Fridays in France: Chapels and Cathedrals

I think my earliest exposure to Paris was through the "Madeline" books and Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." While I adored the former, the latter utterly terrified me. Frollo was a scary bad guy, okay!? That said, the movie imbued the churches of Paris with a certain mystique in my young eyes...a mystique that has only grown and intensified as I've grown up and moved deeper into my love of the Catholic church, architecture, music, and all things Francophile. 

On our Paris trip last May, Mom, Em and I explored plenty of Paris's famous places of worship, and through Em's lens they were captured absolutely beautifully. I can't help but marvel at the insane dedication of time and skill to erect such stunning buildings in an era before cranes and bulldozers and machines...truly a tribute to the glory of God. 

Our first stop, appropriately, was Notre Dame! 

We headed there from the Musée Rodin, and it was my favorite cab ride of the trip. The driver totally humored me in my desire to converse and squeeze in all the French practice I could, and we chatted the entire way about churches and Notre Dame (the university, not the church!). He thought it was hilarious that a school in America had "stolen" the name of the Blessed Virgin. He also took us on a baby detour to do a drive-by of the Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. I didn't get a picture out the cab window but it was beautiful! We also talked about the 8,000-pipe organ at Notre Dame, and he told me all about how he regularly goes to the organ recitals there. Um, hi, let's be besties. 

The exterior of Notre Dame will never cease to amaze me. I can't help but get chills every time I think about the craftsmanship that went into every gargoyle and saint carved on every little surface. Mind-blowing. My only regret is that we didn't go up the bell tower, but we were pressed for time and their evening Mass was starting shortly after we arrived. was a bit windy! 

Cannot get over those portal carvings. This is the right-side door, featuring the Virgin Mary's mother and about five bajillion angels and notable historical figures in the Church. 

The doors themselves aren't too shabby either. I love the attention to detail and completely lavish ornamentation in every aspect of the church's design. Our driver also told us to look out for the statue of decapitated St. Denis, who is said to have carried his head six miles to the center of Paris. 

Found him! And his head! 

Like I said, we got there about fifteen minutes before Mass was set to's interesting, because the cathedral remains open during services so there's a lot of ambient tourist noise (I attended Mass on my visit in 2010 when I studied abroad!). We kept our exploring to the perimeter because of the Mass. 

Let's chat about that rose window, shall we? This is the South Rose Window...there's also a North and an East, which is largely hidden by the massive organ. These are so massive that the weight of the stone around it often caused tiny cracks in the glass, so all the rose windows have been heavily restored. The photo doesn't communicate their sheer size.

I also couldn't help but laugh when I saw that the stained-glass panels open. Gothic air-conditioning for the win, I suppose! 

That is blurry me in the background saying a quiet Hail Mary and lighting a candle, my favorite tradition in churches all over the world. I can think of few experiences lovelier than lighting a candle at Notre Dame as the (smaller) organ began to play for Mass. It's nice to know that I've lit candles at two Notre Dames now...the other being, of course, at the Grotto on campus. 

On to a quick snapshot of Sacré-Coeur! We spent one gray and drizzly morning exploring Montmartre on an art history walking tour, which was absolutely fantastic and which I highly recommend. It focused primarily on the Impressionists, who really put Montmartre on the map, but we learned a ton about the area, including its famous "moulins" (windmills) and its significance in Parisian history. One of the most interesting facts? Sacré Coeur was finished in 1914! For some reason I thought it was much older...but it was built to serve a dual religious and political purpose. Politically, it marks the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, and religiously it's meant to subdue those damned (literally) Montmartre hippies. 

For these reasons, it's not beloved by the French, and we peeked inside for all of fifteen minutes while we tried to dry out and plan our next move (which was art shopping at the Place du Tertre, and which I can't recommend highly enough!). My only other comment is that this is the only area in Paris where I ever felt uncomfortably worried about pickpockets...they were out-and-out aggressive both in 2010 and on our visit last May. Just a thought. 

From Sacré-Coeur, we bounce back to Notre Dame de Reims, which I referenced fairly heavily in my champagne post three weeks ago and will gloss over now with minimal commentary, except to say that the façade of the church is being totally restored...

...and is just as spectacularly ornate as Notre Dame de Paris. 

Their windows in the nave are paned with clear or very light stained glass, so the whole space felt so much lighter and airier than Notre Dame de Paris. 

And the Chagall windows were such a striking contrast to the ancient church! Added in 1974, they felt weirdly contemporary compared to the Gothic architecture. Gotta say, I didn't love them...until this happened: 

The sun burst out and everything lit up and I was utterly transfixed. 

And that's all for Reims! 

The award for my very favorite church in all of Paris, though, will always go to Sainte-Chapelle, the stunning little jewel box of a chapel hidden near Notre Dame on Ile de la Cité. It's housed in the interior of the Conciergerie and was built for Louis IX to house Passion relics. Words and pictures truly cannot do its beauty I'll let pictures do the talking. 

Every medallion in the windows tells the story of a chapter of the Bible, and every window's medallions are a slightly different shape. There are fifteen windows in all, 14 of which tell the story of the Bible and one of which recounts the French king's quest for the Passion relics. 

As if looking up weren't enough, even the floors are elaborately tiled and painted. There's so much to look at that our group in 2010 spent almost an hour in here, and Mom and Em and I did too. While we didn't get lucky with a super sunny day to see it, the beauty of the windows spoke for themselves despite the clouds. 


I'll end it on that note this week...stay tuned for more Fridays in France next week, or click the "Paris" tag to the right of the top of the post for past editions!