|Welcome to Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France. All photography property of EuroTravelogue™. Please do not use without permission.|
One of the first things I like to do whenever I arrive in a city I have never visited is to embark on a walking tour, or canal tour as in the case of Venice, to learn the lay of the land, so to speak. Although my Da Vinci Code Tour was limited to the journey from the 1st to the 6th arrondissements in Paris, I enjoyed every step along the way from the Ritz Carlton in Place Vendome, to the Louvre and through the Tuileries Gardens, across the Pont des Arts and ultimately ending at Saint-Sulpice—an unexpected surprise revealing many treasures within.
More renowned today because of its role in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” Saint-Sulpice is filled with magnificent architecture, 19th-century frescoes, sculptures and one of the most fascinating artifacts I’ve ever encountered—the gnomon. While this church offers many discoveries, I am going to point out just a few lest this article becomes a guidebook. Join me on this fascinating tour through history and through Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.
The original site on which Saint-Sulpice stands actually dates back to the 7th century where once a tiny chapel stood. The church we see today is actually the second incarnation after its predecessor, a 13th-century Gothic church, had to be demolished to make room for the new edifice. With its first stone laid in 1646, building began with most of the work completed by Louis Le Vau and Daniel Gittard in the 17th century and then later by Florentine architect Giovanni Servandoni in the 18th century. Because of financial and architectural delays that plagued the site, construction lasted for nearly 140 years and the struggles continued right up to the end with the design of the towers and the onslaught of the French Revolution.
|Looking down the nave to the High Altar and the Chapel of the Virgin in the background.|
Because Servandoni’s design for the towers was rejected, another architect named MacLaurin went on to build two towers but after they were completed, they fell out of public favor and the new commission was awarded to an up-and-coming architect named Jean Francois Chalgrin who went on to complete only the north tower in 1788. The next year brought the French Revolution and the pillaged Saint-Sulpice became a “Temple of Victory.” Needless to say, Chagrin never completed the south tower (on right) resulting in the two distinct towers we see today. Thankfully, an extensive restoration ensued in the early 19th century and restored the Saint-Sulpice church to its present day condition.
|One of many frescoes throughout Saint-Sulpice.|
Impressive and grandiose in design, today’s Saint-Sulpice stands at 113 meters long and 58 meters wide making it Paris’ second largest church after Notre Dame, which measures in at 128 by 69 respectively. Upon entering, the magnificent architecture reveals a colossal nave filled with glorious light dancing upon its vaulted ceiling. Lining the nave are various chapels, most notably the Chapel of Saint Agnes on the right just after you enter. Adorning the chapel walls and vaults are three remarkable frescoes completed by Delacroix in 1861 during the renovation: "The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel" and the "Fall of Heliodorus" on each side of the window and upon the vault overhead, "St. Michael Overwhelming the Demon." You definitely don't want to miss these!
|Astonishing stained-glass windows high above the altar show Christ flanked by a chalice and the cross.|
|Close-up view of the central stained-glass window.|
|The Chapel of the Virgin features Pagalle's 'Virgin and Child'|
Behind the altar on the back wall of the Chapel of the Virgin, hangs the exquisite statue of the “Virgin and Child” completed by Jean Baptiste Pigalle in the latter 18th century and set magnificently against a backdrop of radiating streams of holy light—a most wondrous sight! And high above it all are three astonishing stained glass windows with Jesus Christ in the center flanked by a chalice and cross.
|Great Organ of Saint-Sulpice with its 6,588 pipes stretching to the vaults.|
Turn around and above the western door, you’ll see the Great Organ of Saint-Sulpice with its 6,588 pipes stretching to the vaults. Originally built in 1781 by Francois-Henri Clicquot, the organ was rebuilt by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862 and encased by Chalgrin.
|The gnomon marks the winter solstice high on the Egyptian obelisk.|
Last but not least on my list is one of the most fascinating features inside Saint-Sulpice—the gnomon—designed and installed by Henri de Sully in 1727. A gnomon is an astronomical instrument used to measure the solstices and equinoxes and was relied upon to calculate the precise date of Easter in 18th century. Look for the meridian line or narrow brass strip that stretches across the transept from north to south ending at the sphere atop the Egyptian marble obelisk. How do we measure the time of year?
|Next to the blackened window, you'll see the tiny portal that allows sunlight to mark the solstices and equinoxes.|
By allowing the sun to pass through a tiny portal 80 feet high in the south-transept window, we can mark the winter and summer solstices by the two ends of the line, and the equinoxes by the points at which the sunlight bisects the line. Because the church wasn’t wide enough to accommodate the point of the winter solstice, the obelisk was installed. I am still intrigued by this amazing accomplishment of the 18th century.
|Close-up view of the base of the obelisk explains the function of the gnomon albeit in Latin.|
These are only but a few of the treasures that await you on your visit to Saint-Sulpice. I hope you enjoyed your journey and that you take a walking tour of your own the next time you find yourself in a brand new city! You never know what fascinating places may be just around the corner.
|Despite contrary belief, the initials 'PS' do not stand for the Priory of Sion but for Saint Peter or Peter and Sulpice. ; )|
Au Revoir from the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris.
Additional Reading and Viewing:
- Panoramic tour through Saint Sulpice
- Postcards from Paris
- Sainte Chapelle’s Tapestries of Light
- Saint-Denis: Steeped in the History of the French Monarchy