Christopher Wren, the preeminent British architect of the 17th century, visited Paris in 1665 and on his return to London in 1666 and after the great Fire of London he had a hand in the rebuilding of 53 churches including his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. The two churches he saw in Paris that inspired him to go back to London and build St Paul’s were the Chapel of the Sorbonne (see my posting The Domes of Paris, Part One) and the Church of Val de Grace.
On one rainy day in May I decided to take a walk to the area of the 5th arrondissement south of the Sorbonne called the Val-de-Grace quarter and visit l’eglise du Val-de-Grace, considered by many as the most baroque of all buildings in Paris.
Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, vowed to her God that she would build a magnificent church if her next child would be a boy. Her husband died in 1643 and a year later later Anne, now Queen-Regent for her six-year-old son Louis XIV, commissioned Francois Mansart to design her great church on the grounds of the royal abbey that was run by Benedictine nuns. Mansart was fired after only a year on the job and was replaced by Jacques Lemercier who is given credit for building the great dome of the church but I think Le Muet and Leduc did most of the work. Because of the Fronde (a series of civil insurrections between the French royalty and the French nobility) no work was done on the project at all from 1648 – 54.
Francois Mansart was considered the greatest French architect of the first half of the 17th century. The church of the Val de Grace is considered to be the masterpiece for his religious buildings. He also kept busy designing lavish residences for the wealthy. One such building, the Château de Maisons-Laffitte, is often described as the epitome of French classical architecture in the 17th century. There are many outstanding buildings in Paris today that feature his trademark: steep sloping roofs with protruding windows. In his honor they are called Mansard roofs today even though he wasn’t the first to use this style. Mansart received many royal commissions during the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII but by the time Louis XIV had grown up his reputation had been downgraded, mostly because of his arrogant attitude and his tendency to tear down walls and start over, often causing tremendous cost over-runs. Anne of Austria was exasperated with Mansart’s foibles and she fired him after a year, mostly because she was anxious to move in to her new quarters to the left of the church (the nun’s convent was to be on the right side of the church).
Lemercier died in 1654 and Pierre Le Muet and his assistant Gabriel Leduc then took over. These two architects were very familiar with Italian architecture. In fact,Leduc had just returned from Rome when he began work on Val de Grace. He must have seen all of the baroque churches there, especially the Jesuit church of Gesu, often called the first baroque building, and other churches with their Roman facades such as Santa Susanna and Santa Maria Vitella, two of the churcheswe visited in 2009 (see Our Favorite Walks: # 1 Rome (again)). And Le Muet had already translated into French and published the first book of Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (I quattro libri dell’architettura), considered the bible of Italian baroque. Palladio, a contemporary of Michangelo, went to Rome to examine the ancient ruins and then went back home to Vicenza and nearby Venice to build his magnificent villas and churches. He published his Four Books in 1570. Tourists in today’s Venice can see two of his greatest creations — the churches of Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore — across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco.
Inigo Jones took the Grand Tour in 1613-14 and brought back Palladian architecture to England. His Queen’s House in Greenwich is recognized as the finest example of Palladian architecture in the British Isles. The style then languished for about 100 years until the first English translation of Palladio’s Quattro appeared in 1716 (although there was also a translation of Book One in 1663). Then interest was rekindled for about 60 years until finally replaced by Georgian architecture where architects preferred to go directly back to classical themes rather than the classical as interpreted by Renaissance and Baroque architects such as Palladio. Interest in Palladianism lasted a tad longer in America. Thomas Jefferson brought the style to America. He lived in Paris (as the U.S. Minister to France) from 1784 to 1789 and then went back home and designed Monticello in the Palladian tradition.
Lemercier, Le Muet and Leduc deviated from Mansart’s plans by modifying the second floor of the facade and changing the shape and size of the dome, which led the great Bernini (who visited Paris in 1665) to exclaim that the dome looked like a little skullcap on a large head. He had one nice thing to say about the church, however. He did like the fresco created by Pierre Mignard that covered the church’s inner dome.
Anne of Austria never moved into her new quarters. She died in 1666, the same year as Francois Mansart. The church was completed in 1667. One of the final installations was Leduc’s marble baldacchino which was modeled after Bernini’s bronze masterpiece in St Peter’s in Rome. The new abbey, also designed by Mansart, became a military hospital in 1796 and a new hospital was built on the abbey garden grounds in 1979. The old convent is still used for offices and a museum, the Musée du Service de Santé des Armées, which was added in 1916.
Well, the church was closed and the iron gate at the end of Place du Val-de-Grace was locked when I arrived and I was advised to go around the block to the hospital entrance. I think the block must be the largest in Paris. It took me 20 minutes to walk around the block only to find a soldier who blocked the entrance and told me to come back tomorrow at 2 o’clock. Apparently there was something going on today and only those who were on a list of dignitaries were allowed onto the grounds. There were no bloggers from California on that list and so I walked back to the Luxembourg Gardens and home.
The church is closed on Mondays, open from 2 to 6pm on Tuesdays through Sundays and on Sunday mornings from 9am to noon with Mass at 11am.