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)

Daily prayer in Ordinary
Time with French
saints and writers
10: 12 February 2024

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) developed the philosophy of deconstruction

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time, the time between Candlemas and the 40 days of Lent, which begins the day after tomorrow, Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024). Tomorrow is known in many places as Shrove Tuesday.

We spent two days in Paris last week, and so, during these 11 days in Ordinary Time, my reflections each morning are drawing on the lives of 11 French saints and spiritual writers.

When this series of reflections began nine days ago, I admitted I am often uncomfortable with many aspects of French spirituality, and that I need to broaden my reading in French spirituality. So, I have turned to 11 figures or writers you might not otherwise expect. They include men and women, Jews and Christians, immigrants and emigrants, monks and philosophers, Catholics and Protestants, and even a few Anglicans.

Before the day begins, I am taking some quiet time early this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on a French saint or writer in spirituality;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Jacques Derrida at the statue of James Joyce in Talbot Street, Dublin

French saints and writers, 10: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was born Jackie Élie Derrida on 15 July 1930. He developed the philosophy of deconstruction, which he developed in many books and papers, and which was developed through close readings of the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology.

He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy although he distanced himself from post-structuralism and disowned the word ‘postmodernity.’

During his career, Derrida published more than 40 books, as well as hundreds of essays and public presentations. He had a significant influence on the humanities and social sciences, including philosophy, literature, law, anthropology, historiography, applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, music, architecture, and political theory.

Into the 2000s, his work had major academic influence throughout the US, Europe, South America and other place, particularly in debates around ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics and the philosophy of language.

In most of the English-speaking world, where analytic philosophy is dominant, Derrida’s influence is most felt in literary studies due to his longstanding interest in language and his association with prominent literary critics from his time at Yale. He also influenced architecture, music, art and art criticism.

His important works include Speech and Phenomena (1967), Of Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967) and Margins of Philosophy (1972). His approach to philosophy has been controversial and he has influenced activists and political movements.

Derrida was born on 15 July 1930, in El Biar (Algiers) in Algeria. His father, Haïm Aaron Prosper Charles (‘Aimé’) Derrida (1896-1970), worked all his life in the wine trade as a travelling salesman; his mother was (Georgette Sultana Esther (1901-1991), daughter of Moïse Safar. His family was Sephardic Jewish, originally from Toledo, and became French in 1870 when the Crémieux Decree gave full French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria.

His parents named him Jackie, but he later adopted a French version of the name when he moved to Paris. At his circumcision, he was given the middle name Élie after his paternal uncle Eugène Eliahou, and later her referred to this as his ‘hidden name.’

Derrida spent his youth in Algiers and in El-Biar. On the first day of the school year in 1942, he was expelled from his lycée as the French administrators in Algeria began implementing antisemitism quotas set by the Vichy government. In his adolescent years, Derrida he read philosophers and writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche and Gide, as well as Camus and Sartre.

He attended the Lycée Bugeaud in Algiers in the late 1940s, and moved to Paris in 1949, attending the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where Étienne Borne was his professor of philosophy. He was admitted to to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in 1952, completed his master’s degree in philosophy on Edmund Husserl, and then passed the agrégation exam in 1956.

Derrida spent the 1956-1957 academic year at Harvard University reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. He married the psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston in 1957. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), Derrida taught French and English to soldiers’ children in 1957 to 1959in lieu of conscription.

Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1960-1964, where he was an assistant of Suzanne Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Paul Ricœur, discussed in yesterday’s reflection, and Jean Wahl. He then taught at the ENS until 1984, and for seven years he was associated with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists. He was awarded his State doctorate (doctorat d'État) at the University of Paris in 1980.

Derrida took part in the May 1968 protests in France and registered his objections to the Vietnam War in a lecture he gave in the US. He founded the French Jan Hus association in 1981 to support dissident Czech intellectuals and was arrested in Czechoslovakia.

He was an advocate of nuclear disarmament, protested against apartheid in South Africa, opposed capital punishment, and met Palestinian intellectuals during a visit to Jerusalem in 1988. Although Derrida was not associated with any political party until 1995, he supported the Socialist candidacy of Lionel Jospin. He opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Derrida travelled widely, and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, and received many honorary doctorates. Derrida became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, in 1986, and taught there until shortly before his death in 2004.

Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge in 1992 drew protests from many leading philosophers, including Barry Smith, Willard Van Orman Quine, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and René Thom, who wrote objecting that ‘Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.’

They said Derrida’s philosophy was composed of ‘tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists,’ and they said: ‘Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not … sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.’

He visited Dublin in 1997, when he gave two lectures in University College Dublin on ‘The History of the Lie: State of the Lie, Lie of State.’

Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002, and died during surgery in Paris on 9 October 2004. Peter Hommelhoff of the University of Heidelberg said: ‘Beyond the boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline he was a leading intellectual figure not only for the humanities but for the cultural perception of a whole age.’

