Tuesday Tour: Saint Sulpice, Paris

Saint Sulpice church, in the 6th Arrondissement, is the second largest church in Paris, surpassed in size only by Notre Dame.  The church has a long and interesting history.  In the 13th century a Romanesque church was built on the site, and over the succeeding four centuries it was expanded and modified.  In 1646  construction on the current - much larger - church building began, and continued for more than 100 years.  The Classicist style of the facade was unusual for the Rococo time in which it was built. 

                                                             - photo courtesy wikimedia commons

In the wake of the French Revolution, the church became a “Temple of Victory.”  After it again became a church, it was in need of restoration; as a result, many of the interior elements are from the 19th century.

Below is the main altar:

This statue of Mary is on the canopy above the church’s grand pulpit:

The massive organ was first installed in the 1700s and reconstructed in 1862 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This instrument is world-renowned, and the church holds regular organ recitals.  In fact, the organs of Saint Sulpice (the grand organ and the choir organ) have their own website (in French and English).

This painting by Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, is in a side chapel:

I have to confess that I didn’t know much about the church before I stepped inside the doors to look around and take some photos, but have learned a bit from internet research. 

One unusual element of the church is the gnomon, which was used for scientific measurements.  Apparently an 18th century priest requested this feature, which aided in determining the precise time of day to ring the church bells and in the calculation of the date of Easter.  The gnomon consists of a tall obelisk, a brass meridian line down the obelisk that continues onto the floor, and a special lens in the window of the south transept.  One feature of the gnomon is that on the Winter Solstice, a ray of light shines directly along the brass line, and on the equinoxes, the ray hits a particular brass plate in the floor.  You can read about this gnomon in fascinating detail - complete with diagrams - in this wikipedia article*, and this website.

Interestingly, the presence of this scientific instrument might have kept the church from being totally destroyed in the French Revolution.

                                           - image, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Various aspects of the church, including its meridian line, are the subject of bizarre rumors, most tracing back to the Dossiers Secrets*, faked documents purporting to be medieval in origin that were planted in the French National Library in the 1960s.  The documents became the basis of seemingly endless speculation, especially about the so-called "Priory of Sion."*  This misinformation about Saint Sulpice was picked up later (and claimed as fact) by Dan Brown in his pop-culture best selling conspiracy fiction novel, The Da Vinci Code, which led to hordes of people descending on the church to look for things like  hollow floor stones and secret clues in the rose windows.

Church literature sets the record straight:

(…) Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [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. No mystical notion can be derived from this instrument of astronomy except to acknowledge that God the Creator is the master of time. 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 ».

Having never read the book, I was blissfully unaware of all this controversy when I made my brief visit to the church, and I can report that the church is enjoyable even without the search for fictitious conspiracy elements!

Below is the exterior of the church, under heavy renovation when I saw it in June 2010:

You can learn more about this fascinating church on its website (in French), and see a video with many interior and exterior views (narrated in French).

* I am aware that I’m citing extensively to wikipedia, which isn’t necessarily an accepted scholarly source, but in these instances (as in many other instances) I find the articles to be straightforward and clearly written, and probably trustworthy. I hope you agree.