17 February 2024

The Église Saint-Paul in
the Marais, its royal links,
and a tragedy that befell
the family of Victor Hugo

The Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis on rue Saint-Antoine is the parish church in the Marais in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

My main purposes in visiting the Marais during my visit to Paris last week were to stroll through the Jewish district, to visit some of the synagogues, to see the Holocaust Memorial and the Museum of Jewish Art and History, and to stop in some of the Jewish shops and cafés.

As I was walking back to the Left Bank and the hotel where we were staying, I also stopped to visit the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis on rue Saint-Antoine, the Catholic parish church in the Marais. The church gives its name to Rue Saint-Paul Place Saint-Paul and the nearest Metro station, Saint-Paul.

A shrine dedicated to Saint Paul in the Fields, Saint-Paul-des-Champs, was built on this site in 632-642, and served as a chapel for the cemetery of a convent founded by Saint Eloi and Saint Aure on Ile de la Cité during the reign of King Dagobert. Prominent figures buried in the old cemetery included François Rabelais and the architect François Mansart. The monastic cemetery disappeared and the old church was demolished in 1799.

The chapel was replaced by the first church on the site, Saint-Paul-des-Champs, built ca 1125, when the neighbourhood became a parish, and the dedication of the church was changed from Saint Paul the Hermit, a monk in Egypt in the third-fourth century, to Saint Paul the Apostle.

Charles V designated the Hôtel Saint-Pol on Rue Saint-Paul as his royal palace in 1358. Charles VI and Charles VII were baptised at Saint-Paul. The church was rebuilt in the Gothic style in 1431, and remained as the king’s parish up to 1559, when Henry II was mortally wounded in a jousting tournament on rue Saint-Antoine.

Cardinal Charles de Bourbon, uncle of Henry IV, bought the Hôtel de La Rochepot in 1580 and donated it to the Jesuits, who had been brought to Paris the previous year by Saint Ignatius Loyola. The Jesuits established their first house there and built a chapel dedicated to King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis, close to the present church.

Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Prêtres de Saint-Sulpice, was baptised in the old church in 1608, and Madame de Sévigné, a leading figures in 17th century French literature, was baptised there in 1626.

Inside the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, the first church in Paris built in the Baroque style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As the city grew, this chapel was too small, and it was replaced with a new church built in 1627-1641 with the financial support of Louis XIII.

This was the first church in Paris to break entirely from the Gothic style and to use the new Baroque style favoured by the Jesuits. It would have an important influence on church architecture in Paris. Next door to the church, the Jesuits also founded the Lycée Charlemagne. A portion of the old wall still remains, next to the Lycée.

The first stone of the new building was laid by Louis XIII in 1627. The new church was given the name of the king’s ancestor, Louis IX, and became the église Saint-Louis de la maison professe des Jésuites, a reference to the Maison Professe des Jésuites beside it.

The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on the feast of the Ascension, 9 May 1641, by Cardinal Richelieu in the presence of Louis XIII.

The dome was an unusual feature for a Jesuit church and is one of the first domes built in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The new church was designed by the Jesuit architects Étienne Martellange, who drew the initial plans, and François Derand, who was responsible for the design of the façade. The plan is inspired by the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome.

The façade was influenced by the new Italian baroque style, particularly the Church of the Gesù in Rome, the mother church of the Jesuits. It was also influenced by the façade of the église Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris (1618) by Salomon de Brosse, which has the same design of three bays with two levels on the side bays and three levels for the central bay, highlighted by a projection and doubled columns. It uses Corinthian columns on the two lower levels and composite order.

The dome which is 55 meters high was an unusual feature for a Jesuit building and was one of the first domes built in Paris. Both the dome and the bell tower are largely hidden from view from the street by the very high façade. The dome served as a model for other domes, including those of Les Invalides and Val-de-Grace.

Another notable influence was the Flemish baroque style, more lavish than the Italian style and seen in the abundance of sculpture and ornament covering the façade.