On the other hand, Roger Scruton wrote in 2004, ‘He’s difficult to summarise because it’s nonsense. He argues that the meaning of a sign is never revealed in the sign but deferred indefinitely and that a sign only means something by virtue of its difference from something else. For Derrida, there is no such thing as meaning – it always eludes us and therefore anything goes.’

Noam Chomsky wrote: ‘I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted.’

Richard Wolin has argued that Derrida’s work leads to a corrosive nihilism. For example, Wolin argues that the ‘deconstructive gesture of overturning and reinscription ends up by threatening to efface many of the essential differences between Nazism and non-Nazism.’

Perhaps Derrida's most quoted and famous assertion, which appears in an essay on Rousseau in his book Of Grammatology (1967), is the statement that ‘there is no out-of-context’ (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). Critics of Derrida have been often accused of having mistranslated the phrase in French to suggest he had written Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte (‘There is nothing outside the text’) and of having widely disseminated this translation to make it appear that Derrida is suggesting that nothing exists but words.

Derrida once explained that this assertion ‘which for some has become a sort of slogan, in general so badly understood, of deconstruction … means nothing else: there is nothing outside context. In this form, which says exactly the same thing, the formula would doubtless have been less shocking.’

Derrida engaged in the long debate on Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. Derrida’s friendship with Paul de Man began when they met at Johns Hopkins University and continued until de Man’s death in 1983. De Man provided a different approach to deconstruction, and his readings of literary and philosophical texts were crucial in the training of a generation of readers. But Derrida’s memoir of de Man was controversial when it was revealed that long before his academic career in the US, de Man had written almost 200 essays in a pro-Nazi newspaper during the German occupation of Belgium, including several that were explicitly antisemitic.

In The Other Heading (1992), he discussed the concept of identity (as in cultural identity, European identity, and national identity), in the name of which in Europe have been unleashed ‘the worst violences,’ ‘the crimes of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, religious or nationalist fanaticism.’

Some refer to The Gift of Death (1996) as evidence that Derrida began more directly applying deconstruction to the relationship between ethics and religion. In this work, Derrida interprets passages from the Bible, particularly on Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, and from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

His book Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas (1999) reveals his mentorship by the philosopher and Talmudic scholar who practiced the phenomenological encounter with the Other in the form of the Face, which commanded human response. The use of deconstruction to read Jewish texts – like the Talmud – is relatively rare but has recently been attempted.

Questions of identity and secrecy were always present for Derrida, from his early work in the 1960s to his late work in the early 21st century. His family were secular Jews, but as a teenager he found suddenly that being Jewish was the main thing about him as far as the Vichy puppets in Algeria were concerned.

The loss of his French identity as a Jewish teenager later led him to understand how arbitrary and fragile our sense of identity can be, and how it can be taken from us by outside forces – and that, sometimes, we must keep secrets to survive.

Speaking in a Catholic church in Toledo that was once a synagogue, then a mosque, before becoming a church, he said in a documentary in 1999: ‘What is an absolute secret? I was obsessed with this question quite as much as that of my supposed Judeo-Spanish origins. These obsessions met in the figure of the Marrano.’

Derrida called himself by several names, such as ‘the Marrano’ and ‘the last and the least of the Jews.’ He wrote in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1994) of ‘the Marranos, with whom I have always secretly identified (but don’t tell anyone).’

Derrida was drawn to what he called ‘marranism’ for a number of reasons, including the tension between an individual having no essential ‘I’, and the persistence of the idea of the secret as exemplary in revealing an ‘I’ that is the true self. But ‘marranism’ for Derrida is also an example of ‘religion without religion.’

He deployed the tensions within discourses of or about being Jewish in order to challenge a particularist politics of identity as well as a discourse of political universalism or humanism.

In her recent bookDerrida’s Marrano Passover ( Bloomsbury, 2022), Agata Bielik-Robson, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nottingham, notes: ‘Derrida never emphasises his Jewishness but also never silences it either.’

In Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2004) his lifelong friend, the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous, followed the intertwined threads of Jewishness and non-Jewishness that played through Derrida’s life and works. She identified Judaism cloaked in Catholicism as an example of the undecidability of identity that influenced Derrida, whom Cixous calls a ‘Jewish Saint.’

The French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous describes Jacques Derrida as ‘a Young Jewish Saint’

Mark 8: 11-13 (NRSVA):

11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ 13 And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.

‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation’ (Mark 8: 12) … ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ by Jacques Derrida

Today’s Prayers (Monday 12 February 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Ash Wednesday Reflection.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by the Revd Jessie Anand, Chaplain, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (12 February 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

As we approach the season of Lent, we pray for courage to face uncomfortable truths. May we be honest in our reckoning of the past and sensitive in our unfolding the future.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy God,
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ:
may we who are partakers at his table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know his power to change and save.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Holy God,
you know the disorder of our sinful lives:
set straight our crooked hearts,
and bend our wills to love your goodness and your glory
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Paul Ricœur, 1913-2005)

Continued Tomorrow (Vladimir Lossky, 1903-1958)

Jacques Derrida by Pablosecca for Wikimedia CC BY 3.0

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org