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Saint-Germaine l'Auxerrois: Old Church, New Role


The church of Saint-Germaine l'Auxerrois is an old church on a site that's had a church even longer, but these days it's getting more notice for its new role as the home for regular services relocated from nearby Notre Dame since the 2019 fire.

P1170499From_the_roof_of_La_Samaritaine_-_panoramioView from roof of Samaritaine by Panoramio/Wikimedia

It's also gotten my attention, almost by accident. Saint-Germaine is on Place du Louvre, just across from the rear face of the museum, and while I'm sure I've walked past it many times looking at the Louvre, only last September did I actually take note and wander in.


Once you walk into the church, there's no question where attention goes: it's those incredible purples, reds and blues of the lancet windows at the end of the choir. The flamboyant colors are the work mainly of 19th-century artists. The medieval and Renaissance glasswork was largely destroyed during the Revolution and anti-clerical riots in the 1830s, although a few bits remain in some of the side chapels.


And that's only a sample of the church's checkered history and connections. Its original bell tower (not the one out in front today) gave the signal for the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre of thousands of Protestants in Paris and across France. Because of its location, Saint-Germaine l'Auxerrois also served for a couple of centuries as the chapel of the French royal family.


The first church on the spot, built in the fifth century, was a small oratory chapel built to commemorate the meeting of Saint-Germaine, who was a papal envoy and Bishop of Auxerre with Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. History is a little inexact; that chapel was replaced either in 560 by Chilperic, King of the Franks or in 650 by Bishop Saint Landry.

1550_Paris_St-Germain-AuxerroisSaint-Germain near top center of a 1550 map; the castle at bottom is the older Louvre Palace, later largely replaced by the buildings we know today

Either way, the Normans burnt it to the ground in 886, and a new church was built by King Robert the Pious. That new church was expanded in the 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th centuries (Hey, 14th...what happened?)


After the Revolution, the church was used as a barn for storing animal feed, as a printing shop and even a gunpowder factory. It returned to church use in 1801, and closed again after the 1830s riots and didn't reopen until 1855 after twenty years of repairs and renovations.


While Saint-Germaine survived revolution and riot, it almost didn't survive ambitious monarchs. Louis XIV ordered it torn down to make room for expanding the Louvre Palace even further, but eventually decided to extend the other end of the palace instead. In the 1850s, under Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann planned to sweep it away and begin a new boulevard from its site.


The Haussmann plan did the church a favor, though: It cleared away the buildings clustering around it and made it more visible. As well, a new town hall for the First Arrondissement was built next to it, mirroring its proportions and design, and linked to it by a new bell tower which makes a centerpiece between the two buildings.

Vue_de_Saint-Germain_l'Auxerrois,_18341280px-Édouard_Baldus,_Saint_Germain_l'Auxerrois_-_NYPL_Digital_CollectionsIn the 1830s, partly hidden by the old town hall, and in the 1850s after removal of most of the neighboring buildings.

Saint_Germain_ParisThe recently-refurbished church also caught the eye of Claude Monet, then still in his 20s and at an early stage in developing Impressionism. He and Renoir set up easels in the elevated colonnades of the Louvre to paint the city, including this 1866-67 view of Saint-Germaine. The view almost perfectly matches the 1850s photograph above, although Monet's view shows the arch connecting the church to the new campanile, out of view to the left.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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