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The Paris Heritage Strolls


Temples or basilicas ?



Initially devoted to economic life and legal affairs, the Antique civil basilica - with three naves separated by rows of columns supporting a flat or vaulted roof, with the central nave finishing in a hemicycle - is well-suited to Christian worship due to its shape, and served as a model for the first Paleo-Christian churches. The basilica built by Lateranus under the reign of Nero became Saint Jean de Latron Church in accordance with the wishes of Constantine.

Churches such as Sainte-Agnès, Saint-Laurent and Saint-Paul outside of the city walls, Sainte Marie Majeure in Rome, Sainte Apollinaire in Ravenna, Saint Zenon in Verona and Saint Ambroise in Milan were thus built or reused.

Circa 1764, Potain, Trouard and Chalgrin were entrusted with building three parish churches, something which had not been done since the end of the previous century, in Saint-Germain en Laye (this project would only finally be completed during the Restoration), Saint-Symphorien Chapel in Versailles and Saint-Philippe-du-Roule in Paris. For their buildings, the architects would choose a model that had fallen out of fashion, but which they would certainly have studied on site during their stays in Rome: the Antique basilica.

These works were an immense success. Replicas started to appear all over France, where the State had promised the Vatican that they would give every parish its own church, following the Concordat. This was therefore an opportunity for the Empire, the Kingdom or the Republic to assert its centralising power by providing a single model, as was the case throughout the 19th century for many institutions (town halls, courts, theatres etc.)


enlarge and download the plan in pdf format(197,2 Ko)


Balades du patrimoine : puce1  (8th) 9, rue de Courcelles

The drawings by Taraval and engravings by Sellier provide us with a reminder of one of the masterpieces of Jean-François Thérèse Chalgrin.

The parish church of Le Roule, designed circa 1764 and finished in 1784, is very sober in style. It has three naves demarcated by an elegant Ionic colonnade, supporting an entablature bearing a large wooden barrel arch, adorned with a decoration resembling the Romanesque caissons, without any bays. The side aisles are also covered by a barrel arch and lead up to chapels with false tribunes with balustrades. In front of the central nave is an Antique-style portico, cleverly attached to the façade.

The light comes in through the windows in the lower side aisles and the two large choir bays. The choir has no deambulatory, simply a low spherical vault adorned with niches, with attached columns continuing the pattern of the nave. While the sculpture inside the building was for decorative purposes only, outside it was meant to have been expressed more freely beneath the external portico. However, the low relief by Gois, the Martyrdom of Saint Philip, a plaster model of which existed at the Museum of French Monuments, was not produced due to a lack of money. Only the tympanum on the pediment was decorated, with a work called Religion by François-Joseph Duret.

Sadly, the works that took place during the 19th century would alter Chalgrin’s project. In 1845, Etienne-Hippolyte Godde was appointed to carry out some major modifications. He opened up some bays in the central barrel arch, and transformed the apse into a choir with a deambulatory, destroying the circular wall, to build the Chapel of the Virgin in the axis of the nave. The caissons of the vault were hidden by Théodore Chassériau’s pathos-filled Descent from the Cross. In 1853, Victor Baltard added a vast Catechism Chapel to the northern lower side aisle. The beautiful stained glass windows by Hirsch unfortunately plunged the nave into darkness at the end of the century. In the 20th century, Godde’s wainscoting for the choir was removed.


Balades du patrimoine : puce2  (9th) 8, rue Choron

Here we can see a fully developed version of the model proposed by Chalgrin.

In 1823, Hippolyte Lebas won a competition to build a parish church in the Porcherons district, which was expanding at the time. The old church had been razed to the ground in 1796 and worshippers had to move to temporary premises. However, the congregation would have to wait until 1836 to finally be able to enter the new building. The external portico is a faithful copy of the Temple of Augustus at Pola (Pula, Croatia). The triangular tympanum is adorned with a remarkable relief sculpted by Charles Leboeuf Nanteuil, while the rampant moulding on the pediment is an early example of the use of cast iron in architectural decoration.

Lebas modified Chalgrin’s preliminary spatial design to produce an internal layout more similar to that of the Antique models in Rome, Sainte Marie Majeure and Saint Chrysogone: in fact the building has five naves, separated by four rows of Ionic columns, and the vault was abandoned in favour of a flat caisson ceiling. The internal elevation consists of two levels, the central nave leads up to a large arch in the wall, and the chapels are positioned laterally. The high altar is topped by a canopy, following a very similar design to the external portico.

But Lebas’ return to the Paleo-Christian sources is perhaps even more evident in the large painted decorations which were integrated into the architecture from the sketch stage of the competition. However, there are no mosaics here - these are actual paintings. Upon entering the nave, one is first of all struck by the impression of unity. However, the works produced by the thirty or so painters who contributed to the decorations form a real catalogue of the aesthetic trends of the time. Yet the neatness of the architecture, the even light, the majestic golden caisson ceiling, the polychrome treatment of the walls and the powerful framing of the works ensure the consistency of the ensemble.

It should be noted that certain new trends in religious art were seen on this site for the first time, in particular the Archaic “Neo-Christian” taste, which referred back to the Italian Quattrocento masters who preceded Raphael, such as Fra Angelico or Masaccio (Chapel of the Virgin, Victor Orsel; Baptism Chapel, Glorification, Adolphe Roger), and the first attempts to recreate coloured stained glass windows (the Assumption by Delorme, painted glass from the Sèvres workshops).


