THAT CREATED A LEGACY
The Church of Saint Germain des Prés has been at the heart of French religious, intellectual and artistic life for over 15 centuries. As the oldest church in Paris, Saint Germain des Prés is steeped in European history and has borne witness to countless eras of French spiritural and cultural currents. The Church has influenced and shaped people, places, and ideas throughout history.
Both the church and village of Saint Germain des Prés are located in Paris's 6th Arrondissement. The village was established during the twelfth century as a result of the church's many visitors. Through the years it continued to grow with help from the abbey, which transformed the area into an important economic center for locals and passersby.
Today, the 6th Arrondissement is a highly sought after quarter of Paris for both tourists and inhabitants of the city.
For nearly 15 centuries, the Abbey Church of Saint Germain des Prés has been a crucible for the development and diffusion of religious, secular, and scientific thought.
Founded in 548 AD by Childebert and originally situated in the fields well outside Paris’s city center, the abbey church attracted religious orders, scholars and philosophers from across Europe. By the 12th century the isolated abbey and its dependencies had grown into a vibrant village and economic hub, and the village was named for the church at its heart, Saint Germain des Prés.
The church we see today was completed in 1014 and sits on the same footprint as Childebert’s original 6th century structure, destroyed in the 9th century by marauding Vikings.
A thousand years later, the church still stands at the very heart of Saint Germain des Prés and remains a bastion of faith, art, scholarship and architectural splendor.
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY, & THE SORBONNE
For centuries the abbey church of Saint Germain des Prés has thrived as a center of religious scholarship, monastic debate, and secular science in the heart of Paris. From its earliest days, its intellectual renown and pedagogical influence across France, and indeed all of Europe, was virtually unmatched anywhere.
The current church structure was finished in 1014 under the tutelage of the learned Abbot Morard. He installed in the very stonework of the church an effervescent testimony to the cult of knowledge. Forty pillar-topping capitals, many visible to this day, recounted in polychromatic splendor stories from ancient mythology (e.g. Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind); others illustrated fundamental tenets of the fiery theological debates of the day.
In 1024, the abbey adopted Saint Benoit’s Benedictine reforms under the Rule of Cluny: these were to deeply influence the development of monastic and secular jurisprudence throughout medieval society. To further promote the dissemination of knowledge, the abbey church’s library was gradually made available to outside secular scholars. In this regard, Saint Germain des Prés played a prominent role in facilitating the establishment of the Sorbonne (ca. 1250).
Serving as the gathering place for hundreds of Benedictine monks, Saint Germain des Prés became an epicenter for the production of illuminations and hand-copied literature. By the late 17th century, the church had become the repository of nearly 7,000 seminal manuscripts across multiple intellectual disciplines. With a continent-spanning reputation for erudition, SGP attracted to within its walls growing numbers of humanists, philosophers, mathematicians, and naturalists. There they thrived within the community of Benedictine monks. As just one example of this, Saint Germain des Prés was the site of the first translation of the Latin Bible into French (by the secular philosopher Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples).
In the 17th century, SGP’s intellectual luminaries included Dom Jean Mabillon (techniques for medieval artifact and manuscript authentication), Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, (archeological studies of Greek antiquity), Dom Félibien (a modern History of Paris) and René Descartes (works dedicated to philosophy, mathematics, and medicine). Later still, Victor Hugo wielded considerable influence in preserving the church as both church and place of scholarship.
The walls of Saint Germain des Prés are covered in centuries old works of art depicting important historical and religious figures and taking viewers on an irreplaceable journey to the past. Most notable are the vast mural works painted by Hippolyte Flandrin in the nineteenth century.
In the early 1800s, the church was in ruins and was nearly razed to the ground. Following upon Victor Hugo's ultimately successful campaign to save the church and its art treasures, the City of Paris selected Hippolyte Flandrin to complete a full redecoration of the building's interior. Between the years of 1842 and 1864, Flandrin completed numerous works of art (principally the nave-lining murals) which, now restored to their original colors, can be seen in the church today.
Flandrin used an encaustic, or hot wax, painting technique for the murals. In the sanctuary, scenes from the Passion as well as historical figures of the abbey are seen on three different levels. Images of the apostles can be seen in paintings and the stained glass windows of the Monk's Choir (including two from the 12th century). Paintings in the nave depict scenes from the Bible, showing figures and stories from the Old Testament, along with one painting of the New Testament which was executed by Flandrin's brother, Paul. The North Transept was painted by Sebastian Cornu after Flandrin's death in 1864.
Many styles of religiously inspired architecture can be seen at Saint Germain des Prés from Romanesque arches to Gothic elements in the Nave and Choir.
Along with the arches, Saint Germain des Prés showcases 40 Romanesque capitals which sit on the top of numerous columns. These capitals are designed with beautiful decorations or important historical events, portraying aspects of the Old and New Testaments, plants and animals, and even monastic life. The capitals were sculpted in a time when many of the population could not read or write and were meant to educate patrons on religion through the images portrayed upon them.
In 1014, the bell tower was built by Abbot Morard, making it the oldest in Paris. (The tower celebrated a few years ago its first 1,000 years!). The Nave was also constructed in the 11th century. It holds vast roman arches, a once wooden ceiling, and sizable windows which allow in torrents of light.