A Medievalist Walk Through Paris

I mentioned, the post before last, that I’d gone on holiday in July 2019 and was meaning to blog bits of it, and now here indeed we are. My partner and I lit out pretty much as soon as the 2019 International Medieval Congress was over, with the ultimate destination of Venice. But, because of worrying about our carbon footprint, the good advice of the Man in Seat 61, a liking for seeing the places one passes through in travelling over just passing directly over them and, I admit, a certain basic rail enthusiasm on my part, we did this by train. There are many advantages to travelling Europe by train, for sure, but one thing that must be admitted is that it’s slower, and a full day’s journey will very often leave you only some of the way towards your destination and needing an overnight stop en route. Given the which, you might as well make it Paris, right?

The Pont de Neuf, in Paris

Probably the oldest thing we saw, in some sense at least, the Pont de Neuf; photograph by Rebecca Darley

Now, I did not go to the city that claims itself as Europe’s most romantic, with my partner, and spend the whole time we had there visiting medieval sites, I promise. Still, you can take the medievalist out of England but you can’t take the medievalist out of him, not completely, so I did, you know, notice, when we found something medieval, and of course I had my camera with me.

A view of the Tour de Saint Jacques, Paris

This is the Tour de Saint-Jacques, which having been built in the early 16th century is not properly medieval, I suppose, but I didn’t realise that when I saw it. Photograph by your author

A view of the Tour de Saint-Jacques, Paris

And this is the other side, which if anything looks less Renaissance. There was once a church to go with this, you understand, which was older than the tower, but it was demolished in 1793. Photograph by your author

Portals of the Tour de Saint-Jacques, Paris

I liked the effect of the sunlight from one side being let through the portals here. Photograph by your author

Sculpture on the Tour de Saint-Jacques, Paris

And this person seems to have the shoulder-angel/shoulder-devil problem beloved of modern comics, but I’m not sure that’s a sound basis for periodization. Photograph by your author

It’s also a little difficult to navigate central Paris without passing the cathedral of Notre Dame, though at this point, it had only recently had quite a bad accident, as you may remember…

State of the Cathedral of Notre Deame de Paris in July 2019, viewed from the east

The state of things from the east in July 2019. Photograph by your author

The west end of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, Paris, in July 2019

The west end, obviously at the same time. Photograph by your author

… so we couldn’t go in. Even what was left and not under wraps…

End of the south transept of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, Paris, partly covered for repairs in July 2019

End of the south transept, under work. Photograph by your author

Wooden former for replacement vaulting at the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, Paris, July 2019

Woodern formers for replacement vaulting, waiting for deployment. Photograph by your author

… was quite impressive, though.

Ornament and details on the south face of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris, July 2019

Details of the south face. Photograph by your author

A view up the side of the apse of Notre Dame de Paris

Upside the north side of the apse, photography by Rebecca Darley

Grotesque ornament on the south face of the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, Paris

There were several of these animal grotesques, but this one is my favourite. Photograph by your author

Of course, not everything which medievalises is yet medieval, as indeed we’ve already seen and would, as it transpired, again.

South face and portal of Saint-Eustache de Paris

South face and portal of Saint-Eustache, which goes back to 1213 as a place of worship but back to a century-long early modern construction process as this building. Photograph by your author

View down the nave of Saint-Eustache de Paris

And, to be honest, once you’re inside, baroque is definitely calling. But because it’s still not quite there, it’s actually pretty impressively Gothic still. Photograph by your author

But, if you are a medievalist in Paris, of whatever period or stamp, even if your companion or companions are not, you should probably still weigh upon them that they need to go and see the Sainte-Chapelle.

Exterior of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Exterior view, giving me problems of perspective as you can see, and also mistakenly taken at tiny size, for which I apologise. This and all the following photographs in the post are by me

Firstly, there’s almost no other building like it, because when the famous Crusader king and nowadays saint, Louis IX, had it built, between 1238 and 1248, to house his collection of relics of Christ, he went properly overboard on it.

Tomb niche, now empty, in the lower storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Tomb niche and window in the lower storey

Painted pillars and wall panels in the lower storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Paint and pillars in the lower storey

Apse and vaulting in the lower storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Apse, vaulting, a more modern statue of the founder of the building, and a lot of fleurs-de-lys

But secondly, that’s only the downstairs, and beautiful though it is (and very full of fleurs-de-lys), it is in no way a preparation for the visual shock of emerging from the staircase into the upper storey. Everyone who did so stopped immediately, causing a long trail of complaints from the queue on the stairs until each of them, too, got to the top and had their own encounter with the awe.

