that wall was no longer an active protection during the time of Jean Sans-Peur, having been replaced by the wall of Charles V.
Jean San-Peur’s tower was indeed a defensive structure featuring thick walls, lookouts, and a “safe room” on a top level in case of attack. It also had mâchicoulis — openings on the tower’s exterior upper levels, through which nasty things like boiling oil could be cast onto invaders attempting to storm the castle.
Jean the fearless warrior was paranoid — and Machiavellian. He became embroiled in palace intrigue at the court of his cousin Charles VI “le Fou.” Jean and other aristocrats jockeyed for position to grab power in case the mentally ill king and his son, the unhealthy dauphin, became incapacitated.
An exhibit in one of the chambers tells of the sometimes violent psychotic breaks of Charles VI, as well as the hornet’s nest of ambitious courtiers hovering over his crown.
Who’s the Bigfoot? A guest at a royal wedding celebration, of course, recounting a weird and bloodcurdling tale. Charles VI and five of his knights dressed like wild men by gluing flax onto a linen body suit and then chaining themselves together. While the aristocratic savages were cavorting, the inebriated brother of Charles VI entered with a torch that somehow set the masquerading men ablaze. Four knights were killed in the inferno. Of the “savages,” only the king and one knight survived.
The wedding celebration earned the moniker “Le Bal des Ardents” (The Ball of the Burning Men) and inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Hop-Frog.” Following the macabre event, the mentally unstable king suffered breakdowns the rest of his life.
Perhaps Fearless John’s moniker should be “ruthless.” He contracted the murder of the king’s brother, the Duc d’Orléans, and rationalized the assassination by pointing to the decadence of the king’s court, epitomized by the grisly Bal des Ardents. Jean got away with the murder as “justifiable tyrannicide.”
Nasty piece of business, Jean Sans-Peur.
After the assassination, Jean Sans-Peur completed the construction of his castle with tower in 1411, a symbolic gesture of political power and a signalling of his advancement toward his ultimate goal — kingship, and much bigger fortified towers.
Ultimately, Jean Sans-Peur’s intrepid reputation and stronghold castle could not protect him from his own machinations. Charles VI’s son, the dauphin, had him assassinated. All of this palace intrigue took place against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War as well as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War. Chaotic times.
The dauphin was eventually successful in his claim to the throne, and he was crowned Charles VII, King of France, aptly nicknamed “the Victorious.” In Jean Fouquet’s portrait of Charles VII, curtains open on the “very victorious” and very fashionable king:
As to the tower itself, built 1409-1411, a spiral staircase leads past a large, open chamber with vaulted ceiling, and up to the tower’s two upper chambers. The small, spartan rooms, one above the other, were likely for reading or holding audiences — or taking refuge against attacks by Armagnac knights.
The tower was largely a utilitarian defensive structure. Nonetheless, it contains a jewel of Flamboyant Gothic sculpting: the highly symbolic carving of leaves and branches at the top of the spiral staircase, like a living, organic vaulted ceiling.
The carved oak, hawthorne, and hops are plants associated with the Duke of Burgundy’s family.
The vegetation in its original painted state might make you forget that you’re standing in a claustrophobic spiral staircase, steps away from a safe room:
Jean Sans-Peur’s WC:
Hôtel de Sens: A palace for an archbishop
The Hôtel de Sens was a late medieval palace built 1474-1519 for the archbishops of Sens, a city about 75 miles southwest of Paris. In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, these archbishops of Sens held a higher rank than other archbishops in France, with accompanying authority and privileges.
One of those privileges was living in a baronial Paris residence in flamboyant Gothic style with gargoyles, pinnacles, and turrets of the sort that inspired Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century medieval restorations.
A cannonball from the fighting during the brief revolution of Trois Glorieuses is still embedded in the facade of the Hotel de Sens. The date is inscribed on the stone: July 28, 1830.
