Three churches for three different Montmartres

Because the first bishop of Paris was martyred on the slopes of the hill, Montmartre has been an obvious site for Christian veneration throughout the history of France, even serving as a site for pilgrimage. I wanted to draw attention to three churches that currently stand on the hill to explore three different “looks” at the city. Two of them stand close together near the crest of the hill, while the other stands (appropriately) next to the Abbesses Metro station.

Saint-Pierre de Montmartre: 1131-1134 AD

The north flank of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, photographed in the third quarter of the 19th century (from archives of Musée de Vieux Montmartre)

If you enjoy churches that approach a millennium in age, Paris is a rich feast! I have written previously about Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the earliest church still standing in the present city of Paris (before 1014 AD). Philippe Plagnieux, who wrote a wonderful architectural history of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, also wrote a helpful introduction to Saint-Pierre de Montmartre. Saint-Pierre was a project near and dear to the heart of Louis VI (le Gros), the first Capetian king of France to make serious investment in royal institutions. As an example of the importance of this church to the rulers, his queen, Adélaïde of Maurienne, was buried there. The church was the centre of a Benedictine abbey created in 1134.

Drawing of Abbaye de Montmartre, circa 1625 (National Library of France)

St. Pierre was the first church in Paris to represent the new Gothic style (yes, before Notre Dame and before the Basilica of Saint-Denis, too). Sometimes the leading edge is actually the “bleeding edge,” though, and St. Pierre certainly seems to have had some challenges resulting from this design experiment. Around 1170 much of the apse was rebuilt, and the buttresses of the side apses were reinforced. Archive documentation showed that a variety of repairs and additions were required over the next centuries, contributing both ornamental features, such as “flamboyant” rib vaults on the central nave, and structural ones, such as new buttresses or choir alterations.

St. Pierre was capped by an optical telegraph tower after the French Revolution. Image from National Library of France

As with other churches, St. Pierre suffered worse than neglect during the French Revolution. I was astonished to learn that the admirable field of view for the church made it the site of an optical telegraph tower during the Revolution (if you are a fan of Terry Pratchett, it was similar to the Clacks)! The tower was only removed in the mid-19th century.

This is the part of St. Pierre you are most likely to see!

The way that most tourists will encounter St. Pierre is by approaching from the west side, coming from Place du Tertre. From that vantage, one can only see the facade constructed in the 18th century. The tourist route will then lead around the north side of the church (without much view of it, sadly) and then across its east end (the chevet). This is where one could have a great view of this historic church. Frustratingly, there are two problems with this vantage. First, this walk is now designed to funnel tourists to the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, so this massive, gleaming white church draws one’s attention away from its venerable neighbor. Second, the street is lower than the ground level on which St. Pierre sits, so one tends to photograph the wall rather than the church!

Sacré-Cœur Basilica: 1873-1914

The church is also impressive from the northwest approach.

After the 1870 Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III abdicated, ending the Second Empire period of France. The sense of national humiliation led to the bloody revolt of the Paris Commune (1871), which was terminated through the deaths of thousands of Parisians. French Catholics began looking to the Sacred Heart devotion for a way to revive order, and monarchists were able to swing legislative support behind the project to construct a prominent basilica atop Montmartre (interestingly, the conservatives had eyed the flamboyant, still-under-construction Garnier Opera as a potential site for their church). To say the site at Montmartre was controversial is an understatement: “When you think to establish on the commanding heights of Paris– the fount of free thought and revolution– a catholic monument, what is in your thoughts? To make of it the triumph of the Church over revolution” (from a republican deputy in National Assembly, quoted by David Harvey). For its part, the Sacré-Cœur website denies that repressing revolutionaries contributed to the location or style of the church.

If you had to decide which church would grace the tallest hill in Paris, which would you choose? from Paris Bibliothèques Patrimoniale

Paul Abadie was an architect who frequently teamed with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a controversial figure in the restoration of medieval structures. His proposal for the 1873 design competition for the new church on Montmartre (bottom middle above) was selected.

This image from Paris Bibliothèques Patrimoniale illustrates how close together St.-Pierre and Sacré-Cœur are positioned as well as the depth required for a stable foundation for the latter.

