12 February 2024

Saint Séverin, the oldest
church in the Latin Quarter,
and the saint who gives his
name to a street and hotel

The Church of Saint-Séverin (Église Saint-Séverin) may be the oldest church in the 5th arrondissement in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

We were staying on the lively tourist street of Rue Saint-Séverin during our stay in Paris last week. The street and the hotel where we were staying on the Left Bank both take their name from the Church of Saint-Séverin (Église Saint-Séverin), perhaps the oldest church in 5th arrondissement.

The church, in turn, takes its name from Saint Séverin of Paris, a devout hermit who lived at the site in the sixth century, and died ca 540. One of his pupils, Clodoald or Saint Cloud, was a Merovingian prince who left the royal family to become a monk and hermit.

After Saint Séverin died, a chapel was built on the site of his cell, believed to be near the oratory of Saint Martin in the present church. This chapel was destroyed during the Norman invasions in the ninth century, and was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 11th century. Several sarcophogi from a cemetery of the Merovingian dynasty were discovered during rebuilding on the site in the 19th century.

Inside the Church of Saint-Séverin, first built in 1230 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church was first built in 1230, and this was the parish church for students at the University of Paris. After a fire, was rebuilt and enlarged in the 15th to 17th centuries in the Flamboyant Gothic style.

At the end of the 12th century, due to the popularity and growing size of the theology school attached to the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, the students and teachers were relocated to the Left Bank. The University of Paris was founded in 1215, and Saint Séverin became its parish church.

The fame of the university and its teachers attracted students and scholars from across Europe, and a larger church was needed. Work on a new building in the High Gothic style began ca 1230. The church was contemporary with Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. An additional aisle on the south side was built in the early 14th century.

The church was seriously damaged by fire in 1448 during the Hundred Years’ War. The archpriest Guillaume d’Estouteville began rebuilding the church in the more ornamental Flamboyant Gothic style. A new aisle was added on the north side, and, in 1489, a semi-circular apse and ambulatory were added at the east end, with dramatic Flamboyant columns, arches, and vaults, around a dramatic spiral central pillar.

A circle of radiating chapels was added around the apse, and new chapels built along the outer aisles between the buttresses.

As the church grew, the neighbourhood around it pressed against it. The 13th century bell tower, originally on the exterior, and still the original work up to the level of the balustrade, was surrounded by the expanded church, as was the ancient ‘Charnie’, or Charnel House, a mausoleum. The old cemetery is now a garden.

The old cemetery on the south side of the Church of Saint-Séverin is now a garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church was completed in 1520, and acquired the appearance it has to this day. A second sacristy was added in 1643 and in 1673, the royal architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart built the Communion chapel on the southeast corner. The royal architect Charles le Brun (1619-1690) modified the design of the choir in 1684, removing the rood screen and providing the apse columns with marble facing.

The church was closed during the French Revolution, and was turned into a store for gunpowder store, and then a store for grain and for church bells, often melted down at the time to make cannon.

The church was returned to the Catholic Church in 1803, but, like other churches in Paris, it is still owned by the French State, although the Catholic Church has exclusive use of the building.

Inside the Church of Saint-Séverin looking west from the ambulatory behind the altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Soon after the liberation of Paris from the Germans, the future President François Mitterrand and Danielle Gouze were married in the church on 28 October 1944.

The lower portions of the bell tower were part of the original 13th century church. The tower itself, originally separate from the church building, was completed in 1487. The bells include the oldest one remaining in Paris, cast in 1412.

The lower portion of the west portal, next to the bell tower, was originally part of another church, Saint-Pierre-aux-Bœufs, close to Notre-Dame but demolished in the 1830s to open space around the cathedral.

The former charnel house on the south side of the church was built in the 15th century and is the only one still existing in Paris.

Saint Martin above the north door of the bell tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The nave of the church was built in two distinctly different eras and styles. At the west end, near the entrance, the first three traverses are in the High Gothic style of the 13th century. They feature massive cylindrical pillars whose capitals have floral decoration, particularly water lilies, and support rounded arches.

