The NY Times published a delightful article about the many amazing churches, cathedrals and chapels in Paris. There are countless artisitic treasures to be had throughout Paris, without the crowds of Notre Dame and Sacre Couer at Montmatre.
"Paris ordinarily defines itself to visitors as a city of museums, monuments, neighborhoods and shopping-and-eating opportunities. But there is another way into the history, culture and daily fabric of this city's life, a voyage of discovery into a world overlooked even by Parisians themselves: its nearly 100 churches."
"Seeing Paris through its churches — its 'vast symphonies of stone,' to paraphrase one of Victor Hugo's descriptions of his beloved Notre Dame — is to be thunderstruck. The surprises range from the hallucinatory (the intricately carved, lofted arch-screen of the 16th-century St.-Étienne-du-Mont Church (photo above) next to the Panthéon) to the culinary (the basement stone crypt of the 17th-century Polish church Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption that serves as a restaurant offering pickled herring and pork schnitzel."
The article has a mini-lesson in what happened to the Catholic church in France following the French revolution:
"Churches are silent survivors, witnesses to successive upheavals in France. The most dramatic was the violent anti-clericalism following France's 1789 revolution that stripped churches of their riches, transforming them into “temples of reason” in the service of the new secular republic. Churches were razed; stained-glass windows broken; altarpieces and statues smashed; tombs emptied; church bells melted to make cannons; gold chalices sent to the mint."
"The remains of St.-Geneviève housed in St.-Étienne-du-Mont were burned, as was the celebrated library of St.-Germain-des-Prés; St.-Joseph-des-Carmes was turned into a prison for insubordinate clerics who were massacred just outside. Notre Dame Cathedral was so badly defaced and desecrated that by the end of the 18th century, radicals called for its demolition."
The author, Elaine Sciolino, chief of the Paris bureau of the NY Times, falls under the spell of these sacred spaces:
"Some time ago, when I started visiting churches randomly — both to light candles for my ailing (and very Catholic) mother and out of curiosity — I discovered serendipity."
"Many churches have only natural light so their moods change with the time of day. The painting of St. Étienne Preaching to the Angel in St.-Thomas-d'Aquin, an elegant, well-scrubbed structure hidden in a square off the rue du Bac, is luminous in the morning, dull in the afternoon. So is The Transfiguration on the ceiling above the altar, the only original decoration to remain after revolutionaries emptied the church of its treasures."
"....I wander into St.-Gervais-St.-Protais in the heart of the Marais late one Saturday afternoon and by chance it is the time of the Vespers service. The voices of the white-robed nuns and monks fill the space with such sweetness that it seems perfectly plausible that the choir at Vespers one Christmas in Notre Dame could have suddenly moved the youthful Paul Claudel, the 20th-century diplomat and writer, to become, as he wrote later, a believer."
Wonderful article! Print it out and take it with you to Paris. There's also a slide show of some of the treasures Sciolino writes about here.