The Pantheon and St. Etienne-Du-Mont

By Grant Allen


The medieval church of Ste. Genevieve, having fallen into decay in the middle of the eighteenth century, Louis XV. determined to replace it by a sumptuous domed edifice in the style of the period. This building, designed by Soufflot, was not completed till the Revolution, when it was immediately secularized as the Pantheon, under circumstances to be mentioned later. The remains of Ste. Genevieve, which had lain temporarily meanwhile in a sumptuous chapel of St. Etienne-du-Mont (the subsidiary church of the monastery) were taken out by the Revolutionists; the medieval shrine, or reliquary (which replaced St. Eloy's), was ruthlessly broken up; and the body of the patroness and preserver of Paris was publicly burned in the Place de Greve.

This, however, strange to say, was not quite the end of Ste. Genevieve. A few of her relics were said to have been preserved: some bones, together with a lock of the holy shepherdess's hair, were afterward recovered, and replaced in the sarcophagus they had once occupied. Such at least is the official story; and these relics, now once more enclosed in a costly shrine, still attract thousands of votaries to the chapel of the saint in St. Etienne-du-Mont.

The Pantheon, standing in front of the original church, is now a secular burial-place for the great men of France. The remains of Ste. Genevieve still repose at St. Etienne. Thus it is impossible to dissociate the two buildings, which should be visited together; and thus too it happens that the patroness of Paris has now no church in her own city. Local saints are always the most important; this hill and Montmartre are still the holiest places in Paris.

Proceed, as far as the garden of the Thermes, as on the excursion to Cluny. Then continue straight up the Boulevard St. Michel. The large edifice visible on the right of the Rue des Ecoles to your left, is the new building of the Sorbonne, or University. Further up, at the Place du Sorbonne, the domed church of the same name stands before you. It is the University church, and is noticeable as the earliest true dome erected in Paris. The next corner shows one, right, the Luxembourg garden, and left, the Rue Soufflot, leading up to the Pantheon.

The colossal domed temple which replaces the ancient church of Ste. Genevieve was begun by Soufflot, under Louis XV., in imitation of St. Peter's, at Rome. Like all architects of his time, Soufflot sought merely to produce an effect of pagan or "classical" grandeur, peculiarly out of place in the shrine of the shepherdess of Nanterre. Secularized almost immediately on its completion, during the Revolution, the building was destined as the national monument to the great men of France, and the inscription, "Aux Grands Hommes la Patrie Reconnaissante," which it still bears, was then first placed under the sculptures of the pediment.

Restored to worship by the Restoration, it was again secularized under the Third Republic in order to admit the burial of Victor Hugo. The building itself, a vast bare barn of the pseudo-classical type, very cold and formal, is worthy of notice merely on account of its immense size and its historic position; but it may be visited to this day with pleasure, not only for some noble modern paintings, but also for the sake of the reminiscences of Ste. Genevieve which it still contains. The tympanum has a group by David d'Angers, representing France distributing wreaths to soldiers, politicians, men of letters, men of science, and artists.

The interior is in the shape of a Greek cross (with equal arms). Follow round the walls, beginning from the right. In the right aisle are paintings (modern) looking like frescoes, and representing the preaching of St. Denis, by Galand; and the history of Ste. Genevieve--her childhood, recognition by St. Germain l'Auxerrois, miracles, etc., delicate and elusive works, by Puvis de Chavannes. The paintings of the South Transept represent episodes in the early history of France. Chronologically speaking, they begin from the east central corner. Choir, Death of Ste. Genevieve, and Miracles before her Shrine, by Laurens. Apse of the tribune, fine modern (archaic) mosaic, by Hebert, representing Christ with the Guardian Angel of France, the Madonna, Jean d'Arc, and Ste. Genevieve. Stand under the dome to observe the proportions of the huge, bare, unimpressive building. Left, or Northern Transept, east side, the history of Jeanne d'Arc; she hears the voices; leads the assault at Orleans; assists at the coronation of Charles VII. at Rheims; and is burned at Rouen. West side, St. Louis as a child instructed by Blanche of Castille; administering justice in the Palace; and a captive among the Saracens. North aisle, history of Ste. Genevieve and St. Denis. The building is thus at once the apotheosis of patriotism, and the lasting memorial of the part borne by Christianity in French, and especially Parisian, history.

As you descend the steps of the Pantheon, the building that faces you to the left is the Mairie of the 5th Arrondissement; that to the right, the Ecole de Droit. Turn to the right along the north side of the Pantheon. The long, low building which faces you is the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve. Nothing now remains of the Abbey of Ste. Genevieve except the tall early Gothic tower seen to the right near the end of the Pantheon, and rising above the modern buildings of the Lycee Henri IV. The singularly picturesque and strangely-mingled church across the little square is St. Etienne-du-Mont, which we now proceed to visit.

