The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Paris Bell-Tower Stroll
Faith and Urban Design
Once, “the city of a hundred bell towers” was an enviable title. Competition was stiff amongst medieval cities when church bells and carillons set the pace for religious and civil life. French towns tended to develop helter-skelter, and as a result, street-level views were generally cluttered. It wasn’t until the 17th century that city-planning niceties were copied from Italy, and spacious squares enhanced new churches.
Around 1780, a scheme called the “artists’ plan” called for large-scale compositions around major buildings in Paris. Churches like Saint-Sulpice, though never finished, were prime examples of this shift in urban æsthetics. The whirlwind of the French Revolution led to even more radical changes in the cityscape. Entire neighbourhoods were torn down as the old order gave way to the new one.
After the Concordat, normalisation of France’s diplomatic relations with the Vatican spurred construction of new religious edifices. Their design conformed to classical canons of city planning. Given their grace and beauty, it is hardly surprising that churches became design elements in urban structure and bell towers were viewed more as assets and embellishments than as religious necessities. The sheer beauty of a tall steeple added value to surrounding real estate. In the 20th century, the traditional spire roused architects to create stunning new concepts.
25, rue de la Lune, 2nd arrondissement
The bell tower is all that remains of the Bonne Nouvelle church erected in 1624. By 1793, the church had become so dilapidated officials moved to raze it and start afresh. Nevertheless, parishioners managed to convince Godde, the architect, to incorporate the old spire in his plans. In the 1830s, during the Restoration, city administrators saw no problem in conserving this symbol of the old monarchy.
Bonne Nouvelle parish served the village built on a manmade butte graded in 1623. New north-south streets crisscrossed east-west streets, all equally narrow. The cramped streets allowed but fleeting glimpses of the bell tower. Only the tip was visible, but it still drew the eye heavenward, thus fulfilling its religious purpose. On the other hand, it had little impact on the neighbourhood as a whole. At best, the bell tower was a landmark for two intersecting streets but failed to give the area any character.
Had you travelled this royal and sacred road several hundred years ago, you'd have seen dozens of church bell towers. Only one remains today. Gone are Sainte-Opportune, Saints-Innocents, Saint-Sépulcre and the Saint-Magloire abbey. Gone, too, are the chapels of Saint-Jacques’ hospital, Enfants Bleus, Filles-Dieu, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Sauveur.
The lone survivor, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, underwent drastic alterations. In the mid-19th century, a second tower sprang up opposite the first, to satisfy a prevailing contemporary passion for symmetry, sacrificing historical authenticity. Inspired by La Madeleine-de-Nonancourt in Normandy, the steeple is visible from only one side, and is therefore hardly justified. Nevertheless, it is easy for us today to imagine the church and its towers blending harmoniously with their surroundings. In terms of scale and style, they matched their environment.
Today’s gargoyle-bedecked bell tower is the sole vestige of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie. The 12th-century church was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic style at the height of the Renaissance (1508-1522). The ensemble closely resembled Saint-Aspais in Melun, built by the same architect. But Paris benefactors were more generous, particularly the butchers’ guild. Consequently, stonemasons sculpted especially rich ornamentation.
The church was demolished in 1797. A market went up on the spot in 1824. When Rue de Rivoli was laid out in 1853-1855, the Gothic tower received heavy-handed restoration. Houses crowding it were torn down to make room for the square. The impressive old tower, originally designed for the dual purpose of calling the faithful to worship and symbolizing the clout of the tradesmen, became mere urban decoration.
Associated with such legendary greats as alchemist Nicolas Flamel, who funded its construction, philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal, who conducted some of the earliest barometric experiments from the tower’s appreciable height of 58 meters, and physicist-astronomer François Arago, who convinced the city to purchase the tower in 1836, it escaped demolition in the 1800s. The tower’s recent restoration preserves its mystique for future generations of Paris-philes, awed by all things Gothic.
The history of the cathedral has been the subject of many books, so we shall confine these few paragraphs to that of the plaza in front. Markers indicate variations in street levels and the size of the plaza over its eight centuries of existence. Imagine this vast plaza hedged in by walls and one-sixth its current size as the heart of medieval Paris, throbbing with activity. Aside from being the backdrop for elaborate religious functions, it was used for public trials. Crowds gathered to hear gruesome sentences announced.. This is where Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, was sentenced to be burned alive.
18th-century demolition of nearby buildings enhanced the view of the bell towers. But the square was still four times smaller than today’s. The 19th-century renovation erased all trace of previous uses. ItThe plaza became a forum with Notre-Dame as an eastern wall. Today, the religious purpose of the towers has yielded to their utility as an excellent vantage point from which to view the city. The once tiny medieval church square has morphed into a spacious, windswept haven for modern globetrotters.
