Exploring art, culture and faith in Paris
Le carnet de France
If you are planning a trip to Paris and you are interested in art, you probably have the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and some other museums on your list. However, like many visitors, you may hesitate to push open the door of religious sites.
Well, 30 years ago, the then-archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, realized this and decided to create an association called “Art, Culture & Foi” (“faith” in English). Cardinal Lustiger was born into a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism in 1940 after reading the New Testament. According to Olivier de Bodman, the former president of AC&F, Cardinal Lustiger wanted “to enhance the value of the religious heritage and encourage the dialogue between contemporary creation and the Church.”
This association has better than 100 volunteers, and every January it publishes a bilingual brochure (French and English) with information about more than 100 religious sites, both Catholic and Protestant, in Paris and one at La Défense, in the western suburb of Paris. Roughly 60,000 copies of the brochure are printed and freely distributed through the highlighted churches.
The churches are organized by arrondissements, the way Paris is divided, from 1-20.
The Musée du Louvre (originally built as the Palace of the King) is in the First Arrondissement. On the square in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which is in the Fourth Arrondissement, is a plaque indicating the “Point 0 des Routes” (the starting point of French roads); so when you are driving and you see a sign “Paris 20 kilometers,” you know you are 20 kilometers from Notre Dame,. As you can see, the numbering of the arrondissements rotates clockwise like a snail’s shell. [It always makes me think of Henri Matisse’s “L’Escargot” which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.]
The AC&F Guide shows you a photo of the front of each church, gives you its address and how to reach it by métro or by bus. You are informed of its opening hours, its telephone number and its website address. You will also find a short summary of its history, when it was built, who was the architect and the maker of the organ — highlighting the most interesting items not to be missed.
Some churches have free guided tours given by AC&F volunteers, but most of them are in French. However, the most visited churches, such as Saint-Sulpice in the Sixth Arrondissement, provides a visit in English on the first Sunday of the month. With your smart phone, it may also be possible to have a commentary about the church in English, which will be indicated by a poster at the entrance of the church.
Until the fire on April 15, 2019, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was, of course, the most visited church of all. At the end of December, it was announced that the Musée du Louvre is planning an exhibit in 2023 of some of the art items that were in Notre-Dame. That is a subtle indication of how long it will take before we can visit Notre Dame again.
The second most visited church is Saint-Sulpice. This is due, in part, to the famous book The Da Vinci Code written by Dan Brown in 2003, but also due to its beauty and its location, near the Boulevard St. Germain. What you must not miss at Saint-Sulpice are the two Eugene Delacroix paintings, The Fight with the Angels that were recently restored and rehung. Saint-Sulpice also gives many free concerts during the weekends.
If you are on the Boulevard St Germain, do enter the Église St Germain des Prés, on the place where a prestigious abbey was built in the sixth century. The bell-tower dates from the tenth century. The choir, from the 12th century, is at the moment being magnificently restored and it is interesting to see the contrast with the non-redone section.
Still in the same neighborhood, is another jewel: the Église Saint Joseph des Carmes, where Cardinal Lustiger studied theology. Many Parisians do not even know it exists because it is set back in a courtyard behind a grill and a brick wall. It is situated at 70 rue de Vaugirard, in the Sixth Arrondissement, very close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. During the week, you need to enter through the entrance of the Institut Catholique de Paris.
This church was founded in 1613 by the Italian-born Queen Marie de Medici, widow of King Henri IV. (We also owe her the Palais du Luxembourg, where the French Senate now sits and the most beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg.) It is the most Baroque church in Paris and is sometimes nicknamed the “Italian Church of Paris.” The dome, the second one built in Paris, has an impressive painting done by a pupil of Sir Peter Paul Rubens. In one of the chapels is a painting attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
A painting by Tintoretto, The Last Supper, can be seen at St François Xavier Church in the Seventh Arrondissement. The Christ in the Garden of Olives by Eugene Delacroix is hanging at the Église St Paul-St Louis, the Jesuit Church in the Fourth Arrondissement.
As mentioned by Olivier de Bodman above, Cardinal Lustiger was also interested in contemporary art, and he created an art gallery across from the Église St Séverin in the Fifth Arrondissement, where five times a year, the work of a different contemporary artist interested in spirituality is shown. Some artists became famous thankful to this gallery.
The list of beautiful churches with exceptional works of art is long, and I can only encourage you to enter those sites when strolling the streets of Paris.
Martine P. Dulles lives in Tours, in the Loire Valley of France. She was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston, where she and her husband lived for 11 years. She now organizes bespoke guided tours in France and may be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at charlestonpromenades.com.