On our second week in Paris we returned to Saint-Sulpice (but this time with our Irish cousins) to examine the church’s role in the plot of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. The church hasn’t been the same since Brown published his novel in 2003 and then Ron Howard came out with the movie version starring Tom Hanks a couple of years later.
Remember the place where Silas murders the nun? That was by the great organ of Saint-Sulpice.
According to Brown Saint-Sulpice was built over an ancient pagan temple and the Rose Line across the floor of the church was set up by a mysterious cult called the Priory of Sion to reveal the secret hiding place of the Holy Grail. In the book Silas broke one of the floor’s tiles in order to find the hollow block that contained the secret message regarding the Grail’s location. Soon after the publishing of Brown’s book the volume of tourists visiting the church increased considerably. And some tourists were caught trying to remove some of the tiles! The priests of Saint-Sulpice felt compelled to install a sign with the following message:
“(…) Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a “Rose-Line”. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. (…) Please also note that the letters “P” and “S” in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary “Priory of Sion.”
So the true story is that the parish priest in 1727 asked the English clockmaker and astronomer Henry Sully to build a gnomon in the church so that he could determine on which day Easter falls in any given year. The sun strikes the brass line near the top of the obelisk at noon on the winter solstice. The brass line from the obelisk runs along the floor from the north to the south transept. The sun’s rays touch a copper plate near the altar on the spring and fall equinoxes and a marble plaque below the south transept window on the summer solstice. Sully died in 1729. The obelisk was completed by Pierre Charles Le Monnier in 1743.
Incidentally, the Archbishop of Paris refused to allow permission for Ron Howard to film scenes in the church. So Howard built a virtual Saint-Sulpice on a stage in Shepperton Studios in England. The set was created from hundreds of photos of the church’s interior and then was scaled down 15% in order to fit on the stage.
Dan Brown claimed in his novel that his Saint Sulpice Rose Line is the Paris Meridian and that this line also goes right under the Pyramid entrance to the Louvre but he is off by about 110 yards on both counts. The real Paris Meridian starts at the Paris Observatory and runs north and south from there. North of the observatory the line runs up Avenue de l’Observatoire, cuts across the Luxembourg Gardens, crosses Rue Saint-Sulpice and Blvd St Germain, runs along Rue de Seine, crosses the river and cuts through the Louvre about 110 yards east of the Pyramid. We walked by or on the meridian nearly every day during our stay in Paris.