Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont

Rising in a straight line between Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Panthéon is Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. The street has carried that name since medieval times, but its origins date back to the Roman occupation. This was the road used to reach a monastery established by Clovis, the first French Catholic king, who was buried there in 511. The Ste. Geneviève mentioned in the street name, however, was the patrician woman who converted Clovis to Christianity, later becoming the patron saint of Paris. Geneviève is credited with saving Paris from an assault by the Huns.
At the top of this “mountain” (actually no more than a hill) sits the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont (St. Stephen of the Mount), located where the Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève ends at the Place du Panthéon. The church contains the elaborate shrine of Ste. Geneviève's remains, as well as the tombs of Blaise Pascal (mathematician, physicist and philosopher), playwright Jean Racine and the French Revolutionary figure Jean Paul Marat.

The shrine of Sainte Geneviève (above)

Saint-Étienne-du-Mont was built to accommodate the crowds swarming the neighboring abbey and 12-century chapel devoted to Ste. Geneviève. This was essentially a move designed to keep the crowds out of the monastery proper, which had become an overly popular pilgrimage center. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont literally abutted the north wall of the abbey church, which fell victim to the French Revolution and was pulled down in 1807. Today this site houses a prestigious high school, the Lycée Henri IV; the school property still encompasses a bell tower from 1180, the only surviving structure from the abbey.
The present church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont dates back to the late 15th century, and is an unusual mix of Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. The apse was begun in 1491, and the bell tower was not completed until 1624. One of the most unusual features of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont is its celebrated Rood Screen (c. 1525), the double-stair stone arch that separates the choir, where the monks sat, from the body of the church, where the parishioners worshiped. A reader would mount the screen by way of the fantastically carved spiral stone staircases to read scripture. This Rood Screen is the only one left in Paris, all others falling victim to the destructive forces of the Revolution. It is a tremendous work of craftsmanship, adding a commanding presence and elegance to the interior.

There is an important musical legacy related to this church. Maurice Duruflé, the renowned organist, composer, and improviser, held the post of organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont for 57 years, from 1929 until his death in 1986. The magnificently carved gallery organ case dates from 1636, although the organ it houses today dates from the 1950s. The 4-manual organ of 96 stops is one of the principal Parisian instruments used for recitals, and many organ recordings have been made here. Duruflé lived in an apartment building directly opposite the church; a plaque installed in 2002, the centenary of his birth, indicates the precise location.

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