Jean-Jacques Olier, Madame de Sévigné and the children of Victor Hugo were baptised in the parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The interior design was largely inspired by the Church of the Gesù in Rome, with some French additions. The lavish decorations follow the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and were intended to contrast with the austerity of Protestant churches. The decoration also had numerous symbols and sculptures of the Virgin Mary.

The plan is a compromise between the Gesù’s single nave flanked by side chapels and the traditional French cruciform plan, as seen in its long transepts. The tall windows in the prominent transepts and the short east apse allow in large amounts of light, and the dome under the crossing also recalls Italian architecture of a slightly earlier period, such as that of Carlo Maderno.

The Jesuit priest Louis Bourdaloue preached some of his best-known sermons for Lent and Advent in the church, between 1669 and 1693. He also preached a funeral sermon for the Grand Condé in the church in 1687. The preacher and author Bishop Esprit Fléchier also preached there, and the preacher Louis Bourdaloue was buried in the crypt in 1704.

The new church soon acquired a reputation for its music. Marc-Antoine Charpentier was master of music in 1688-1698, and other masters of music included Jean-Philippe Rameau, André Campra and Louis Marchand.

The Jesuits were the confessors or ‘directors of conscience’ of the Kings of France. But, after a dispute with the King, they were expelled from France by the Parlement of Paris in 1762. The church was transferred to another religious order, the Congregation of France, or Génofévains, whose headquarters were at the Abbey of Saint Genevieve.

The church retained its close relationship with the royal family. The urns containing the hearts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV were kept in the church. The urns were hidden during the French Revolution, and later they were transferred to the Abbey of Saint Denis, where they remain to this day.

Celebrated preachers in the church included Louis Bourdaloue, Esprit Fléchier and Louis Bourdaloue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

During the French Revolution, the church was closed and used to store works of art and books plundered from other churches in the area. Five priests were killed in the church during the September Massacres on 2 September 1792. They are commemorated with a plaque.

The church was then used as a temple of the Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being. In 1793, Robespierre preached the cult of the goddess Reason in the church against the atheism promoted by Hébert. The chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was an important patron of the church, was guillotined in 1794.

The old Saint Paul’s Church was demolished in 1798, but a section of the wall of the square tower is still visible on rue Saint-Paul.

Under the Concordat of 1801, the church was restored as a Catholic parish church in 1802, with a new dedication to Saint Paul and Saint Louis, recalling the older church that had been demolished in 1798. A bell from old Saint Paul’s was salvaged as well as the great clock on the façade.

The church was restored by the architect Victor Baltard in 1850, and the white marble high altar was moved and rebuilt under Louis-Philippe I with fragments from Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides.

On the right side of the nave, one pillar has an inscription that is almost erased, République française ou la mort (‘French Republic or death’), scrawled during the Paris Commune in 1871.

The façade and the lantern on the dome were restored by the City of Paris in 2012-2015.

Most of the stained glass in the windows was white to bring a maximum of light into the church. Many of the windows were decorated with the coats-of-arms of families that donated the windows.

In addition to the free-standing sculptures on the façades and in the interior, the pendentives of the dome and other features inside have their own lavish sculptures. Indeed, there are very few surfaces inside without some sort of sculpture.

The white marble high altar was moved and rebuilt with fragments from Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church has several notable 17th century paintings. A series of three paintings depicts scenes from the life of Louis IX, or Saint Louis, but the fourth in the series has disappeared.

‘Louis XIII offering to Saint Louis a model of the Church Saint-Louis’, attributed to the workshop of Simon Vouet, is in the right transept.

‘The Death of Saint Louis’, by Jacques de Létin (1597-1661), is also in the right transept. It shows Saint Louis stricken with the plague being given the holy sacraments before his death. The figure on the left, whose face is almost hidden by drapery, has the features of the artist.

‘Saint Louis receiving the Crown of Thorns from the hands of Christ’ is by Michel Corneille the Elder (1601-1664), a pupil of Simon Vouet.

