The architectural style known as baroque began in Rome in the 16th century and gradually spread throughout Europe with the help of the Jesuits who built their churches during the campaign known as the Counter-Reformation. But the Jesuits were not allowed in England and England had no interest in the baroque Catholic churches of Europe, many of which featured elaborate domes. In fact, as late as 1665 there was not one domed building in all of England. That would change when Christopher Wren traveled to Paris to escape the plague and to see for himself what the French were doing with their version of the baroque style. In London last year we visited some of Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpieces, including The Greenwich Naval Hospital (see my posting here) and St Paul’s Cathedral (see here and here). This year we visited the two domed churches in Paris that most inspired Wren: La Chapelle de la Sorbonne and L’Eglise Royale du Val-de-Grace.
The famous French architect and engineer Jacques Lemercier had his hand in the design of both churches.
During our first week in Paris we decided to spend one day checking out the sights of the fifth arrondissement, also known as the Latin Quarter. My wife spent the morning shopping while I visited the Cluny Museum. Then we strolled down Blvd St Michel to Place de la Sorbonne where we spent a couple of delightful hours eating, people watching and listening to music. My wife even had a massage after lunch. Oh, and I took a few pictures of the square’s showpiece, the Chapel of the Sorbonne.
The chapel is the only building left from the Sorbonne’s heyday in the 17th century when Cardinal Richelieu was its administrator. The Sorbonne gets its name from the theological college founded by Robert de Sorbon, chaplain to King Louis IX, in the 13th century as part of the University of Paris. In 1971 the University of Paris was divided into 13 separate universities, four of which are located in the Sorbonne area. Today the name Sorbonne refers to the buildings in the area, especially one huge college building along Rue de Sorbonne north of the chapel and Rue Victor-Cousin south of the chapel, rather than to any particular college.
Cardinal Richelieu commissioned Lemercier to build the chapel in 1626. Lemercier’s design of a dome on a high drum is probably the first of its kind in France. The chapel’s west facade resembles several baroque churches in Rome, including two that we visited in 2009 on one of our all-time favorite walks: Santa Maria della Vittoria (completed in 1620) and Santa Susanna (1603) across the street. And the dome resembles that of San Carlo ai Catinari, the third highest dome in Rome, which was completed in 1638. The Sorbonne chapel was completed in 1642 shortly before Richelieu died and he is buried in his chapel. We were not able to go inside the chapel as it is closed to the public.
Lemercier was France’s most accomplished architect during the first half of the 17th century. He completed the Luxembourg Palace after Salomon de Brosse died. He designed the Palais-Cardinal (once Richelieu’s home, now the Palais Royal) and parts of the Louvre. He also took over the building of Val de Grace after Francois Mansart was fired. [note: We’ll take a look at this building in my next posting.]
We spent the rest of that afternoon visiting the nearby Pantheon and Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. We then said goodbye to the 5th arrondissement as we walked through the Luxembourg Gardens (and past the Luxembourg Palace that Lemercier completed) back to our apartment in the 6th district.