The 1,000 year old church of St-Germain-des-Prés gives its name to an entire neighborhood. The Romanesque church was once the center of a massive and powerful Benedictine monastery that covered thousands of acres along the Left Bank (today's 6th and 7th arrondissements). The abbey itself was founded in 558, and the bell tower pictured above is the oldest standing intact religious structure in all of Paris.
Today St-Germain is one of the most expensive, fashionable and trendy sectors of the city. Gone are the days when Hemingway rented rooms here for a pittance, and existential philosophers Sartre and de Beauvoir kept warm by sitting next to the stoves all day long in the literary cafés.
Famous landmarks just outside the church doors still draw tourists – The Café de Flor, Brasserie Lipp, Les Deux Magots – and the area is still the heart of publishing and government, which occupy many an impressive neighborhood mansion, known as a Hôtel Particulier.
The once powerful and mighty abbey, which had its own prison and hospital, was decimated during the French Revolution to the point that only the abbey church survives to this day. Most people regard the Place de la Concorde as being the principal location of bloodshed and violence during the Revolution, when in fact some of the bloodiest events of that era took place in the square right in front of this church.
The etching shown at right, dating from 1551, shows the church, prison and abbey with their fortifications (click to enlarge). Because it was outside of Paris at the time it was built, Saint-Germain-des-Prés was responsible for its own defense. Twice during the ninth century the abbey was sacked and burned by Viking invaders. For this reason, the abbey was surrounded by a wall with towers and a moat.
The church we see standing today has interior walls and ceilings that are handsomely painted and gilded (see photo), as were all the churches of Paris at one time. One can’t help but imagine similar decoration at Notre-Dame cathedral, whose entire facade and interior were once brightly painted and gilded .
In the 6th century, the church and abbey were known as Saint-Vincent and Sainte-Croix. Merovingian King Childebert built the abbey of Saint Vincent as a shrine to house relics of the saint as well as a jewel-encrusted cross that was reported to have been made for King Solomon. The abbey church, built on the site of a former temple to the Egyptian god Isis, was a magnificent basilica whose exterior was clad in gilded copper and gold mosaics; the interior sported marble columns and gilded rafters. All that gold led to the moniker Saint-Germain-le-Doré (doré = golden).
Germain, the Bishop of Paris, encouraged the king to build the abbey, and soon after his death, Germain was canonized as St. Germain of Auxerre.
The abbey church became the burial place for Merovingian kings until 639 (thereafter French Kings were buried at the Basilica of St. Denis, north of Paris, up until the French Revolution). Two hundred years after Saint Germain's death the church was renamed in his honor, as the church of St-Germain-des-Prés.
Before the area around St-Germain-des-Prés was inhabited, the terrain was that of a great prairie, from which the abbey took its name. “St-Germain des Prés,” literally “Saint Germain of the fields,” distinguishes it from “St-Germain l’Auxerrois,” opposite the Louvre (see separate post), also named in honor of the bishop of Auxerre.
For hundreds of years the monastery remained separate from the city of Paris and its governance, under direct control of the Pope, instead. When Philippe Auguste built his great wall around Paris in 1193, the monastery remained outside it, and the abbey had legal jurisdiction over the village that had grown up around it. In fact, the riches of the abbey approached those of the city of Paris itself, causing the successive kings to keep a close eye on what was regarded as a rival to their power.
When the university left the grounds of Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cité and moved to the Left Bank in what is now the neighboring 5th arrondissement, there arose perennial conflicts between those students and the monks from the St-Germain abbey. The students were noisy, disturbing the monks; they trespassed on the abbey's property that had been deemed off limits, and they disturbed the peace of the local residents of the village that had grown up around the abbey, often leading to retaliation. These hostilities sometimes led to violent conflict.
In 1278 the abbey built some houses that blocked a path the students customarily used when traveling from the Latin Quarter to access sporting fields along the Seine, just north of the abbey. The students took it upon themselves to dismantle these structures, and the abbey retaliated with an armed attack, killing two of the students and injuring many more. Several were taken prisoner and cast into the abbey's dungeon (located on the site of the present-day Hotel Madison at 143, blvd. Saint-Germain). The other students appealed to both the king and the city's papal representative for retribution, receiving a sympathetic response. Both Rome and the French king were only too happy to censor the arrogance of the rich and powerful abbey. From then on the students maintained legal rights to use their beloved sporting fields, known as the Pré aux Clercs.
During the 16th century the authorities of Saint-Germain abbey dealt with the protestant Huguenots by capturing and torturing them; those who refused to deny their heretical faith under torture had their tongues pulled out and were subsequently burned alive on the square in front of the abbey church.
During the French Revolution the abbey was seized, looted and largely destroyed, and the once mighty monastery reached the end of its 1,200-year history. The church's prison was filled to overflowing with enemies of the revolution, hundreds of whom were slaughtered in the abbey's courtyard or on the square in front of the church (now the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Blvd. Saint-Germain). This activity reached its peak in September, 1792. Shortly thereafter the abbey's great library burned down in 1794.
Although the church of Saint-Germain was eventually reconsecrated after the Revolution, its status was reduced to that of a mere parish church. Its once vast tracts of land were reduced to the abbey church itself and an adjacent garden. These days many people enter the church of Saint-Germain to attend concerts and organ recitals. Others seek out the tomb of René Descartes, buried in one of the church's side chapels. However, few modern-day visitors are aware of the mighty and turbulent past of the abbey of Saint-Germain.