Sunday, October 25, 2009

Let's Walk: A Visit to St. Sulpice

Dan Brown's new book is out, which made me realize that I've never mentioned to you that I live within walking distance of a place that figures prominently in another of Brown's works,  The Da Vinci Code.  L'Eglise St. Sulpice is only about 10 minutes from our apartment.  We walk by it often and the other day, on just such an occasion, I made Jon take a spin inside (he's a sport like that) so that I can share it with you.  So, let's go see a famous and somewhat mysterious church in Paris.

Starting outside, we are standing in the grand courtyard of the church.  It's fountain is very impressive, and a nice place to sit on a sunny day.  Too bad today is a bit chilly and cloudy.

Turning to look at the front of the church, our view is unfortunately impeded by restoration works on the facade. It's nice that they're saving it though, and even nicer that they've provided us with a schema of how the work will progress and what the building looks like under all the scaffolding.

Luckily, we can sneak a peak of what some of the front looks like.

St. Sulpice is the second-largest church in Paris (behind Notre Dame) and is dedicated to St. Sulpitius, a 7th century Frankish bishop.  The present church dates from 1646, and took 140 years (!!!) to be completed into what we see today.  Interesting historical tid-bits about the church are that the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptized here (it didn't seem to do either of them much good), and Victor Hugo was married here.  During the Revolution, the church was transformed into a pagan temple (hence a lot of the mystery) dedicated to "The Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul."  We can still see this inscription over the door, but it's so faint, a picture with my dinky camera isn't possible.

Let's go inside.  Once we enter, on our right we see a side chapel with paintings by Delacroix.


He's very famous in France.  You might even recognize this one (it lives in the Louvre):

Liberty Leading the People

Delacroix did three friezes in this chapel (in oil and wax): On the ceiling there is Michael the Archangel, on the left there is Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and on the right there's the image of Heliodorus being smitten (smited?  smote?) by Gabriel for stealing treasure from the temple.  The paintings are good, but are showing their age- very dark and discolored from candle smoke.

As we walk down the right side of the church, we pass a few more side chapels and then come to the thing that makes St. Sulpice so famous to those of us outside of Paris: "The Rose Line" in Brown's novel.  One of the parish priests, back in the 18th century, wanted to be able to properly determine the date of Easter using the Spring Equinox, so he had a gnomon built inside the church.



This gnomon is essentially a giant sundial.  It consists of a marble obelisk on the north side of the church, inlaid with a brass line that crosses the floor along Paris's original north/south meridian.  An optical lens (now missing) in the south transept window focused the sun's rays on the gnomon.  Even with the missing lens, the sun still hits certain parts of the church during different times of the year:  During the spring and autumn equinox, the light hits a plaque in front of the altar; on the summer solstice it hits a plaque on the floor; and on the winter solstice, it illuminates the obelisk.  Historians believe that the scientific nature of the gnomon saved the church from utter destruction during the Revolution.  Thank Goodness.

Tearing our attention from the brass line, we continue along the right side and arrive at what I think is one of the most breath-taking Marian sculptures I've ever seen:

The picture doesn't do it justice.  It's a massive piece by Pigalle in marble with Mary, triumphant, standing amidst roiling clouds.  I mean, these clouds carved in solid rock seem to be moving out from the wall, swirling and building around the Queen of Heaven.  We need to pause here for a minute to admire the work.  We might even be able to catch a peek of the trap doors in front of her altar that lead to the crypt where 5000 bodies are buried and where a secret society used to meet during the Revolution.

Continuing along, we pass several more chapels, including one containing perhaps the biggest tub of holy water this side of Rome:


At the back of the church, we see the Grand Orgue.

It's incredibly impressive, and apparently very famous in the organ world.   When it was built in 1862, it was one of only three 100-stop organs in the world (apparently a big deal), and the coolest part is that from its construction until 1971, there were only two organists in charge of it!!  One guy played it for 64 years!  Historians say that is the reason why it is in such great shape today.
Before we leave the church, we catch sight of a massive shell set on a marble pedestal.  There's another one across the aisle too-- both serving as holy water receptacles.  They look fake at first, but they're real!  They were given to Fran├žois Ier by the Venetian Republic and set in stone by Pigalle, the guy who created the Marian sculpture.

That's it for our tour.  In researching this post, I found a reference to The Da Vinci Code and its reception by those under whose care St. Sulpice falls.  Parisians can be a bit touchy about Brown's book, especially since it is fiction and many morons out there take it as fact.  At the height of the book's popularity, it wasn't uncommon to see tourists banging around in front of the obelisk, looking for the secret space hiding the keystone (see what I mean, morons!).  I didn't see this, but the keepers of St. Sulpice felt the need at one point to put up a placard which explained the following:
Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a Rose-Line. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. Please also note that the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary Priory of Sion.

While some of what the note disclaims is actually true, I think it shows the exasperation the general Parisian public felt at the book's claims.  And we all know that the story really pissed the Vatican off.  So much so, in fact, that it refused to allow Ron Howard to film scenes inside the church.  He had to recreate it instead on a sound stage.  Funny how sometimes fiction can chafe more than the truth.  But, I heard a lot of coins hitting inside the donation box while we were there, so like it or not, Brown's imagined history has done a lot to help the reality of St. Sulpice today.  God works in mysterious ways, indeed.


  1. Great post! Plus, I owe you a letter. ASAP next week. Love.

  2. This is fascinating Kate! Thanks for being so thorough for all us not quite up on our history! Have you been to Sainte Chapelle? You MUST go there, there is a lower chapel (from the middle ages) that is part of the church, entirely hand painted in gold stars, you go up a winding stair case with sunken steps, it is amazing.