Built in 1000, the abbey’s porch tower is one of Paris's oldest surviving structures, but it underwent radical changes in the 19th century. Baltard's1822 "renovation" removed twin steeples on the transept and added windows to the single tower left standing, considerably diminishing the church's grandeur.
The pre-Revolutionary Abbaye was one of the world's largest monastic villages. What remains is a parish church, but it is still well worth a visit. Begin your tour at the western portico beside the esplanade. This entrance, beneath the colossal tower, is favoured for religious processions and is the one most often used by the faithful, but there are two others. The old main entrance is still visible on Rue de l’Abbaye.
The Revolution spelled the end of the monastery. When today’s Rue Bonaparte was created in 1804, the abbey, once an economic and intellectual powerhouse, was reduced to being a parish church.
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Although construction began in 1646, it wasn’t until 1732 that Saint-Sulpice had a solid back base for its north and south bell towers. It took four more decades before the church was finished.
Unlike other bidders for the contract, the Italian architect Servandoni dared to imagine the urban space differently. The Florentine-born artist's career as a designer of stage sets inspired him to pack this religious monument with all the powerful rhetoric of drama. But the original plan for the plaza, also inspired by the stage, was never carried out. Construction dragged into the next century when architectural tastes had changed.
Two massive bell towers are joined by dual colonnaded spans. The effect is like an architectural décor in a painting. The purpose of the towers is to balance the composition of the façade, not to lift the spirit heavenward.
Napoleon thought the square in front too small and had it doubled, abandoning the highly ordered architecture originally planned to embellish the perimeter.
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42, rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement
The Laënnec hospital was placed outside the city limits to give patients with incurable diseases a peaceful – and out-of-the-way – surroundingsetting. Designed by Gamard, the hospice was built between 1633 and 1640 on a grid plan with the chapel as the centrepiece. The steeple stood in the exact centre of the composition. The chapel was designed for patient use only. Demure and discreet, the steeple can barely be seen from the exterior. The wall about the property gave the hospice added privacy.
The bell tower of Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard is the only attraction of a long, prim and proper, tree-lined perspective. In the 1850s, during its construction, Vaugirard was an independent town. Financing came primarily from the city council. On land donated by Abbot Groult, architect Paul Naissant built a calm and serene church, one of the first pure examples of neo-Romanesque style, born at the same time as neo-Gothic style. This church served as a model for ordinary, yet solidly built, parish churches throughout France. The imposing bell tower appears reassuring and strong.
38, rue de Cronstadt, 15th arrondissement
Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette is a fine example of the renewal inspired by the Second Vatican Council. In 1965, architects Henri Colboc and Jean Dionis du Séjour designed this original church-in-the-round, crowned by an enormous, openwork concrete dome. Contact with the secular world is shunned and preference given to herding the faithful beneath one protective roof. The bells toll from the upper reaches of the structure.
The team from Architecture Studio designed this church in 1986, but it wasn’t completed until 1998. The nave resembles a wooden chest, symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant containing Moses’ Tablets of Stone engraved with the Ten Commandments.
Whilst traditional bell towers symbolize the victory of the spirit over matter, here we have a delicate metal netting enveloping the edifice, tapering off heavenward. Thus, the garden surrounding the church is never overshadowed and is constantly bathed in divine light, yet never separated from the worldly city whose soul it nourishes.
In this case, urban planning determined which direction the church would face and how it would respond to the intersection of three major avenues and a busy cross street. The second contributing factor was the capital’s mid-19th-century push to incorporate neighbouring towns. The architect, Vaudremer, faced two huge tasks: situating the bell tower as a signal of unification and, given the intersection’s complexity, determining the most accessible entrance. He resolved the problem by placing the entrance beneath the massive tower. The verticality is accentuated by the high gable; the eye is carried upwards to the thick cornice at the base of the belfry. Then the windows atop the pyramidal roof provide one last inspirational thrust upwards.
|Notre-Dame de Paris||Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard||Abbaye Saint-Germain-des-Prés|
Background Information on the Bell Tower Strolls :
The French Revolution brought enormous changes to both civil and religious life. The clauses in the 1801 Concordat signed between France and the Holy See, while sealing Revolutionary confiscation of ecclesiastical property, transferred ownership of parish churches to municipalities. Paris now had title and responsibility for roughly one hundred religious buildings, mostly Roman Catholic.
The legal situation, which remained in effect until the 1905 law on separation of church and state, actually benefited the religious buildings under municipal control. Clergy could access works of art confiscated during the Revolution. An active policy of interior decoration and new construction endowed Paris churches with exceptional artistic resources encompassing all periods of French art, from the classical to the modern.
The Direction des Affaires Culturelles de la Ville de Paris is now in charge of conservation of this priceless national heritage. This office is responsible for its inventory, maintenance, promotion, improvement, and any necessary restoration to preserve the buildings that house the pieces.