Since the focus of our journey is the medieval aspect of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, we decided to explore the Paris a pilgrim of that era would have recognized. Much of medieval Paris no longer exists, but there is still plenty to be found. Our time was limited, but we did what we could, and here’s what we discovered.
La Conciergerie (aka the Palais de la Cité) was the palace of the Capetian kings until 1417. This edifice located on the Ile de la Cité includes the Sainte-Chapelle, which was built between 1238 and 1248.
I think it’s of immense interest that the illustration for the month of June from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (late 15th-early 16th century) shows the Palais de la Cité and the Saint-Chapelle almost as they could be seen today if there weren’t so many other buildings in the way
The Sainte-Chapelle was built by Louis IX to house the collection of relics, including the Crown of Thorns, that he had recently purchased from the Byzantine emperor.
The chapel cost about 40,000 livres to build, while the relics cost 135,000 livres and the special chest Louis had made to hold them cost 100,000 livres. The chest was melted down during the French Revolution and the relics were scattered. What relics remain today are kept in the Treasury at Nôtre-Dame.
But the real treasure of the Sainte-Chapelle is the stained glass. The chapel is divided into two parts: the lower chapel where all the dignitaries and servants who worked at the palace attended services, and the upper chapel, which was reserved for the Royal family. Guess which chapel is more impressive?
The stained glass panels in the upper chapel illustrate various Old Testament stories as well as stories from the life of Jesus and of how Louis IX brought his relics to Paris. There are also statues of Old Testament kings.
Like most other royal and religious buildings in Paris, the Sainte-Chapelle suffered much damage during the Revolution. Some of the stained glass has been broken or deliberately removed in the years since, with some of the glass ending up in other museums. But ongoing restoration has been carried out to very good effect.
Nôtre-Dame is probably the most iconic church in Paris. Construction on this cathedral began in 1163 when Bishop Maurice de Sully decided the city deserved a church in the new Gothic style. It took over 100 years to complete the project, but the result would have made Bishop Sully proud, with its stained glass windows and interior artwork and sculptures, which, by the way, used to be colorfully painted.
When we arrived at Nôtre-Dame, they were about to start mass, so practically the whole nave was blocked off. So we walked up on aisle and down the other, admiring the statuary and art and the stained glass. We also went into the Treasury because that’s where they keep the remnants of the relics from the Sainte-Chapelle. I was most interested in seeing the Crown of Thorns, so naturally that’s the one thing that wasn’t on display. It seems they bring it out for veneration every Friday for a couple of months after Easter, and they must keep it somewhere special in the meantime.
But we did get to see the tunic Louis IX wore when he was being humble, and the little chain-whip device he used when mortifying his flesh. And we saw a 19th-century reliquary made to house the Crown of Thorns, and a couple of bones with martyred saints’ names (presumably the owner of the bone) carved into them. We also saw a very ornate reliquary with what looked like a small piece of the True Cross in it.
Your common pilgrim probably would not have been allowed into the Sainte-Chapelle to see Louis IX’s relic collection, but the bones and bits of the True Cross were just the kinds of things pilgrims would travel at great expense and sacrifice to see.
Mass started at Nôtre-Dame as we came out of the Treasury, and I enjoyed listening to the choir and organ. It was quite a lovely experience.
The Tour St-Jacques is not a medieval structure, but it’s pertinent to our pilgrimage nevertheless. It is a late Gothic tower, all that remains of a 16th-century church once there that was destroyed during the Revolution. Parisian pilgrims setting out for Santiago de Compostela would gather here to form companies for travel (since it was not a good idea to try going it alone). We made the tower the symbolic starting place of our own pilgrimage.
St-Germain-des-Prés is Paris’s oldest church, originally built in 543 by King Childebert.
Childebert had acquired a piece of the True Cross in Spain and the church seemed like a good place to keep it – that is, until Norsemen invaded and pillaged it a few hundred years later. Reconstruction of the church began around AD 1000 and the nave was finished in 1050. Other parts were finished in the 1100s. The church eventually became a Benedictine abbey and was a famous center of historical research. All that ended with the French Revolution and the abolition of organized religion. One of the low points early on in the revolution was the massacre of over 300 monks by a mob who had let slip from their minds the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
St-Germain-des-Prés was restored in the 1800s and again in the 2000s. In fact, this last restoration project is on-going, and the forward half of the church was closed when we visited. I haven’t been able to find out yet what happened to the piece of the True Cross.
St-Julien-le-Pauvre is also one of the oldest churches in Paris, having been built in the mid-1000s. Built at the crossroads of two ancient Roman roads, it was the site of the tombs of the Merovingian kings. It was also a gathering place for students and teachers in the Latin Quarter. During the Revolution it was used for salt storage; granted, it had fallen into disrepair by that time.
The church was restored to religious purposes in 1826, and in 1889 it came into possession of the Greek Melkites, a Catholic Greek Byzantine group, and remains thus to this day.
In the garden at St-Julien-le-Pauvre is Paris’s oldest tree. It was planted in 1601 by Jean Robin, the gardener of Henri IV. It needs some pretty sturdy support to keep the heavier branches from breaking, but it still sends out greenery.
Another of Paris’s old churches from about the same era (13th and 14th century), St-Séverin was busy with some sort of service, so we did not go in. It’s too bad for us because there are some interesting and distinctive features in the church.
But as we walked around the back of the church, we saw the extent of the medieval charnel house with its gabled roofs. I counted at least 12 gables. There must have been a lot of bones in there at one time, if not still.
All these churches are on the left bank of the Seine, and pilgrims would most likely have passed by at least St-Julien-le-Pauvre and St-Séverin as they headed south out of Paris on the Rue St-Jacques.
Rue Saint-Jacques was a major road in medieval times and earlier, but when Parisian streets were widened in the 1800s, it became somewhat of a back street. Nevertheless, it was the main thoroughfare leading south to Tours and on to Spain.
Musée National du Moyen Age
The National Museum of the Middle Ages is housed in the Hôtel de Cluny. There was a Gallo-Roman bathhouse here, built about 200 CE, but it was destroyed by barbarians about a hundred years later. In the early 1300s, the site was purchased by the abbot of Cluny, and a later abbot built the place up as a mansion or townhouse. So the building itself is a good example of medieval city dwelling architecture (of the upper classes), but it also contains a marvelous and extensive collection of medieval artifacts, both religious and secular. There are original statues and bits and pieces of statues (heads without bodies, bodies without heads) from Nôtre-Dame that were discovered during recent construction work, Visigothic items, and some Roman columns and statue remnants, presumably from when there was a bath house here.
Of most interest to me were the tapestry series of the Lady and the Unicorn (there was also a Lion prominently featured in every tapestry, but I guess it doesn’t rate mention), a Visigothic crown, the remnants of a Gallic sword from the 6th or 7th century, the epitaph of Nicolas Flamel, some illuminated books of hours, a couple of Gallic torques from the first century BCE, and a stained glass collection, including a depiction of St James. There is also a collection of medieval artifacts at the Louvre, but, except for the medieval paintings, I don’t think it excels the collection at the Musée du Moyen Age.
Such was our search for medieval Paris. There’s more, and perhaps we’ll see some things we missed the next time we’re here, but what we saw this time gave us plenty of scope for imagination and inspiration.