The formal garden of the Hôtel de Sens:
The City of Paris acquired and restored the former palace, which now houses the Forney Library, dedicated to the visual arts. I arrived at closing time, so I had to content myself with the exquisite staircase and balconies of the foyer:
Nos 11 & 13, Rue François Miron
Two of Paris’ rare medieval residences are next door to one another, at Nos 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron:
Medieval, that is, with several revisions along the way. Records date the two buildings from the early 16th century, but they could have been built as early as the 14th century. The two buildings were elevated from their original structures.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what architecture earns the label “original.” A general impression of antiquity or quaintness doesn’t mean much. From the first stone laid to the last plaster spread during renovations to the collapse into ruins, what constitutes “original” or “authentic”?
Two years ago, I was having lunch at my neighbourhood bistro and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Parisian woman next to me. She asked me what I had seen in Paris, and I mentioned that I was interested in finding medieval streets that had escaped Haussmann’s bulldozer. I gave her a couple of examples — Rue des Barres, Rue de Nevers — and she shook her head sadly. “A structure here and here, yes,” she said. “And some ancient streets may lie along their original paths. But even individual buildings are very rarely medieval. Quel dommage!”
When I speak with Parisians about medieval Paris, I sense their regret that Haussmann didn’t spare at least one medieval quartier. The desire to preserve is mingled with nostalgia. Paris regrets its great erasures, such as medieval Paris and Baltard’s market pavilions at Les Halles. Paris likes to see where she came from, and to incorporate that somehow into her new vision. With modern running water and sewage disposal, of course.
With the caveat, then, that medieval Paris streets — in the sense of stretches of original structures — are illusory . . .
Right Bank — A Wedge of Medieval Marais
The paths of several medieval streets somehow escaped Haussmann’s reconfiguration in the area of the Marais just east of l’Hôtel de Ville. It’s an ancient wedge of Paris, a solid little hamlet boasting two baroque churches, notable hôtels particuliers, a section of Philippe-Auguste Wall, and Village St-Paul, among other treasures.
One of my favourite places in Paris is Rue Charlemagne in that same “hamlet” in the Marias. The construction of the street in the mid-14th century cut through the Philippe Auguste Wall. Ruins of that wall nonetheless survive as the ruined Montgomery Tower on Rue Charlemagne as well as the longest stretch of the wall in Paris, along the perpendicular Rue des Jardins St-Paul. To the left in the image below is the ruined tower of the ancient wall and to the right, the entrance to Lycée Charlemagne, a middle and high school (formerly a medieval residence for Jesuits):
Memorial plaque at the entrance to Lycée Charlemagne acknowledging the deportation from 1942-1944 of Jewish students to death camps, “innocent victims of Nazi barbarism, with the active complicity of the Vichy Government”:
19th-century fountain to the right of Lycée Charlemagne:
Rue des Barres
Rue des Barres dates back at least to the 13th century. Located near Pont Louis-Philippe, the street starts at the Seine, along which mills operated, owned by the Templars. At that time in the 13th century, the street was called Ruelle des Moulins-du-Temple (Lane of the Templars’ Mills).
Rue des Barres leads past the baroque Église Saint-Gervais Saint-Protais. It’s also steps away from the Mémorial de la Shoah.
Rue Cloche Perce
Located just around the corner of the side-by-side half-timber houses on Rue François-Miron . . .
. . . is a narrow cobblestone lane created before 1250.
A claustrophobic medieval atmosphere enshrouds the short Rue Cloche Perce (Street of the Persian-blue Bell). It is sometimes called Rue Cloche Percée (Street of the Pierced Bell). The street was supposedly named after a bygone shop sign — but did that sign bear the image of a Persian-blue bell? Or a pierced bell? The debate rages even today.
Rue Mouffetard — from Neolithic to gentrified
Rue Mouffetard has medieval roots, but it goes back farther to Gallo-Roman times, when it continued southward toward Italy and ultimately, Rome. It’s more ancient yet: the Romans lay stones along a Neolithic lane. Thousands of years later, here we are:
Rue Mouffetard and adjacent areas have seen the renovation of formerly working class residences and neighbourhoods, and the escalation of housing costs.
A couple of passages off Rue Mouffetard:
Below: The ornate facade on Rue Mouffetard was in effect an advertisement for the 1930s boucherie at ground level.