Balades du patrimoine : puce3  (2nd) 19, rue Beauregard

This early 17th-century church was most probably in a very poor condition when the City bought it in 1803 from three parishioners who had acquired it in 1797 to try to keep it from falling into disrepair. All that is left today is the black marble plaque commemorating the laying of the first stone by Anne of Austria in 1628, and the bell tower, which is more recent. An architect of the City of Paris, Etienne Hippolyte Godde, was appointed to reconstruct this parish church. We have already seen his work at Saint-Philippe-du-Roule. The work started in 1823 and ended in 1830. This church was also based on the basilica plan, but displays none of the refinement or talent developed by Chalgrin. This is a modest imitation of the model, inserted into a very dense urban environment. Because of the poor quality of the soil, the architect wisely chose to strive for lightness, an area in which he was very skilled.

Here, however, Godde makes use of a preliminary design developed in Boves in Picardie, inspired by Le Roule, which he would reproduce at Saint-Pierre-du-Gros-Caillou (Saint Pierre du Gros Caillou) and Saint-Denis-du-Saint-Sacrament. He thus established his own version of the basilica model, including a portico with four columns and no base, attached to the façade; a central nave covered by a barrel arch leading up to an apse with a low spherical vault; side aisles with groined vaults; and a set of side chapels in the lower side aisles containing the sacristies, starting with the Baptismal Font Chapel on one side, and the Penitence Chapel on the other. The Chapel of the Virgin makes good use of the irregular shape of the site, developing perpendicularly to the northern lower side aisle.

Adhering to a particularly streamlined version of the Neo-Classic style, Godde frequently used the primitive Greek Doric order seen in Paestum. His corner elevation is well-proportioned, in a street that offers little room around it, and the old bell tower has been cleverly incorporated into the composition.

At Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle, he called upon Auguste Hesse and Abel de Pujol to carry out the extensive, original programme of decoration that adorns the walls. In their richness and exuberance, these monumental works are an integral part of the architecture and give the visitor a surprise as soon as they enter the building, in contrast to the austerity of its external appearance. Here, the sculpture is something of a poor relative.


Balades du patrimoine : puce4  (10th) 5, rue Belzunce

By the time this church was built, the basilica model was well established and was widespread in France. With Saint-Vincent-de Paul Church, Jacques-Ignace Hittorff would offer an original development, not so much in architectural terms as in urban and technical terms. It would therefore represent a move away from a tradition that had lasted nearly a hundred years in Paris. The parish, created by the Concordat, was founded in 1804. A temporary parish church was then built on the land of Saint-Lazare Priory, where Saint Vincent de Paul had once worked. It would be used for worship until 1825.

Work began in the early 1820’s, led by Jean-Baptiste Lepère. In 1831, Hittorff, Lepère’s son-in-law, took over the project and made significant changes to it. Work was finally completed in 1836. No doubt remembering his years in Rome, he placed a large, complex flight of steps in front of the building, located in an elevated position. He was directly inspired by the steps on the Piazza di Spagna, in front of the Trinità dei Monti Church, referring to its outline with two façade towers.

Taken out of its original context, this architectural reference gives a rather strange urban appearance to the group, since there is plenty of space around Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Church, whereas the Pincio hill is heavily built up.

Hittorff also expanded upon Chalgrin and Lebas’ models by superimposing two levels of colonnades on the inside, disproportionately accentuating the monumentality of the preliminary design. However, he paid special attention to two essential points, which he would develop brilliantly a few years later at the nearby Gare du Nord station.

First of all, he covered the central nave with an exposed cast iron framework. He then revisited the recent experiments of Alavoine in Rouen (cathedral spire in 1824), and foreshadowed the works of Martin at Chartres Cathedral (iron framework in 1837). On this occasion he developed a very sophisticated cast iron technique with Calla, which enabled him to produce complex ornamentation and decorations such as the choir railings and the great entrance door.

Polychrome decoration, a recurring theme throughout Hittorff’s work, is present here: the part of the façades that is sheltered by the portico was entirely covered with panels of enamelled lava rock, which were removed after a few years because they contained some nude figures that were considered shocking by certain parishioners. Two sets of panels were recently put back inside, in the first chapels.

The interior decorations feature some of that century’s finest examples of art. Rude sculpted the Calvary on the high altar, which is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces, while the Flandrin brothers produced some of their best work with the monumental paintings that run along the walls of the nave. Also worth noting is the organ case designed by Hittorff, which contains a very interesting instrument by Cavaillé-Coll.



Saint-Philippe-du-Roule Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle


Due to the provisions of the Concordat signed in 1801 between France and the Holy See, which ratified the Revolutionary seizures of the clergy’s possessions and transferred the property of the parish churches and their offices to the communes, the City of Paris currently owns around one hundred religious buildings, including a large number of Catholic churches.

The Concordat regime, which remained in force until the 1905 law separating Church and State, proved to be advantageous for religious buildings belonging to the commune. Making the works of art confiscated during the Revolution available to the clergy, combined with an active policy of commissioning decors and constructing new buildings, made the churches of Paris an artistic series of buildings of exceptional wealth covering the major periods of French art, from the Classical era to the modern period.

The Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Paris is currently responsible for conserving this considerable heritage. It is in charge of its inventory, maintenance and promotion as well as the restoration work necessary to conserve the buildings which house it.


Find all Vélib’ points at www.velib.paris.fr

Mise à jour le : 14 mai 2014
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