Notre Dame, the Pantheon, the Sainte-Chappelle chapel

This was written for a Saturday, two weeks ago, as we continue to document and re-live our amazing travels. So, if you’d be so kind as to cast your mind back two weeks …

I broke two style standards of the site in this post. It’s terrifying and liberating, all at the same time. Also, this is a photo-heavy post. There are 23 images below, so let’s dive in.

We visited Notre-Dame de Paris, the medieval Catholic cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. You might have seen it on fire in April of 2019. We had a tour of the cathedral, exterior of course. So it turned into a mini tour of the Île de la Cité, which is the island in the Siene that is heart of Paris. We saw the flying buttresses, but not the rose windows or the sculptures the giant bells (not especially old, but bell ringing goes back to at least the end of the 12th century there) or three pipe organs (similarly, there’s a long history of organs at the cathedral, but what was in the cathedral before the fire wasn’t an ancient instrument — apparently the organs did well in the fire).

Reconstruction is well underway, and the French hopes the reconstruction can be completed in time for the opening of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Presently, April 15th is the big projected day. It seems a tall order, but viva France!

We left the 4th arrondissement for the much, much less crowded 5th arrondissement. Specifically, the Latin Quarter, to visit the Pantheon. We saw the one in Rome, we figured, we should see the one here. This started as a church that King Louis XV had dedicated to Saint Genevieve after he recovered from a bad illness. The revolution was underway when it was completed, and the governing body at that time decided it should be a mausoleum modeled on the ancient building in Rome. Twice this Pantheon was re-converted to a church. Today, the neoclassical beauty is at turns liturgical, a burial place and a civic showpiece. Among the notable people interred there: philosophers, politicians, soldiers, scientists, the writer Victor Hugo, Nobel Prize winners the Curries and Rene Cassin, the entertainer and spy Josephine Baker and many more.

All those changes to the purpose of the building meant the pediment changed a few times, and unfortunately I didn’t have a giant ladder for a good photo. But if you know who you’re looking at here, you’ll find key figures of country and liberty. The statesmen and scholars are represented on the left, soldiers on the right.

But let’s go inside, shall we?

There are four great pieces in the pillars below the dome. This first one is Laurent Marqueste’s sculptural homage to “the creators and publicists of the restoration.”

The paintings on the four pendentives, one of which you see above, are by François Gerard, one of the most prominent, and wealthiest, painters of his generation. Primarily he’s remembered for his portraits, but his archway paintings depict glory, the nation, justice and, above, death. These are all recurring themes in this place.

Anyway, the sculptor Marquest was an absolute master in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is probably one of his lesser known works, but he left many grand pieces to be admired.

The obelisk shows the figure of Victory holding a torch above the coat of arms of France, surmounted by the royal crown. Below is Pierre de Serre, the soldier and lawyer, Casimir Perier, the banker, mine owner and statesman, Armand Carrel who was an early 18th century journalist, General Maximilien Foy who was one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s artillery generals, Jacques-Antoine Manuel a solider turned lawyer, and Viscount Francous-Rene de Chateaubriand, who saw himself as the greatest lover, the greatest writer, and the greatest philosopher of his age. Pretty humble, really. He could have said any age.

This is Albert Bartholome’s monument to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Bartholome was a painter of serious renown, before deciding to put away his brushes and becoming a globally recognized sculptor. He did that after he made the stunning marker for his wife’s grave. The three women seated here are allegories for philosophy, nature and truth. To the left is a representation of music, and on the right, glory.

The medallion in the low foreground is meant to be Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was a philosopher that influenced the Enlightenment and some elements of the French Revolution. You basically don’t have modern thought without Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract. (He’s also interred at the Pantheon.)

Here’s the thing about sculptors. You spend the time and skill and resources required to make this piece. It’s perfect. And then you make it again. That’s discipline. There’s a copy of this on display at Musée d’Orsay, as well.

Opposite that installation is Paul Gasq’s “To the Glory of Generals of the Revolution.”

On the obelisk is a figure representing the French Republic. Bonaparte is on horseback alongside four of his generals. Gasq was the son of a railroad man, and won two of the biggest prizes in his field. He was also a prominent museum curator. And if you’ve ever been to Paris, the odds are pretty good you’ve seen some of his work without realizing it.

Which brings us to Alphonse Camille Terroir, who was born in 1875 France and died in 1955, becoming, of course, a sculptor, but also a professor along the way. If there was ever a stranger time to be an artisan in France, aside from the Revolution, I can’t think of it.

This piece is devoted to Denis Diderot, an 18th century writer, philosopher and encyclopedist. If it had words, he wrote it. The two standing figures are above a rather important inscription which I clumsily left out of the shot. It says the encyclopedia prepares the revolution, which is a powerful bit of carving when you unpack it. The other figures represent truth and the force. Yes, Luke Skywalker carved this with his lightsaber.

Diderot’s was the first encyclopedia of its kind, discussing topics in a secular tone. The book, banned by the Catholic Church, featured articles that were skeptical about Biblical miracles. The revolutionaries were highly influenced by the Encyclopedie.

This dominates one end of the Pantheon.

That’s Marianne, the symbol of France, surrounded by deputies, their arms raised toward the constitution, taking the oath, and soldiers on the right, symbolizing the army of the French Republic. The inscription is Vivre libre ou mourir, “Live free or die.”

Above it …

The title of that mosaic is “Christ Showing the Angel of France the Destiny of Her People.” by Antoine-Auguste-Ernest Hébert

I’m not telling you anything new here, but whenever you find yourself in a building with a dome, you need to make it a habit to look up.

