The grand dame Gothic church in Paris is the Cathedral of Notre Dame. And while visitors flock to see it, within a twenty minute walk are a number of many other lovely historic churches that should also not be missed. Read on to discover Paris churches at its Gothic best.
The architecture of the old European churches never ceases to amaze me. Without computers, mechanized machinery or advanced mathematical knowledge, and using only basic hand tools and rudimentary understanding of geometry, the medieval builders were able to create architectural masterpieces that have lasted hundreds, some even 1000, years. They figured out how to build bigger and taller, supporting heavy stone roofs, while at the same time, bathing the interior with color and light through large beautiful stained glass windows. And they showed persistence and dedication as many of the great churches took generations to build and complete.
The French invented Gothic architecture, building upon the Romanesque churches that came before. The first Gothic church is Saint Denis Basilica in what is now the northern suburbs of Paris. This characteristic architectural style which used pointed arches for the high vaulted ceilings, spread throughout France and the rest of western Europe. Not surprising, Paris has some beautiful examples.
Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris
THE Gothic church in Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is Paris’ most famous church and one of the iconic tourist sites to visit. Construction on the church was started in 1160 and completed around 165 years later. It was the first church to require and use flying buttresses to support the weight of the high roof. For me, what makes Notre Dame interesting are the details, especially the intricate stone sculptures on the outside.
Closest Metro stop: Cité
My favorite Gothic Church in Paris has to be Sainte-Chappelle. Just down the street from its more famous neighbor Notre Dame de Paris, it is built on a much smaller and intimate scale. The church was built by King Louis IX in 1248 to house a collection of Christian relics that he had purchased, including the crown of thorns. Most of the relics were dispersed during the French Revolution and what is left has been preserved at Notre Dame. But what makes Saint-Chapelle stand out are the high walls of stained glass windows – 15 windows that are each 45 feet high. It feels like the walls are nothing but windows. The bare minimum of stone supports was used, and as a result the inside is an airy, graceful expression of light and color. The windows tell the stories of the old and new testament in intricate detail. About two thirds of the windows are still original and were carefully restored in the 19th century. To protect them during WWII, each pane was carefully removed and stored, and then meticulously replaced after the war ended. To compliment the windows, the interior was painted in bright reds, blues and golds and decorated with larger than life statues of the twelve apostles. It’s an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking space.
Closest Metro stop: Cité
Another church I love to visit for its beautiful stained glass windows is Saint Severin. This church was originally built in the 13th century, but over the next 400 years was enlarged, rebuilt and modified many times, though the original Gothic style predominates. The stained glass windows in the upper level around the altar are said to be from the 15th century, however, the windows that immediately capture the eye are the beautiful colored modern stained glass windows by Jean Bazaine that were installed in 1970. The seven windows represent the seven catholic sacraments. Another interesting element to this church are the columns that line the ambulatory that have been carved to look like palm trees. The centerpiece is the central column behind the altar which is also carved in a twisting pattern.
Closest Metro stop: Cluny-La Sorbonne
Technically, Saint Sulpice is not a Gothic church, but rather late Baroque in style. Never the less, it is still impressive. The current building is a second version of a previous Romanesque church. Construction of the current version began in the mid 1600s and continued for about 75 years. The church is known for its Eugene Delacroix paintings and its large organ with over 6500 pipes and free organ recitals on Sunday afternoon.
Closest Metro stop: Saint Sulpice
The original church was founded in 543 which makes it the oldest church in Paris. Eventually a massive rural abbey complex grew around the church and became very powerful. The abbey was destroyed many times by the Normans, and then finally in the French Revolution. The church that we see today is a mix of rebuilt styles – Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance. The interior is currently undergoing restoration, bringing back to life the brightly colored murals, walls and ceilings.
Closest Metro stop: Saint-Germain-des-Pres
Next door to the Pantheon is the lovely little Gothic Saint Etienne-du-Mont from the 1400’s. It’s a surprisingly light and airy church with stonework that is open and lacy. The church is best known for its surviving finely carved stone choir screen. The church also has some lovely stained glass windows and ornate side chapels. It is also the shrine to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
Saint Eustache, considered a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture, is one of the largest Gothic churches and could be easily mistaken for a cathedral. Over 300 feet long and about 100 ft to the vaulted ceiling, it overwhelms when you step inside. The church was built between 1532 and 1632, replacing the original parish church from the 13th century that had outgrown its flock of parishioners. Due to the time frame of its construction, St. Eustache also has Renaissance decorative details. Inside the side chapels are especially attractive, decorated with paintings, sculptures and highly ornamental painted details on the stonework. To go along with such a large church, St. Eustache also lays claim to the largest organ in France with an an impressive 8000 pipes, and offers regular free concerts.
Closest Metro stop: Les Halles
This church is located across the street from the east wing of the Louvre and was built between the 13th and 15th century. I have not yet had a chance to visit this church, but am looking forward to seeing it next time I visit Paris.
Closest Metro stop: Louvre-Rivoli
Paris has many beautiful churches and these are just the ones I’ve visited. I look forward to discovering more next time I am there.
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