Kings, Vikings, and Saints: St. Germain des Prés

A very different Paris

The oldest church in today’s Paris was established outside the city walls during the sixth century A.D. It is older than “France,” since the area including Paris became known as Neustria in the aftermath of Clovis I’s death in 511. Childebert I, a son of Clovis, ruled Neustria from Paris until his death in 558. During his last fifteen years, Childebert I concluded a war against the Visigoths in Spain and constructed a basilica near Paris (which barely extended beyond the Île de la Cité, the island on which Notre Dame now stands) to celebrate St. Vincent. As his death approached, Childebert I left the basilica to St. Vincent in the care of Germain, the Bishop of Paris, who established a monastery supporting it. For more than a century, the Merovingian kings over Neustria were laid to rest in the church.

This glass window, created for the Chapel of the Virgin at St. Germain des Prés, celebrating the life of St. Vincent of Saragossa, is now on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

As this line of “long-haired” kings wound down, the perception of the basilica to St. Vincent changed. After Bishop Germain died in 576, he was buried in a portico to the church, and several miracles were claimed for the site. In 754, Pope Stephen II canonized him as Saint Germanus of Paris. St. Germain was relocated along with his relics inside the basilica in 756, and the informal understanding that this basilica was St. Germain’s became permanent. The “des Prés” part of its name describes the flood-prone fields on the south side of the Seine at that time; the church itself was built on a small hill.

Europe would be very different today without the rise of Charlemagne in 768, though people who think of him as French should remember that he established his capital at Aachen (part of what is now Germany), not Paris. The illusory unity of Europe under Charlemagne vanished with his death in 814. The eruption of civil war among forces loyal to different sons of Charlemagne left Europe rather naked against the Viking expansion of the 9th century.

Embed from Getty Images

I was impressed by the energy Danielle Turner gives to the tale of two Viking sieges of Paris (845 and 885). Addo, a monk and deacon at Saint Germain des Prés, chronicled the 885 siege in a two-book saga of (not-so-great) Latin poetry. Because St. Germain des Prés lay on the south bank of the Seine, it was a convenient base of operations for the Danes during the sieges. They found the abbey’s materials useful to repair ships and to support their siege, and they stripped the building. The relics of St. Germain were moved from his sarcophagus to the Île de la Cité for safety before these attacks. Both sieges ended when the king of West Francia sent soldiers to pay off the Danes, giving us the term “danegeld.” The monks explained that a vision of Saint Germain had contributed to the Danes’ willingness to retreat from Paris, and city leaders contributed gems and gold to construct a new reliquary for St. Germain’s relics that would be more portable than a sarcophagus.

Creating the church in its prime

As the next millennium dawned, a new central church for the abbey was constructed for St. Germain des Prés due to donations by King Robert the Pious (996-1031), the second king from the House of Capet. This is the earliest period of construction for which significant elements remain in the present-day church. The church was built on a cruciform design, with a nave running east and west and a transept crossing it from north to south with a chapel at both ends. Before you look at the diagram below, I want to emphasize two things about the church of ~1000 A.D.: (1) The church was originally constructed in a Romanesque style, rather than the early Gothic we see today. (2) The “chevet” (essentially where the head would fall if a person were on that cross) and its radiating chapels at the right were not part of that church yet.

This image from W.W. Clark dissects the Abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés into its different phases of construction.

A diagram from a 1979 article by William W. Clark reveals the different layers of construction that produced today’s St. Germain des Prés. The feature that draws your eye as you stand in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is definitely the huge bell tower of the church (appearing at the left of the diagram above). It is not a delicately crafted tower like the beautiful Giralda of the Cathedral at Seville. Instead it is rough-cast, with asymmetric elements and bricked-up windows. Parts of this tower have been standing for more than 1,000 years, so it probably needed all of that toughness to survive.

The bell tower has a different personality from each side (from north, from west, and from southeast, respectively).

From an architectural perspecitve, the really remarkable element of St. Germain des Prés is its “chevet,” which began construction around 1145 A.D. Many Catholic churches featured a variety of chapels that had been contributed by wealthy patrons, of course, but the architects of St. Germain des Prés created a new choir (east area behind the altar), an ambulatory (a circular walk outside the choir), and radiating chapels, with a unitary design held in place by flying buttresses. They used the early Gothic architecture that had been attempted for the first time at the Abbey of St. Denis (1135-1140) and the Cathedral of Sens (1140-1164).

This image of the chevet was possible through my fisheye lens. At the left you can see the base where one of the towers once stood.

In 1245, a master builder laid the cornerstone for a new Chapel of the Virgin, just north of the church of today. Its former location is now filled with businesses, since it was demolished in 1802. Small fragments of this chapel can be found all over the planet, though, because the radiant stained glass panels that decorated the chapel are preserved in a variety of museums and churches, such as The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (they hold the one near the top of this post). The portal of the chapel is preserved at the Cluny Museum.

Especially the windows of the back of the choir are universally admired, so much for this diversity and liveliness of color, only because when entering, the brilliant red of those in the middle strikes and dazzles in some way and stand out so well from the other panes, that they look (not badly) like a big fire in the middle of gray, white, blue, black, and of all strong colors. The colors of each are so strong and so vivid that they seem to come fresh from the hands of the Worker. These are colors which so many centuries have not yet made dead, and which we will never see die.