Yes, I cropped the sides, and it is that rarest of things, a circular photograph, but, also, it is larger than most of the pictures I put here. I told you. (We’re breaking all sorts of style standards around here today!)

Downstairs, before you make it to the crypt, you’ll see this shadow. And it’s a certainty that some portion of the people that this will be the first impression they ever make of François-Marie Arouet, and that’s a shame.

That shadow belongs to a sculpture of Voltaire, who told you, in Candide, “L’il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

But, then, everything in Candide stands like a wise quote on it’s own. Voltaire made fun of that in the story, as well.

If you haven’t read Voltaire, you should. If you haven’t in a while, it’s probably time again. I know it is for me.

This is an almost-tucked away memorial on the main floor. Flanked by two dominant columns and backed by impressive paintings, it would be easy to overlook Louis-Henri Bouchard’s work. The inscription reads “Aux heros inconnus aux martyrs ignores morts pour la France,” or “To the unknown heroes, to the ignored martyrs who died for France.

It is a World War I memorial. After World War II, the French viewed him as a German collaborator, but you can still see his work. His Paris studio is now a museum.

Look up. Up there is “The Apotheosis of Saint Genevieve,” by Antoine-Jean Gros. It apparently took several decades to get just right. Gros was a portraitist and a historical painter. Bonaparte was his patron.

This is a painting depicting St. Genevieve — for whom this place was originally commissioned, remember — calming Parisians as Atilla the Hun approached.

It was 451. Attila, calling himself the Scourge of God, was wiping out every settlement and village he crossed. The story goes that he drew within miles of Paris, the news of his vengeance coming on the frightened lips of people who were desperate to escape the deadly menace rushing toward them from central Asia and Eastern Europe. The people of Paris wanted to run, too. Genevieve was joined by many of the women of Paris for days of pious prayer. The men wanted to scatter to the winds, but she said, in the name of God, that the cities where they headed would be destroyed and Paris would be spared. Attila continued marching on, until he learned that the Romans and the Visigoths and some of the Franks were headed to confront him, so he turned toward Orleans, where he was routed. Paris was, in fact, saved from his wrath.

I don’t know what was going on with my phone and eye this day, but here’s a much better image of that painting, which was produced by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who became known in his lifetime as “the painter for France.”

Back outside the Pantheon, and a slightly better look at that pediment which, again, has been changed seemingly each time the purpose of the building itself has changed.

And, after a quick subway ride, back over to Notre Dame. We walked around part of the property again to read about the restoration and reconstruction work.

This is a crowded area, so we read the interesting parts and then headed to Sainte-Chappelle. And if you’re still here 17 photos and 1,700 words into this, stick with me through the last little bit.

The Sainte-Chapelle is a royal chapel. King Louis IX had the Gothic style church built in the mid-13th century. Consecrated in 1248, it is an incredible important architectural achievement of its period, highlighting spatial unity, larger and more windows, including a large rose window and a lot of light. It was part of an altogether new moment in architecture, and it housed Louis’ collection of Passion relics, which he paid handsomely for. Included in that collection are what were believed to be part of the cross, and the crown of thorns. (The crown had been housed at nearby Notre-Dame cathedral, and survived the fire.)

Even in a darkened, large clerestory, you can see the attention to details in the decor and the windows and light that helped define the Rayonnant architectural style they were helping to spearhead. Indeed, because of other political realities, Louis IX had a big claim to making Paris the spirital center of Christendom, which is part of the reason for this place, and for his acquisition of the Passion artifacts.

This all takes place on the palace grounds, and over the next 800 years various restoration and repurposing was done. Additional buildings were built right next to Sainte-Chappelle, used, razed and rebuilt again, which impacts the light flowing through these windows. It, too, was impacted by the French revolution.

A decades-long restoration was undertaken in the 19th century. Not all of what you see here is original — some went on the marketplace, some were lost to time, others are on display in museums — the scholars and archeologists and restorers got serious about former glory.

And, indeed, they should. Because, as you gaze in awe and wonder at the royal chapel, a clerestory without peer …

It’s a relatively small room, 108 by 35 feet, highlighted by four traverses, an apse and seven bays of windows. The glass, 7,200 square feet of it, are supported in ingenious ways that you can read about, but never notice in your viewing. And there’s a six-foot shift in size of the glass from one end of the other, making the chapel feel larger. Here is were the King and Queen worshipped.

The thousands of glass pieces seem to shift as the day changes, blues and reds alter their intensity. Experts have noticed three different styles on display, but the artists are unknown, even as the story they were telling is the best known story. Three windows illustrate the New Testament, featuring scenes of The Passion, with the Infancy of Christ and the Life of John the Evangelist. The nave is filled with images representing the Old Testament. You can start at one window and see (restored) illustrations of the Book of Genesis and go, in order, to the final window, to see scenes showing the rediscovery of Christ’s relics, the miracles they performed, and their relocation to Paris in the hands of King Louis.

You can’t see it all in one photo. I’ve seen better photos than mine try, and fail, to express the impressive character of the room. Sainte-Chappelle’s is one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections in the world. It’s something you need to see in person.

Which brings us, finally, to the rose window.

It is over 29-feet in diameter, its 89 separate panels representing scenes of the Apocalypse. It uses a new technique, being 15th-century craftmanship, which allowed the artists to paint on the glass with enamel paints, using fire to fuse the paint onto the glass. That allows for finer details in the finished product. It was restored and cleaned recently, just in time to mark, in 2015, the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX.

Which makes for a massive, and impressive, weekend post. One more for tomorrow, when we do conference things, and a few casual Parisian things to say goodbye to France.

Comments are closed.