View from the point of entry to the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

You can see everyone trying to capture the same moment and impact as I was here, but I can also tell you, there is no way a photograph can convey the sudden shock of the light and space

Stained-glass windows down the south wall of the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

The sky-high stained glass sequences are a triumph of Gothic ability to make tall stuff stay up, and also turn the interior into a kind of full-body Kaleidoscope

Rose window in the west end of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

You can tell from the blur here how much light there actually was, in places

Carved angel ornament in a corner of the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

An angel, carved in a corner, trying to be noticed against the background

The stained-glass sequence depicting Heraclius's recovery of the True Cross in the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

But after a while of soaking up the whole space, the eye begins to want something to catch onto, and my companion was first to realise that this window panel was all about the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641), which then drew our attention

Heraclius carrying the True Cross, in a stained-glass window in the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

What is Heraclius, shown here carrying the True Cross on horseback through a battle, doing here, you may ask? And of course we have already exposed part of the answer…

Heraclius restoring the True Cross to the altar in Jerusalem, depicted in stained-glass in the upper storey of the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris

… because Heraclius, inheriting, as we’ve heard, a war with Persia in which the Persians had taken Jerusalem and captured the relic of the True Cross that had been there since the fourth century, was able to recover it and restore it to Jerusalem, as seen here, in 628, having liberated it from the heathen, an aspiration that Louis IX also held dear…

Deeds of King Louis IX on Crusade, depicted in stained-glass in the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Of course, Heraclius is, therefore, only here as a precursor to the deeds of the church’s actual patron, Louis IX, which also take up a full panel

The empty niche meant for Louis IX's tomb in the Saint-Chapelle de Paris

In fact, it seems as if Louis meant to be here himself, presumably having also liberated Jerusalem, to reside in the shared glory of his relics and his various great predecessors. But of course, things didn’t work out that way, and what parts of his body made it back to Paris were buried in good old traditional Saint-Denis instead. So this niche remains empty, still waiting for the king who never got back here.

Poignant, but also superb. So on the whole, I would recommend it! Like the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, though obviously that’s not medieval, it’s a place where almost any amount of queuing is worth it to see inside. But of course, we were still only passing through. More photos of other places will therefore follow! But I’ll dripfeed some more academic content in first, in case that’s what you’re coming here for rather than holiday snaps…

10 responses to “A Medievalist Walk Through Paris

  1. Notre Dame is over-rated, don’t you think? I’ve never felt compelled to visit it again.

    Unlike, for instance, Ely – which I enjoy revisiting. It calls to mind a tour guide we had in Normandy, who lowered her voice to say that the best Norman cathedrals were in England.

  2. I visited the Tour de Saint Jacques and Saint Eustache on my interrailing in May and June – the first at the beginning and the second at the end. In between I managed to get in lots of early medieval stuff – Sainte Pierre aux Nonnains in Metz, the palatine chapel in Aachen, Ingelheim, Lorsch, Saint Justinus in Frankfurt-Hoescht, Saint George’s Basilica in Prague, Ravenna, Pomposa, Brescia and San Ambroggio in Milan.

    • An impressive itinerary! It was only quite recently I found out that Interrail, which I thought of as a cliché of 1980s ‘gap yah’ stories, still actually existed. As a result I spent a decent part of this summer on trains across Europe, albeit with other causes too. Some day my backlog may permit the further exposition!

  3. Another hidden gem in Paris is the abbey of Saint Pierre in Montmartre. Twelfth century building that has a Merovingian column capital, a recycled column from the old Roman temple of Mercury with a Carolingian capital and the tomb of Adelaide of Maurienne, the wife of Louis the Fat.

  4. Love Paris! Last time I visited we also went to the Abbey at St-Denis which has plenty of kings buried in it and also some very interesting (and sometimes grotesque) relics…

  5. Thank you all for further recommendations! Since at least half of all European rail itineraries enforce a change in Paris on the wayfaring Brit, there will be future times to follow them.

  6. Pingback: The gilty heart of Venice | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: Imprint of an Ostrogothic Arian on Ravenna | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: The Empire Strikes Back (in Ravenna) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.