The animals seem to be ensnared in the decorative geometric “net.” This unique work was created using a pottery technique called “sgraffito” (It. scratch), in which a tool is scraped along a surface to reveal a different hue beneath it.
A cheeky 17th-century advertisement:
Plaque commemorating the Prussian siege of Paris, January 17, 1871:
Aside: Near Rue Mouffetard, at 6 Rue du Pot de Fer, resided the twenty-something George Orwell from 1928 to 1929 during his slumming adventures in Paris, living in extreme poverty and working as a dishwasher (plongeur) for a restaurant. He related his experiences in his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.
Orwell’s description of washing dishes for a living:
[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. . . . His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. . . . [He has] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.
Rue de Nevers
Pont Neuf, completed in the early 17th century, leads directly to the short medieval lane of Rue de Nevers.
The edifice through which one passes to enter the lane is a drum roll from the 17th century — in reality, a counterfeit. During the early 1930s, architect Joseph Marrast was commissioned to design Carrefour Curie, a residential building with a portico entrance to the Rue de Nevers. The structure was to reflect the architectural style of the 17th century, but the concrete archway and the style of the frieze at the top betray its more recent age.
On the ceiling of the concrete archway is inscribed a 17th-century scatalogical poem by Claude Le Petit. The poète maudit satirizes Pont Neuf — the rogues and dupes who gathered on the bridge and the sewage-laden waters of the Seine that flowed under it.
At its inception in the 13th century, Rue de Nevers functioned as a back alley, connecting services to the rear of a monastery. A rut along the lane carried sewage from the monastery to the Seine. It still looks like a back alley, but contemporary eyes and noses might regard it as a quaint one.
Rue de Bièvre
Rue de Bièvre existed at least as far back as the Middle Ages:
This street follows the path of the Bièvre River (now covered over). Pre-Haussmann, the waterway was something of a sewer and a dumping place for the tanneries and laundries that lined it. When I was there, I could picture Paris’ polluted little river flowing where a street now lies. As to the edifices on either side, until recently I had been content to believe that at least some of them were medieval.
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.
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, 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):
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
In the little hamlet of the Marais east of l’Hôtel de Ville are “fraternal twin” baroque churches, each dedicated to two saints.
Although their decoration is contrasting (one plain, the other ornate), their structural similarities are apparent: three levels, each with a set of columns. Their interiors are a different story: one Gothic, the other baroque.
First, the plain twin:
Église St-Gervais et St-Protais
Gothic interior, baroque facade
It took about 150 years to build St-Gervais St-Protais. In 1494, the nave and apse were begun in the Flamboyant Gothic style, but construction was delayed by the Hundred Years War and a lack of funding.
Come time to build the facade, architectural style was starting to shift toward the new baroque, introduced in Italy. Architect Salomon de Brosse embraced that innovation in his design for the church’s facade. Constructed 1616-1621, it was the first baroque church facade in France.
The facade of St-Gervais St-Protais is capped with an arched pediment — unlike the pointed gables of Gothic predecessors.
The eye is drawn upward along the inner two columns of the first two levels, with their three bays, to the top level, with its one. The columns of each level are progressively more slender, giving a feeling of lightness to the upper level.
Each set of columns of the three levels displays a different classical order: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, one stacked above the other and progressing from the plainest (Ionic) to the most ornate (Corinthian).
The three orders announce the ties of the new baroque style to ancient Greek and Roman architecture.
St-Gervais St-Protais is renowned for its 16th– and 17th-century stained glass:
I also find myself drawn to the gorgeous 20th-century stained-glass windows. Below, Sylvie Gaudin’s Pentacost (1995):
Below, modern stained glass by Claude Courageux:
The unusual stained glass window below combines early 16th-century (upper panes) with mid-20th-century. It tells the story of Isabelle and her brother King Louis IX.
Below, saint-king Louis IX in the Seventh Crusade attacking Damietta, a port city in Egypt.
