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Modern France

Gallery: Churches of Paris

by Peter Kessler, 26 October 2009

 

 

6e Arrondissement Part 1: St-Germain-des-Prés

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés is on the Boulevard Saint-Germain where it meets Rue Bonaparte. Built on the rural outskirts of early Paris (des-Prés means 'of the fields'), the church was erected to house a relic of the True Cross. This was brought from Spain by the Merovingian king of Paris, Childebert I (511-558), son of Clovis, in 542 after he had been fighting against the Visigoth kingdom. A Benedictine monastery was soon added alongside the church.

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

Bishop Germain of Paris dedicated the church to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent in 558, on the very same day that Childebert died. The church served as a burial place for the Merovingian kings of Neustria (Paris and north-western France). Many of them were buried in the Chapelle de St-Symphorien, which was restored in 1981. Thanks to this and to royal patronage, the church was so powerful that it quickly became a town within the town of Paris, or rather, on its outskirts.

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

The site covered by the church and abbey was vast, extending well across what is now the Boulevard Saint-Germain and with gardens and buildings stretching much further to the north. Unfortunately, the Vikings all but destroyed the abbey at least four times, and only the marble columns in the triforium remain from the original structure. The carved capitals on the pillars are copies of the originals, which are kept in the National Museum of the Middle Ages.

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

The church was rebuilt in 1014, at which time the Romanesque square tower was added, but without the spire that exists today. The church was enlarged and reconsecrated by Pope Alexander III in 1163, being dedicated to the canonised Bishop Germain. The tower at the western end of the abbey church was pierced by a Romanesque portal at this time. This collapsed in 1604, so a new portal in the Classicist style was built and survives to this day as the main entrance.

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

The abbey prison, which was erected in the Middle Ages and stood over what is now the Boulevard Saint-Germain, was rebuilt in 1635. In 1675 it became a military prison in which conditions were known to be very poor. It was the site of one of the September massacres during the Revolution in 1792, and was eventually demolished to make way for the boulevard. The abbey itself was also completely destroyed during the Revolution.

Église de St Germain-des-Prés

An explosion of saltpetre which was being stored inside it completely levelled it and its cloisters. Fortunately, the abbey church was spared. A separate fire in 1794 destroyed the library. The church's landmark spire was added to the square tower in the nineteenth century. Among others interred in the church are Descartes (just his heart; the rest is in the Pantheon) and Jean-Casimir, the king of Poland who abdicated his throne.

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