If the French capital is “well worth a mass”, as King Henri IV supposedly once said, so are its myriad churches stacked with overlooked treasures – all the more so in the bleak age of Covid.
Had le bon roi Henri lived in present times, he may well have decided Paris was worth a miss.
With the city’s cherished museums, theatres, cinemas and concert halls all desperately shut, and a “not-even-in-wartime” 6pm curfew in place, it’s currently all work and no play for most Parisians, holed up in cramped and ludicrously expensive dwellings.
Mercifully, the capital’s nearly 200 churches and chapels are still open, giving city dwellers starved of culture a good reason to discover some of their hidden treasures – assuming they have a few minutes to spare before the 6pm gong.
“Churches are open, they’re free and, put together, they’re the biggest museum in the country,” says François Drouin, the head of Art, Culture et Foi, a local charity that promotes the abundant heritage on display in the capital’s places of worship.
Each year, the charity publishes a bilingual guide of Paris churches, distributed freely in parishes and the capital’s city hall. The 62-page brochure offers summary descriptions of more than 100 churches, with information about transport, opening hours and guided tours.
In the current context, it is perhaps the most useful booklet art lovers can get hold of – for free, at least – which is why the local press has taken an interest.
“We’ve been doing this for 22 years and never before had we attracted this level of attention,” says Drouin. “We’re also seeing more local visitors, though sadly travel restrictions mean we still have no tourists.”
The latest edition of the guide was unveiled under the towering vaults of Saint-Eustache, in central Paris. It coincided with the return of the church’s most celebrated painting – “The Disciples of Emmaus” by Peter Paul Rubens – after a lengthy restoration.
Often mocked for its bulk and pastiche of styles, Saint-Eustache exemplifies the composite character of Paris churches, many of which were built, plundered and rebuilt over several epochs, weathering fires and revolutions.
Sobre at the front, exuberant at the rear and propped up by a dense forest of multiform pillars, Saint-Eustache has a Gothic structure, a Classical façade and interior decorations inspired by the Renaissance. It houses a wealth of art spanning five centuries, from Santi di Tito’s 16th century painting of “The Angel Leading Tobias” to a Keith Haring triptych of “The Life of Christ”, completed a few weeks prior to the artist’s death in 1990.
Like other churches in the guide, Saint-Eustache has its own QR code linking to an app, Les pierres parlent, where visitors can find out more about its history and art. Despite lockdowns and curfews, Drouin says the app registered a record number of users in 2020, most of them aged under 35.
Oddly, the returning Rubens isn’t even mentioned in the booklet, an omission Drouin attributes to an abundance of caution.
“Its attribution to the Dutch painter, now formally established, had long been a subject of dispute,” he explains, adding that the whereabouts of the painting were kept secret during its restoration.
Looting and neglect
While “The Disciples of Emmaus” was bathed in light during its presentation to the press, the painting is otherwise dimly lit and often barely visible in normal times, Drouin notes, touching on a familiar frustration for churchgoers.
Church paintings can be awkwardly positioned, in the shadow or blinded by reflections depending on the weather and time of day. Unlike in museums, the most famous works are often unheralded or hidden away – as in the church of Saint-François-Xavier, hemmed in between lifeless boulevards just south of the Invalides, and home to Tintoretto’s “Last Supper”, the only painting by the Venetian master to hang in a Paris church, tucked away in a sacristy.
The apparent neglect works both ways, says Loana Dunoyer, a tour guide with extensive knowledge of Paris churches.
“The French tend to look to museums for fine arts, not so much their churches,” she explains. “It’s not like in Italy where you almost expect to be overwhelmed by the art the minute you step inside.”
She points to several reasons for this, both artistic and pertaining to the city’s turbulent history.
“Many churches were stripped of their treasures during the French Revolution and turned into granaries – like Saint-Eustache – or ‘temples of reason’,” says Dunoyer. “Then, with Napoleon, came the habit of centralising artworks inside the Louvre, followed by other museums.”
Climate and technical evolutions also played a part, for instance hindering the development of the fresco painting so prevalent across the Alps.
There are some notable 19th century frescoes, like the 92-metre-long procession by Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin in the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, near Gare du Nord, or Eugène Delacroix’s recently restored “St. Michael killing the Dragon”, perched high up on the ceiling of Saint-Sulpice. For a more intimate experience, however, Delacroix’s admirers might opt instead for his paintings in the churches of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis and Saint-Denys-du-Sacrement, both in the Marais.
The city’s churches also harbour a wealth of sculptures by the likes of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Edmé Bouchardon and Antonio Raggi, a disciple of Bernini, on top of centuries-old organs, sumptuous stained-glasses and iconostases from Eastern Christendom.
Dunoyer says some of the most remarkable features of Paris churches are to be found in their stonework, such as the intricately carved lofted arch at Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, the French capital’s only rood screen separating the sacred from the profane.
The flamboyant Gothic church, which faces the Panthéon and contains the remains of St. Geneviève, the city’s patron saint, is also celebrated for its exquisite stained-glass panels, which the guide published by Art, Culture et Foi describes as “second only to the Sainte-Chapelle”.
The brochure doesn’t feature every single church – the Sacré-Coeur is missing, to name but one – but it mentions many that are frequently overlooked, like the nearby Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre, a quaint 12th century structure that contains works attributed to Guercino and José de Ribera.
Helping to discover lesser-known churches in the outer arrondissements of Paris is perhaps the booklet’s main contribution, says Drouin, noting that the vast majority of churches are more recent than is commonly believed, built in the 19th and 20th centuries.
They include the delightful Saint-Séraphin-de-Sarov, a wooden, single-room Russian Orthodox church built around two trees in southwest Paris, and the red-brick churches of Sainte-Odile and Saint-Michel, deep in the 17th arrondissement, respectively Art Déco and Romano-Byzantine in style. Perched high up on the latter’s spire is a shining statue of the archangel, a gilded copper replica of the one that tops the world-famous Mont-Saint-Michel.
“In some cases, the less celebrated churches ended up with the finest works of art as ‘compensation’ for their lesser prestige,” says Drouin, citing the Tintoretto in the church of Saint-François-Xavier.
It’s a shame – though hardly surprising for Paris – that the guide does not venture into the French capital’s suburbs, barring a brief description of Notre-Dame-de-Pentecôte, a 21st-century glass-and-concrete structure tucked in between skyscrapers in the business district of La Défense.
Thus, there is no mention of the basilica of Saint-Denis, in the eponymous working-class suburb north of the French capital, perhaps the only church to rival Notre-Dame in history and scale.
A Gothic marvel, the basilica was built on the site where the decapitated saint is believed to have collapsed after walking several kilometres with his head in his hands. It is also where most French kings are buried, including le bon roi Henri.