What with a new ‘lockdown’ to contend with, a major house move recently completed and a special milestone birthday fast approaching, it’s accurate to say I find myself in a period of deep reflection. Extremely happy reflection I might add, my contented philosophising gratefully pushing modern day worries and stresses into second place. But not that second place is such a bad thing (though try telling that to the girl I beat to the crown of Fordingbridge Carnival Princess in 1991) and the perfect place to illustrate this is the magnificent church of Saint Sulpice, the second largest in Paris and the perfect place for indulging that mood of profound pondering.
A Roman Catholic church nestled in the Latin Quarter in the 6th, it’s slightly smaller than our beloved Notre-Dame though considerably younger, the construction of the current building beginning in 1646. Dedicated to Sulpitius the Pious, a 7th-century bishop and do-gooder of the highest order, progression was plagued with money issues and subsequent delays, not to mention serious structural issues with the original bell tower threatening to crush the entire construction below it before it was removed, and it wasn’t eventually finished until 1870.
Stand outside and gaze at the front façade, and you’ll have a chance to mull over the imperfection of life thanks to its mismatched towers, inspired by London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This was not a deliberate design feature, but the French revolution got in the way of finishing the work on the south tower, and well, they just never got round to fixing it match the other one. Whilst enjoying the air take a stroll around the nearby fountain, built in the 19th century by the same chap who designed Napoleon’s tomb, and intended to celebrate religious eloquence through its four famous sculpted bishops.
Churches aren’t just places of religious reverence though, and harbour all manner of delights if you’re looking to fill that gaping hole left by Paris’ shuttered museums. Just by the entrance you’ll see two halves of an enormous shell serving as holy fonts, a gift from the Venetian republic, with bases sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (yes he of red-light district fame). Peer into the Chapel of Holy Angels on the right and you’ll find a trio of Eugene Delacroix murals colouring the walls and ceiling, painted decades after his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, currently housed in the Louvre.
Cast your gaze up high in the main body of the church to marvel at the great organ (re)built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862, the most famous organ builder of his time, responsible too for those at Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame, Saint-Denis Basilica and l’église de la Madeleine. Talk about cornering the market. Big names can be counted amongst the church’s historical guests too, with Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade being baptised here, Victor Hugo tying the knot, and the funeral of Jacques Chirac taking place in 2019.
Perhaps the most famous artefact is the gnomon (left), which Dan Brown would have you to believe marks the Paris Meridian and is known as the Rose Line (nope, and non). In reality the structure was designed in the 18th century to use the sun to calculate the exact date of Easter and tell the precise time to ring the bells. There’s no point looking for Tom Hanks’ fingerprints in the vicinity either; requests to use the church as a filming location for The Da Vinci Code were denied and what you see in the film is merely CGI trickery.
Worthy of a blockbuster film plot was the fire that broke out on 17th March 2019, amazingly just one month earlier than the blaze that nearly razed its sibling church. Arson was identified as the cause, and luckily only a door, bas relief, stained glass window and staircase were lost. Happily though these days all the drama seems to be happening outside the church doors, so if like me the much lengthened and loosened tether of the most recent lockdown finds you wandering the streets in this neighbourhood, duck inside for some restorative culture and reflective rest. Mask obligatory, pious pondering optional.