Saint Sulpice is one of those saints whose biography makes him appear indeed saintly. His father opposed the idea of him entering the monastic life and required him to oversee the family farm. He spent his spare time in devotional life and service to the poor and only became a monk at the age of 40. Thus he is the patron saint of delayed vocations. The present church is the second building on the site, erected over a Romanesque church originally constructed during the 13th century. The new building was founded in 1646 by parish priest Jean-Jacques Olier (1608–1657) who had established the Society of Saint Sulpice, a clerical congregation, and a seminary attached to the church. Thirty years later a lack of funds halted construction work. It would not be until the early 18th century before construction resumed and finally in 1780 the church was mostly completed.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés was a small village built around a Benedictine abby founded by Chilbert I and consecrated in 558 by the bishop of Paris on the day Chilbert died. In the Middle Ages, it was outside the city and in the 12th century had about 600 inhabitants. The abbey continued to grow and flourish, extending its influence and building stone buildings. About 1180, the Romanesque Saint Sulpice church became the parish church. The original Saint Sulpice in the Fields was a small Romanesque church constructed during the 13th century. Additions were made over the centuries, up to 1631. The construction of the Pont Neuf (see my post) in 1607 significantly increased the population of the parish, requiring a new church. In 1660 Daniel Gittard provided a new general design for most of the church. Gittard completed the sanctuary, ambulatory, apsidal chapels, transept, and north portal (1670–1678), after which construction was halted for lack of funds.
Inside the church to either side of the entrance are the two halves of an enormous shell (Tridacna gigas) given to King Francis I by the Venetian Republic. They function as holy water fonts and rest on rock-like bases sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. I love the little crab on the base. Also the edges of the shell have been rimmed with brass.
When you first enter the nave you are struck by how enormous this church actually is. It is 119 meters long and 57 meters wide with a vault of 33 meters above floor level. By comparison, Notre Dame is 130 meters long by 48 meters wide with a vault of 35 meters above floor level, making Saint Sulpice just a little smaller. The big difference is the architectural style, Saint Sulpice looks like a Romanesque church with very solid Corinthian topped pilasters and what looks at first glance to be a barrel vaulted ceiling. In fact, the ceiling is a series of Roman groin vaults (see my post on arches) and the ceiling is built on a catenary curve (sort of an egg shape) rather than a circle allowing for the very large windows. A catenary curve is the shape a string takes when held by each end. The ledge on top of the columns circles the nave and brings attention to the length of the building. Gilles-Marie Oppenord and Giovanni Servandoni, adhering closely to Gittard's designs, supervised the construction of the nave and and side-chapels, 1719–1745.
As you come to the transept crossing, we see a short transept and two levels of windows with small circular windows above the bottom row. The bright interior is achieved in part by using clear stained glass above the nave to increase the lighting. The two trends of the day, Baroque and Classical, mingle here in a subtle manner. It has the somber tone of a Roman Temple with the monumentality of a French Cathedral. There is not an excess of ornamentation but the ornamentation that is there is original, classical and restrained, the vases of flowers for instance. The stone carving was given to the Slodtz brothers Sébastien-Antoine (1695–1742) and Paul-Ambroise (1702–1758). In 1723–1724 Oppenord, created the north and south portals of the transept with an unusual interior design for the ends, concave walls with nearly touching Corinthian columns instead of the pilasters found in other parts of the church. He also used columns to support the organ.
Charles de Wailly designed the beautiful pulpit shown above in 1788-1789. They say that it has excellent auditory properties. During the Directory, Saint Sulpice was used as a Temple of Victory. During the entirety of the French Revolution, 1789–1799, revolutionary orators spoke from this pulpit.
The church's Grand Organ, from 1781, is one of the world's largest, with 6,588 pipes, and has been played by musicians like Marcel Dupré and Charles-Mari Widor. Saint Sulpice is still known for its music today, and frequent concerts are held here. The organ was constructed by Aristide Cavaille-Coll, the case was designed by Chalgrin, and the statues were made by Clodion. In the center King David plays the harp, female figures hold musical instruments or a vase of flowers on each end. Charles-Marie Widor played from 1870 to 1933 and Marcel Dupre from 1934 to 1971. The current organist is Daniel Roth. Again note the classical Corinthian columns holding up the organ.