Louis IX, tireless Crusader and would-be conqueror, sailed off to capture Damietta, controlled by a caliphate. Louis himself was later captured and was forced to relinquish Damietta as ransom. The Seventh Crusade was a disaster for Louis. In the end, his men were starving and demoralized. One Knight Templar wrote:
They will make a Mosque of Holy Mary’s convent, and since the theft pleases her Son, who should weep at this, we are forced to comply as well … Anyone who wishes to fight the Turks is mad, for Jesus Christ does not fight them any more. They have conquered, they will conquer. For every day they drive us down, knowing that God, who was awake, sleeps now, and Muhammad waxes powerful.
from Stephen Howarth
In the battle between the knight’s absolute belief that his mission was divinely protected and the reality of its abject failure, God lost. Small comfort to the miserable knight. The inquisition caught up with the Knights Templar, not for such cynical laments but because of their growing wealth and power.
Louis was canonized by the Catholic Church, as was his sister Isabelle. The pane below depicts Isabelle’s second burial. According to her hagiography, her body was exhumed nine days after her death and miraculously showed no sign of decomposition.
Louis achieved sainthood in part for bringing to France holy relics. His sister Isabelle was canonized for her body’s resistance to becoming one.
In addition to its treasury of stained glass, St-Gervais St-Protais houses notable wood sculptures, sacred and profane. The church was named after twin Christian martyrs in Rome. Below, a carving of St Gervais by Michel Bourdin (c. 1620). Gervais holds a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom.
In its visceral depiction of suffering, the carved oak sculpture of Christ on the Cross by Auguste Préault (1809-1879) brings to mind Mathias Grünewald’s crucifixion scene, painted more than 300 years earlier.
Below: early 16th-century choir stalls (aka “mercy seats”), where clergy could rest — but not quite sit — during services.
Carved from wood, each stall sports a different scene from ordinary secular life. Below: a cooper with his casks:
Domesticated wild boar?
Some of the carvings depicting nudity (especially female) have been defaced, like the mermaid below . . .
. . . and this hot tub scene:
Model of the church facade, carved in wood and installed on a chapel wall:
The community elm tree
The community elm tree in front of St-Gervais St-Protais was a meeting place for various neighbourhood activities since medieval times. Chopped down during the French Revolution, it was later replaced.
Wrought iron depictions of the elm tree on a nearby balcony celebrate the traditional tree.
Église St-Paul et St-Louis
The ornate façade of St-Paul St-Louis follows the same general form as its older counterpart. Both are bilaterally symmetrical: the form of the left half mirrors that of the right.
But unlike St-Gervais St-Protais’ split personality of Gothic and baroque, the younger St-Paul St-Louis displays 17th-century baroque inside and out. St-Gervais St-Protais, an architectural pioneer, helped to inaugurate the qualities of the new French baroque.
The façade of St-Paul St-Louis is distinguished by its extreme ornamentation, a baroque proclivity exemplified by its third level:
In the emerging 17th-century French baroque style, the dome took center stage Inside, light streams from cupolas, an innovation inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
Treasures of St-Paul St-Louis
Eugène Delacroix painted Christ in the Garden of Olives in 1826 for St-Paul St-Louis:
La Vierge de douleur by French Renaissance sculptor Germain Pilon:
Students hang out in front of 17th-century baroque Sorbonne Chapel, designed by Jacques Lemercier.
Temple du Marais
Below, the dome of the former church of Ste Marie de la Visitation is echoed in the arch over the rose window and the classical portal.
Architect: François Mansart; built 1632-1634. It’s now a Protestant church.
Dôme des Invalides
The former royal church of the Dôme des Invalides is a late baroque edifice designed in 1676 and completed in 1706. The architect who won the commission was Jules Hardouin-Mansart, grand-nephew of François Mansart, who designed the early baroque Temple du Marais.
The baroque style of grand-nephew Mansart had certainly evolved in size and complexity since the beginnings of the French baroque.
The size and weight of Mansart’s gold-plated dome for Les Invalides posed a problem for the load-bearing walls of the church. Mansart resolved this dilemma by using double columns as buttresses to support the dome and distribute its weight downward instead of outward.
There’s something pleasing and symmetrical about the proportions of the church. A (very) casual measurement tells me that, excluding the dome, the height and width of the building are equivalent.