“Memories of Pere Francois Guignard” in Henri Sauval’s Histoire et Recherches des Antiquités de la Ville de Paris (1724), p. 341
Drawing of the 1802 Demolition of the Chapel of the Virgin, by Dagoty

The abbey began hosting a popular city fair on grounds near the church. In 1482 Louis XI established fairgrounds for this purpose. For the next three hundred years, Parisians could enjoy a three-to-five week celebration around the time of Easter. During his brief reign (1814-1815), Louis XVIII transformed the remaining fairgrounds into the Saint Germain Market.

The abbot’s palace looks pretty good for being 437 years old!

In 1584, the abbey constructed a palace for the abbot. The building, now actively used as an educational institution, looks surprisingly modern in its brick and stone facade; it was one of the first buildings to prototype that style for Paris. Today’s Place de Furstenberg was the stable-yard for the palace. When I visited the Place, a large group of high school students had occupied the island in the middle, so I photographed the palace but not the stable-yard.

This excerpt from a engraving in the reign of Louis XIII (circa 1615) shows the Abbey of St. Germain des Prés outside the city walls of Paris. The Chapel of the Virgin adjoins the church immediately to its left.

By the 17th century, the church was in dire condition; “the framework was worthless and threatened to collapse” [P. Plagnieux 2000]. During 1644-1646, the main nave was replaced in Gothic style, with new ribs, columns, and vaults. This transition is likely to have greatly increased the light inside the church while unifying the church building as a whole; the mismatch between the Romanesque nave and the early Gothic chevet must have been quite a striking difference.

A path to demolition or to restoration?

The next two centuries had big changes in store for the church. At the start of the 18th century, St. Germain in the fields was no longer in the fields! The bounds of Paris at last had grown far enough to encompass the former abbey:

Of the quarters defined by the ordonnance of 1702, Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the twentieth and last, a sufficient sign that it was not similar in kind to the others. The old abbey, which had remained outside Charles V’s walls but was fortified at the same epoch, kept its defences until the 1670s and was never part of Paris. When all the fortifications were pulled down, the abbey also demolished its crenellated precinct and filled up the ditches over which the major streets of the present-day quarter were built.

from page 100, The Invention of Paris, by Eric Hazan

After centuries of being apart from Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés was now absorbed into the growing metropolis. Of course, France itself was undergoing extreme changes throughout the eighteenth century, culminating in the French Revolution (1789-1799). The September Massacres of 1792 were triggered by a lethal street fight on the 26th of August between armed volunteers and three men near the prison de l’Abbaye (next door to the church, where the Boulevard Saint-Germain now runs).

The Prison of the Abbey (image courtesy of Brown University)

That evening, a kangaroo court of 12 people began “trials” of prisoners, generally people who had been arrested defending the king during the taking of the Tuileries Palace. Of the Swiss guards who had been taken in the assault, more than 100 were found “guilty,” and they were passed into a courtyard in the prison where hooligans with weapons waited to murder them. The grisly killings were part of a larger pattern of terror in Paris, as many revolutionaries began using the opportunity to destroy people they thought might be plotting against the revolution, leaving more than 1,000 dead.

By November, the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was closed. The complex was transformed into “The Saltpeter Refinery of Unity.” The nave was repurposed to drill rifle barrels, and forges were established in the cloister. The abbot’s palace was used for a coal deposit. The treasures of the church, from ancient times to modern, were collected and carried away in a procession. The ancient resting places of kings and saints were emptied. “The tombs, the cenotaphs of the kings of France, were annihilated, and their bones thrown into a mass grave” [FR Dumas, Histoire de St Germain des Prés, p. 203]. It is unsurprising that Dom Poirier thought that the abbey would not survive: “Thus ended the religious society established by King Childebert, son of Clovis, and by Saint Germain, bishop of Paris, after having persisted without interruption for twelve hundred and fifty years.” [ibid]

Producing arms and ammunition was clearly hazardous, and an explosion and fire on August 19, 1794 gutted the Chapel of the Virgin and threatened the abbey library. Many books and documents were preserved by moving them to the National Library and the National Archives over the next two years. The Commission on Civil Buildings soon expected that all of the buildings remaining to Saint-Germain-des-Prés would require demolition.

The complete erasure of this abbey might have taken place, but in 1820, Étienne-Hippolyte Godde, chief inspector of the department for cemeteries and church buildings in Paris, intervened. For centuries, the church nave had been flanked by twin towers (see the image from the reign of Louis XIII above). Godde made many changes to the structure of the church and removed the tops of these two towers, but then the technology available to him could not replace them. The bases of these towers are still visible as one walks around the outside of the church. [P. Plagniuex 2000]


The church structure of Saint-Germain-des-Prés has come a long way since the days when it was nearly demolished. That said, you will see evidence everywhere in the church that restoration is an ever-continuing job. Already the colors of its interior and mural work have been liberated from the smoke and oxidation of centuries. I would definitely encourage everyone to visit the church, visit their website, and donate to this necessary restoration!

9 thoughts on “Kings, Vikings, and Saints: St. Germain des Prés

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