Cul-des-lampes or brackets on the pillars receive the thinner colonettes which descend from the ribs of the vaults above. These date from the end of the 14th century. The upper walls between the ribs are filled with deeply-coloured stained glass windows from the end of the 14th century that depict the lives of the Apostles.

The columns in the four traverses closer to the apse were built in the 15th century, in the more Flamboyant style. They are more slender, form pointed arches, and are closer together, in the Flamboyant style.

The choir was built in the 15th century in the Flamboyant style. It has the form of a half-circle, surrounded by an arcade of pointed arches, and covered with flamboyant rib vaults with highly decorated criss-crossing compartments. The classical decoration was added in the late 17th century by Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1635-1700), using the designs of Charles Le Brun.

The principal organ, by Alfred Kern of Strasbourg, was installed in 1963. The carved wooden case of the organ dates to 1745.

The High Altar was replaced after the Second Vatican Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The high altar was removed following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and replaced with a more simple table.

The apse behind the altar has a double ambulatory, or semicircular walkway that was completed at the end of the 15th century. It has the most celebrated architectural features of the church: the twisting central pillar and surrounding pillars resemble stone palm trees, with branches reaching up and spreading out into the intricate web of the flamboyant vaults. The central pillar is illuminated, and is visible from all parts of the church.

The baptistry is in an unusual location in the ambulatory because the original baptistry was a natural spring outside the church

The baptistry is in an unusual location because the original baptistry was a natural spring (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The construction of the marble choir was made possible by donations from Anne, Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of Louis XIV.

The oldest stained glass windows, dating to about 1378, are three pairs of bay windows, each with two lancets near the apse. They were originally intended for the chapel of the college of Beauvais.

A large part of the stained glass dates to the second part of the 15th century. This includes the rose window on the west front from 1482, portraying a Tree of Jesse or genealogy of Christ. Much of this window is hidden by the case of the organ, installed in the 18th century.

Beneath the vaults of the choir, the windows in the three central bays were installed in their present location in the 16th century. These windows were probably part of the original Gothic chevet of 1450. From left to right, they depict Saint John the Baptist, Saint Michael, the Virgin and Child, Christ Carrying the World, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Martin of Tours.

The windows in the upper bays of the nave are also from the 15th century. Saint Severin, the patron of the church, is represented there, and a portrait of the donors who gave the window is at the bottom of the window.

The Gothic windows in the north front depict the Ascension (left), Saint Peter with the Key (centre) and Saint John the Baptist, with a lamb, with portraits of the donors. The third window depicts the Trinity, with God the Father in the centre, presented as a King, with Christ before him, and the Holy Spirit represented a dove. Two additional windows show angels carrying candles.

Much of the stained glass in the church was added in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A large portion of the stained glass in the church was added in the 19th century. Most of the windows were based on drawings by Émile Hirsch. They includes the windows on the ground floor, as well as those in the openings on the north side, installed from 1848 on. The donors included Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera, and his wife, who donated the windows ‘Christ blessing the children.’ The donors are portrayed in the corner of the window.

The windows of the chapel of Saint Vincent de Paul and of Saint-Francis de Sales on the north side are from this period and represent both scenes of the Latin Quarter and biblical scenes chosen by the donors.

In the intermediate level, the windows of the triforium depict a gallery of saints. In the choir, the main theme is ‘Mysteries of the Life of Christ.’

However, the most impressive windows for me are in the ambulatory, which is decorated with a group of eight modern stained glass windows by Jean René Bazaine in 1964-1970, depicting the seven sacraments.

The artist said that his abstract windows were designed ‘not as decoration but means to make the non-visible appear.’

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 1, L’Onction des Malades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 2, Le Mariage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 3, La Confirmation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 4, Le Baptéme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 5, Le Baptéme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 6, L’Eucharistie (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 7, La Pénitence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Seven Sacraments by Jean René Bazaine: 8, Sacerdoce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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