The modest-sized church at Rue du Gribeauval was built entirely in the baroque style as a chapel for the Reform Dominicans, or Jacobins.
Église St-Thomas-d’Aquin was constructed in 1682, and the facade was added in 1766 — late for the baroque, but consistent with the style of the rest of the church.
The church isn’t easy to find: it’s tucked into a roundabout off Rue du Bac.
From monastery to artillery museum
As my eyes scanned the other buildings in the circle, I noticed something odd about the building to the left (below), the pediment in particular:
A cannon and a rocket, nestled among oak leaves and acorns, are engraved in the pediment:
Why the weapons of war? The pediment belonged to a building that was part of the monastery complex of Église St-Thomas-d’Aquin. After the French Revolution, the monks lost the use of their monastery and church . During the reign of Napoleon I, the church reverted to religious use, but the monks didn’t get back their monastery.
The building in question became a weapons depot and later morphed into the Museum of Artillery.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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:
The kings of France, in order to increase their revenue by collecting more taxes, granted lucrative rights to a few select fermiers généraux (“tax farmers”) to collect customs and other fees. These fermiersgénéraux were allowed to keep a percentage of the financial “harvest” after the king took his share.
The structure below is not a mansion but one of the tollhouses that allowed the fermiersgénéraux to collect customs for merchandise entering Paris. This privilege allowed them to amass immense wealth.
Resentment over the unfairness of these taxes, and the sometimes brutal measures that the fermiersgénéraux took to collect them, led to the abolition of the system during the French Revolution. The wealthy tax collectors were among the first to face the guillotine.
Many of the surviving mansions from l’ancien régime were built by fermiersgénéraux. They were normally expansive, free-standing residences situated between a ceremonial courtyard (the cour d’honneur) and a garden.
After the French Revolution abolished the system of tax collection and executed its “farmers,” many hôtels particuliers were converted to museums, schools, hotels, government buildings, or residences for foreign ambassadors.
Hôtels Particuliers of the 17th & 18th Centuries
The first mansion at this site was built in 1587. Over the centuries, it was renovated and transformed. After the French Revolution, it was retrofitted as a sugar refinery. It reached its present Italian-Spanish Neo-Baroque style in 1857.
Hôtel de Mayenne
Site of a medieval mansion, Hôtel de Mayenne underwent architectural transformations over the centuries and reached its (approximate) present state in the first half of the 17th century. It now houses a school.
Hôtel de Chenizot
Chimeras descended from medieval bestiaries support the ornate balcony, :
Built 1711-1713. It’s currently t is the residence of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to France.
Hôtel de Choiseul-Praslin
Baroque-style mansion built in 1732:
Hôtel de Salm
Mansion built 1782-1787 for a German prince. The Revolutionary government nationalized the building to house the Légion d’honneur. Thomas Jefferson, during his ambassadorship in Paris, admired the building and modeled his Monticello on the design.
Built in 1248 and rebuilt in 1585. Until it was appropriated during the French Revolution, it belonged to a a Cistercian abbey. It now houses the Association for the Safeguarding and Enhancement of Historic Paris.
Rue de l’Estrapade
Former hôtel particulier and coffee roasting factory, built at the end of the 18th century.
A look inside a 19th-century hôtel particulier: Musée Jacquemart-André
The hôtel particulier Jacquemart-André is an exception to the “tax farmer” category — Eduard André came from a Protestant family of successful bankers. He married a talented society painter, Nélie Jacquemart, and together they built a mansion (1869-1875) and amassed a large collection of art. They willed both to the state, which opened it to the public as an historic monument and art museum.
The tea room at the Musée Jacquemart-André:
The tea room’s walls are hung with tapestries from the celebrated Gobelins factory, illustrating the life of Achilles.
A trompe l’oeil mural on the ceiling:
I have resisted until now posting pictures of food, but the tarte aux figues below was beyond irresistible.
Lagnappe: a couple of paintings at an Impressionist exhibit at Musée Jacquemart-Andrée:
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895): Jeune fille sur l’herbe (detail)
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), La Change, épisode de chasse au chevreuil