Stand in the left-hand corner of the Place to examine the facade. The church was begun (1517) as late Gothic; but before it was finished, the Renaissance style had come into fashion, and the architects accordingly jumbled the two in the most charming manner. The incongruity here only adds to the beauty. The quaintly original Renaissance portal bears a dedication to St. Stephen the Protomartyr, beneath which is a relief of his martyrdom, with a Latin inscription, "Stone destroyed the temple of the Lord," i.e., Stephen, "Stone rebuilds it." Right and left of the portal are statues of Sts. Stephen and Genevieve, whose monograms also appear on the doors. In the pediment is the usual representation of the Resurrection and Last Judgment. Above it, the rose window, on either side of which, in accordance with Italian rather than with French custom (showing Italian Renaissance influence) are the Angel of the Annunciation and the Madonna receiving his message. In the third story, a gable-end. Singular tower to the left, with an additional round turret, a relic of the earlier Gothic building. The whole facade (17th century) represents rather late Renaissance than transitional architecture.

The interior is the most singular, and in some ways the most picturesque, in Paris--a Gothic church, tricked out in Renaissance finery. The nave is flanked by aisles, which are divided from it by round pillars, capped by a singular balustrade or gallery with low, flat arches, simulating a triforium. The upper arches are round, and the decorations Renaissance; but the vaulting, both of nave and aisles, with its pendant keystones, recalls the Gothic style, as do also most of the windows. Stand near the entrance, in the center of the nave, and look up the church.

The most striking feature is the beautiful Renaissance jube or rood-loft (the only one now left in Paris) which divides the Choir from the body of the building. This rood-loft still bears a crucifix, for the reception of which it was originally intended. On the arch below are two charmingly sculptured Renaissance angels. The rood-loft is flanked by two spiral staircases, which are wholly unique architectural features. Notice also the exquisite pendentive of the roof at the point of intersection of the nave and short false transepts.

Now walk up the right aisle. The first chapel is the Baptistery, containing the font and a modern statue of the boy Baptist. Third chapel, St. Antony of Padua. The fourth chapel contains a curious Holy Sepulcher, with quaint life-size terra-cotta figures of the 16th century. Fifth chapel, a gilt chasse. Notice the transepts, reduced to short arms, scarcely, if at all, projecting beyond the chapels. From this point examine the exquisite Renaissance tracery of the rood-screen and staircases. Then pass under the fine Renaissance door, with lovely decorative work, into the ambulatory. The Choir is in large part Gothic, with late flamboyant tracery. The apparent triforium is continued round the ambulatory.

The splendid gilded shrine in the second choir-chapel contains the remains of Ste. Genevieve, or what is left of them. Candles burn perpetually around it. Hundreds of votaries here pay their devotions daily to the Patroness of Paris. The shrine, containing what is alleged to be the original sarcophagus of the Saint (more probably of the 13th century) stands under a richly-gilt Gothic tabernacle, adorned with figures legibly named on their pedestals. The stained-glass window behind it has a representation of a processional function with the body of the Saint, showing this church, together with a view of the original church of Ste. Genevieve, the remaining tower, and adjacent houses, historically most interesting. The window beyond the shrine also contains the history of Ste. Genevieve--her childhood, first communion, miracles, distribution of bread during the siege of Paris, conversion of Clovis, death, etc.

Indeed the long sojourn of the body of Ste. Genevieve in this church has almost overshadowed its dedication to St. Stephen, several memorials of whom may, however, be recognized by the attentive visitor--among them, a picture of his martyrdom (by Abel de Pujol) near the entrance to the choir. The Protomartyr also stands, with his deacon's robe and palm, in a niche near the door of the sacristy, where left and right are frescoes of his Disputation with the Doctors, and his Martyrdom. The chapel immediately behind the high altar is, as usual, the Lady Chapel. The next contains a good modern window of the Marriage of the Virgin.

Examine in detail all the windows; one of the mystic wine-press is very interesting. Votive offerings of the city of Paris to Ste. Genevieve also exist in the ambulatory. Curious frescoes of the martyrdom of the 10,000 Christians on Mount Ararat on the north side. The best view of the choir is obtained from the north side of the ambulatory, opposite the shrine of Ste. Genevieve. In the north aisle notice St. Louis with the Crown of Thorns. Stand again in the center of the nave, near the entrance, and observe the curious inclination of the choir and high altar to one side-- here particularly noticeable, and said in every case to represent the droop of the Redeemer's head on the cross.

As you emerge from the door, observe the cold and bare side of the Pantheon, contrasted with the internal richness of St. Etienne. Curious view of the late Gothic portion of the church from the little Place on the north side. Return by the Rue Cujas and Rue St. Jacques, passing the Lycee Ste. Barbe, Lycee Louis-le-Grand, University, and other scholastic buildings, which give a good idea of the character of the quarter.

[11] From "Paris."