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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.