Our metro line, number four, passes through a lot of stops with saint in their names: Saint-Placide, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Michel. On Palm Sunday we decided to drop in to the church Saint-Sulpice, which is also another subway station we hear called out all the time. We didn’t know much about the church but had heard that it was historically important and that a side chapel was decorated by Delacroix. So, despite the chilly temperatures, we took the twenty-minute walk down to its 6th arrondissement location Sunday afternoon.
As luck would have it, we came in just a few minutes after a free tour had begun. The docent Danielle began by discussing the history of the building. She told us that starting as early as the tenth century there had been places of worship on this site. In the mid-1600s Bishop Olier decided to replace the small, thirteenth-century Romanesque church in favor of a more impressive one. Queen Anne d’Autriche and her eight-year-old son, the future Louis XIV, laid the cornerstone of Saint-Sulpice. In their honor, two side chapels were devoted to the namesakes of the royal family. One stained-glass window shows Saint Anne reading to her daughter, who would become the Virgin Mary; the other represents Saint Louis, the former king, with his fleur-de-lys covered gown, holding the crown of thorns he had brought back from the Holy Land. Construction of the church took nearly a hundred years, mainly because of the lack of funds. Some of the icons of the main chapel were destroyed during the French Revolution: the silver statue of the Virgin Mary was melted down and the crystal stars symbolizing her were stolen. The replacements, including a statue by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, are still quite beautiful. During and immediately after the revolution, the structure was no longer used as a church, but as a meeting place for insurgents and even a banquet hall for Napoléon.
We saw and heard so many things as part of our tour. The sacristy, which has been restored thanks to a Kress Foundation grant, is lined with solid carved wood and iconography such as stars, roses, and lilies, again denoting the Virgin. Two huge seashells were transformed, also by Pigalle, into holy-water fonts. A marble and oak pulpit is supported only by two staircases behind it. The Chapel of the Angels by Delacroix, currently under restoration, depicts angels fighting on horseback and hand-to-hand to convert sinners to a more holy life. A replacement silver Virgin is kept under lock and key in a separate room. The most unusual part of the church is the gnomon. I’m sure you’re thinking, like we were, the what? It turns out that in the early eighteenth century, in conjunction with the nearby Observatoire de Paris, the priest at Saint-Sulpice agreed to have an official sundial installed which would help determine the equinox and thus Easter. Apparently, the reason Easter changes dates every year is that it arrives after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Learn something new every day!
Besides this wonderful experience, we also learned from our tour guide that most churches in Paris have free tours on a weekly basis, including three tours a week in English at Notre Dame.