Wednesday, April 30, 2008

PARIS: St-Sulpice

Église Saint-Sulpice
The Marquis de Sade was baptized here; so, too, French poet Charles Baudelaire. Victor Hugo was married here. Widor’s Toccata in F was written for the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ here. The Rose Line, a narrow brass strip in the floor, made familiar to millions in The DaVinci Code, bisects the nave. Jules Massenet set an act of his opera, Manon, at this oh-so-fashionable church.
We could be only at Saint-Sulpice, the huge Italianate edifice in the 6th arrondissement, just a couple of blocks north of the Luxembourg Gardens. It was constructed from 1646 through the 1770s and is the second largest church in Paris after Notre-Dame. Artistically, St-Sulpice is distinguished by the extraordinary frescoes painted by Eugène Delacroix.

A 19th-century watercolor of St-Sulpice by François-Étienne Villeret

Those of you who read The DaVinci Code will recall that Silas the monk used the Rose Line as a reference point in his quest for the Holy Grail. You can retrace his path north across the nave and transept to an obelisk next to the statue of St Peter. The astronomical gnomen (Rose Line) of Saint-Sulpice was commissioned in 1727 in order to determine the exact date of Easter along with the winter and summer equinoxes; Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – but you knew that, right? Note – a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts the shadow (gnomon is a Greek word meaning "indicator"). In the south transept window a small opening with a lens was set up, so that a ray of sunlight shines onto the brass line. At noon on the winter solstice (December 21), the ray of light touches the brass line on the obelisk. At noon on the equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the ray touches an oval plate of copper in the floor near the altar. Constructed by the English clock-maker and astronomer Henry Sully, the gnomon was also used for various scientific measurements. This secular use may have protected Saint-Sulpice from being destroyed during the French Revolution.

Oh, and not only do the two spires not match architecturally, they are of different heights. The one on the left is a bell tower. Weird.

And be sure to check out the two large shells (holy water receptacles) given to King François I by the Republic of Venice. These two shells rest on rock-like bases, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, who had the unfortunate distinction of lending his name to the infamous red-light district near Montmartre.

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