The controversy surrounding the church, the unsteady funding to sustain it, and problems in the terrain all combined to prevent the completion of the church before 1914; gypsum mining was quite common on Montmartre [“Plaster of Paris”], and so a deep foundation of 33 meters (more than 100 feet) was required. Paul Abadie never saw his designs reach fruition, since he died in 1884.

Closeup of south facade

Sacré-Cœur Basilica seems very unusual among the Gothic churches of Paris, and that reflects Abadie’s choice to adopt a “Romano-Byzantine” fusion for the church instead. To look for precedents, one should look at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul instead of Notre Dame. The enormous mosaic over the choir continues the Byzantine theme. We should not make the mistake of thinking Sacré-Cœur Basilica has its gaze fixed outside of France, though. The massive equestrian statues atop the front portico represent Louis IX and Jeanne d’Arc, with Saint Louis holding his inverted sword pommel as a cross of justice and Joan of Arc with her sword raised, ready to smite a fool.

Église Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste-de-Montmartre: 1894-1904

The facade to Place des Abbesses is very striking and feels quite modern.

…And now for something completely different. During the same years that Sacré-Cœur was developing on the crest of Montmartre, a very different church was being built at the Place des Abbesses. Father Sobaux led the parish of Montmartre and realized that the population he served was larger than one church could manage, and creating a new church halfway down the hill would be able to draw from many growing neighborhoods. In choosing to work with architect Anatole de Baudot (a disciple of Viollet-Le-Duc), Father Sobaux had decided to use a revolutionary new technique; iron framing had brought about Art Nouveau, and now reinforced concrete would make for stronger and thinner supports in larger structures (this was key for maximizing the heavily sloped, very small lot available for the church), not to mention far cheaper construction than stone.

It is worth looking upward as you enter the church!

What they had not expected was a hostile city council and judiciary. The church publised a parish bulletin with the cute name “La Demi Butte” (something like “halfway up the hill”). In its January 1914 issue, Father Sobaux laid out the full story of obstreperous shenanigans bored bureaucrats could throw at a project trying something new (the Third Republic of France was not known for good relations with the Catholic Church, either). The first stone had been laid in 1897. In 1901, however, construction came to a halt when Father Sobaux was called to defend the church in civil court for the charge of having created an unsafe building, where a guilty verdict would bear the penalty of demolition of the structure and a hefty fine on the Church. Before the cardinal decided whether to throw his resources behind Father Sobaux’s defense, he hired Mr. Boutilhier, inspector general of bridges and roads, to decide whether the city’s architects were correct in thinking the structure was unsound. Among other tests, Mr. Boutilhier loaded the nave with bags of sand to produce a weight of 600 kilograms per square meter (>1300 pounds per square yard) and left them in place for weeks. The inspector general’s report fully supported the structural integrity of the church. In 1902, the Prefect of the Seine withdrew the charges against the church, and work was able to continue. In 1904, it opened its doors to the new congregation.

These slender columns were very controversial in the construction of the church.

Natasha and I saw the church with our own eyes during our Montmartre meander. I read about this marvel in a book from the American Library in Paris, so I was really pleased when Natasha showed an interest in seeing the inside. Our eyes adjusted to the dun interior, and then our mouths just dropped open. The facade exterior hints at beautiful ceramic work to be found inside. The interlocked arches forming a railing to the balcony contrast tiny mosaic tiles against a gray-bronze of the painted concrete. While the large crucifixion scene in stained glass in the southern wall might draw your attention first, the smaller stained glass windows used incredibly vivid colors.

Is it apparent that this church was revolutionary in its construction methods? Thinking about it the following day, Natasha said, “I have never seen a church that seems so feminine!”

7 thoughts on “Three churches for three different Montmartres

  1. Courtney van Stolk

    You’ve written a lovely piece here, and I’m glad my blog could help you out. I didn’t get to visit L’Eglise de St Jean L’Evangeliste de Montmartre when I was there, thank you for sharing the beautiful photos! Love the Terry Pratchett reference BTW! Flashbacks to “Mountrous Regiment” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dtabb1973 Post author

      Your writing on the geology of Montmartre was really well-researched! I also experienced a hand-to-forehead moment when you explained the phrase “Plaster of Paris.” 😀


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