Another notable work painted for the church is ‘Christ at Gethsemane’ by Eugène Delacroix (1793-1863). It was commissioned to replace ‘Saint Louis leaking for the Crusades’, destroyed during the Revolution. Until recently, this painting was seen to the left of the altar, but it is on a long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The church also holds ‘La vierge del Douleur’ by Germain Pilon (1586).

The gallery organ was dismantled during the Revolution and was lost. After the reconsecration of the church, the organ builder Pierre Allery used components from two other instruments to install a three-manual, 30-stop organ in 1805.

Narcisse Martin of Rouen was hired in 1867 to make modifications to the organ case and to restore the organ. This work was completed in 1871 and the organ was approved by César Franck. The case has been designated as an historical monument. The organ was restored again in 1972 and in two stages in 1999 and 2005.

The current instrument has three manuals with a compass of 56 notes, plus a 30-note pedal board, and consists of 40 stops and 46 ranks. The organ in the chancel was built by Krischer in the 19th century.

The organ in the gallery was rebuilt by Pierre Dallery and had the approval of César Franck (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Before I left the church, I stopped to look at the two clam-shell holy water vessels or stoups at the entrance, donated by the writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885), author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables(1862). They mark the baptism of his daughter Adele in 1830 and in memory of his daughter Léopoldine.

Léopoldine Hugo was 18 when she secretly married Charles Vacquerie, then 25, in the church on 15 February 1843. Seven months later, Léopoldine was pregnant when she drowned after their boat capsized on the Seine in a sudden gust of wind. Her wet, heavy skirts pulled her down, and Charles drowned as he made six attempts to save her. They were buried in the same coffin.

The tragedy had a siginificant and mdeasureable impact on the work and personality of Victor Hugo, and he dedicated numerous poems and a book to the memory of his drowned daughter.

The great clock on the façade was salvaged from old Saint Paul’s, when it after was levelled in 1798 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
4, 17 February 2024,
Saint Mellitus of London

Saint Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, depicted in a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and tomorrow is the First Sunday in Lent. Today (17 February 2024), the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the life and witness of Janani Luwum (1977), Archbishop of Uganda, Martyr.

In previous years, my Lenten reflections have journeyed with the saints, looked at Lent in Art, read poems in Lent, reflected on the music of Vaughan Williams, selected sayings from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer, and similar themes.

This year, I am taking time each morning in Lent to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated by the Church of England in the Calendar of Common Worship. I began this series on Wednesday with a reflection on Saint Alban, England’s first martyr and saint.

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

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London … rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 4, Saint Mellitus (624), first Bishop of London

Saint Mellitus (624), the first Bishop of London, is commemorated in Common Worship on 24 April.

Saint Mellitus was an abbot in Rome when he was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great to undergird the work of Saint Augustine, who consecrated him Bishop of the East Saxons with his see at London and his first church that of Saint Paul.

After some local setbacks that forced him to live in northern France, Saint Mellitus and his fellow bishops were recalled to England, but he was unable to return to London.

He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 619 and died on 24 April 624. He was buried close to Saint Augustine in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury.

The site of Saint Paul’s Cross … once a preaching cross and open-air pulpit in the grounds of Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 5: 27-32 (NRSVA):

27 After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 31 Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

Saint Mellitus Church in Tollington Park, Islington, is a grand Victorian neo-classical building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 17 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), has been ‘Ash Wednesday Reflection.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday by the Revd Jessie Anand, Chaplain, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (17 February 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us give thanks for the vision that inspired USPG. May we, like Thomas Bray, seek to deepen our understanding of the Gospel, be attentive to the world and promote the common good.

The Collect:

God of truth,
whose servant Janani Luwum walked in the light,
and in his death defied the powers of darkness:
free us from fear of those who kill the body,
that we too may walk as children of light,
through him who overcame darkness by the power of the cross,
Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Janani Luwum:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the eve of Lent I:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection: Saint Augustine (605), first Archbishop of Canterbury

Tomorrow: Saint Oswald (642), King of Northumbria, Martyr

Inside Saint Mellitus Church, Islington, built as the New Court Congregational Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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