The organ of Saint-Sulpice was built in 1781 by Francois-Henri Clicquot. The case was designed by Chalgrin, the architect of the church's north tower. In 1834-1846 the organ was reconstructed by Callinet/Daublaine-Callinet/Ducroquet, 46 of the 64 Clicquot stops were reused. In 1862 Aristide Cavaillé-Coll built a new organ, using much of the work of Clicquot (approximately 50 stops of Clicquot were (re)used competely or partly). After 1973, the Plein Jeu of the postif and the Fourniture of the Grand Choeur were altered, but these alterations were undone by Renaud in 1991 during a comprehensive restoration of the instrument. This organ is almost completely authentic Cavaillé-Coll and one of the few larger organs of this builder that is not electrified. It is a magnificent instrument, in a church with very good acoustiscs. Although it lacks the ultrapower of the organ of the Notre-Dame-de-Paris, it is certainly one of the most beautiful organs of the world, very colorful and also very poetic.
As you look down the nave, your eye is naturally drawn to this beautiful central stained glass of Jesus ascending into heaven, dated 1672. The choir contains a collection of rare and precious painted glass panels from the second half of the 17th century. These were installed just before work stopped in 1678. While the nave had plain glass windows, the choir windows have elegant borders. The invention of silver-yellow in the 15th century expanded the color palate available to the glass makers. The new technique allowed colors of rust, yellow and brown by placing a thin layer of enamel on the glass and firing it. This technique was used by Pierre Le Vieil, the last glassmaker left in Paris, for the windows of Saint Sulpice. I plan a separate post on the rest of the stained glass.
The high altar is very bright, especially against the muted colors of the lower chapels. It was built in 1824 by the pastor Charles de Pierre in white marble. The gilded bronze furnishings were made by Louis-Isadore Choiselat.
The baroque interior of the Lady Chapel (rebuilt by Servandoni in 1729) was designed by Charles de Wailly in 1774, after the chapel was badly damaged by a fire which destroyed the nearby Foire Saint-Germain in 1762. The dome, lit by natural light from hidden windows devised by de Wailly, contains a fresco by François Lemoyne depicting the Assumption of Mary, which dates from 1734, although it has been restored several times since then. Jean-Baptiste Pigalle also designed the large white marble statue of Mary. The stucco decoration surrounding it is by Pigelle's nephew Louis-Philippe Mouchy. Pigalle's work replaced a solid-silver statue by Edmé Bouchardon, which vanished at the time of the French Revolution. It was cast from silverware donated by parishioners and was known as “Our Lady of the Old Tableware”.
The last part of Saint Sulpice to be built was the façade. In 1732 a competition was held for the design of the west facade, won by Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, who was inspired by the entrance elevation of Christopher Wren's Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. Unfinished at the time of his death in 1766, the work was continued by others, primarily the obscure Oudot de Maclaurin, who erected twin towers to Servandoni's design. Servandoni's pupil Jean Chalgrin rebuilt the north tower (1777–1780), making it taller and modifying Servandoni's baroque design to one that was more neoclassical, but the French Revolution intervened, and the south tower was never replaced. The pediment was struck by lightning in 1770 and was replaced with a balustrade. Rococo architecture developed in the early part of the 18th century in Paris as a reaction against the grandeur, symmetry and strict regulations of the Baroque, especially that of the Palace of Versailles. This façade was then very unorthodox at the time, with solid horizontal lines supported by a double colonnade, Ionic order over Roman Doric with loggias behind them, unified at the bases of the corner towers with the façade. The façade reflects the interior space and honestly I cannot imagine anything different for this church even though it would fit in nicely with Versailles.
I am going to stop here and continue in another post on the stained glass, chapels and astronomical gnomen at Saint Sulpice. As you might be able to tell, I am quite taken by the beauty of this church, consider a visit if you come to Paris. If you can, come for the first mass or after to hear a weekly organ recital on Sunday.
Saint Sulpice: http://www.paroisse-saint-sulpice-paris.org/
Daniel Ross: http://www.danielrothsaintsulpice.org/
Rick Steve's Grand Organ: http://www.ricksteves.com/news/tribune/paris_stsulpice.html
Saint Sulpice Organ: http://www.stsulpice.com/
Saint Sulpice Organ: http://www.uquebec.ca/musique/orgues/france/ssulpice.html
Crypts of Saint Sulpice: http://www.tombes-sepultures.com/crbst_1133.html