The architectural style known as Baroque had its zenith in the 17th century and then gradually developed into the style we know today as Neoclassical, the style so often seen in our city halls and county courthouses. Two of the buildings we visited in Paris last month — one on the right bank of the Seine and one on the left — are considered among the finest examples of French Neoclassicism. The buildings were built 50 years apart. One is now a temple. The other used to be.
In the 8th arrondissement of Paris just above the Place de la Concorde there stands a building that was built to be a temple but is now a Catholic church. Over in the 5th arrondissement near the Sorbonne there’s another prominent building that was built to be a Catholic church but is now a temple.
The temple now church is L’Eglise de la Madeleine on the north end of the Rue Royale. There was a church here once a long time ago. Then there were plans to build another church but several proposals were scrapped and foundations were removed over the years. The project was still lingering when the revolution came around. Then Napoleon in 1806 commissioned the architect Pierre-Alexandre Vignon to build a temple to honor his soldiers. He called it Temple de la Gloire de la Grande Armée. But then Louis XVIII decided that the building should really be a church and so it has been a parish church ever since.
La Madeleine looks like a temple with its Corinthian columns on all sides. The Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome come to mind. Its design was actually based on the Maison Carree in Nemes, probably the best preserved Roman temple in existence. Vignon died in 1828 and was replaced by Jacques-Marie Huvé who completed the church in 1842.
When King Louis XV became seriously ill he promised his God that he would build a great church in honor of Ste Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, if he recovered. Well, he recovered and so began building his church, appointing Jacques-Germain Soufflot as the principal architect in 1755. But after Louis died in 1774 the project lagged for awhile. Soufflot died in 1780 and was replaced by Jean-Baptiste Rondelet. The church still wasn’t completed by the time of the Revolution and in 1791 it was decided to turn the church into a temple honoring the great people of France. It’s now called the Pantheon and some of France’s greatest– Hugo, Zola, Balzac, Rousseau, Voltaire, Braille, Marie Curie, Bergson — are buried there.
We were very disappointed when we went to see the Pantheon and discovered that it was undergoing a major restoration and the great dome was completely covered with a white shroud. But on reflection we were pretty lucky that there were very few restoration projects going on during our visit. I heard that Notre Dame, for example, was covered with scaffolding for more than ten years but when we visited it was shining bright in the sun, completely free of any scaffolding. The only other remodeling projects we ran into was the Arc de Triomph which was partially covered in plastic when we saw it and the Cathedral Basillica of Saint Denis whose interior was being remodeled.
We will peek inside the Pantheon in my next posting.