Looking up at a white stone church with several domes
Architecture,  Paris

Le Sacré Coeur de Paris

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, to give it its full name, seems to divide opinion. Built only in the early 20th century, I have seen some commentators criticise it as an eye-sore. Others (actually often the same people) abhor the reasons behind its construction. Its inspiration was the defeat of French troops during the Franco-Prussian War, which some felt was due to spiritual rather than political causes. Was this in fact a divine punishment following a century of moral decline, as one bishop put it?

Proponents of this view vowed ‘to build a church in Paris dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as a sign of penitence, trust, hope and faith’, as the basilica’s website puts it. But others, even to this day, see the building as a symbol of the church’s too-strong hold over the country and over-involvement in its politics.

Looking up at a white stone church with several domes
The Sacré Coeur from the foot of the hill, with carousel
Looking up at a white stone church with several domes
The Sacré Coeur from the foot of the hill

My ex-VT friend Don, on his excellent blog, quotes Bertrand Taithe, Professor of Cultural History at The University of Manchester:

The reaction to the communes of Paris and Lyon were triumphalist monuments, the Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre and the Basilica of Fourvière, dominating both cities. These buildings were erected using private funds, as gigantic ex-votos, thanking God for the victory over the socialists and in expiation of the sins of modern France.

(From his book Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil, 1870-1871)

I have some sympathy with those who deplore the reasons behind its construction. But as to the view that it is an eye-sore; no, not to me. I like its prominence, its whiteness, its rounded shapes which echo those of buildings in more ‘exotic’ lands. And I love the view from the terrace in front; although it was rather a hazy morning when we visited last September.

View over a city
View from in front of the Sacré Coeur

Despite the haze you should be able to make out some key buildings. There is the bulk of the Pompidou Centre near the centre in the middle distance; one of the large cranes working on the rebuilding of Notre Dame towards the far right; and on the far left the rather wacky new leaning ‘Tours Duo’ under construction in the 13th arrondissement. The latter look intriguing and will be on my list for a future visit to the city!

We didn’t have to jostle for position on the terrace to take our photos; and we didn’t have to queue to go inside, other than to have our Passe Sanitaire checked. I couldn’t help admiring the apparent ease with which that system was working, while reflecting on the then on-going debate back home about whether such a ‘vaccination passport’ would be an infringement of civil liberties.

Inside the basilica

Masks on, we entered the basilica to find that a mass was in progress. I thought at first that this would limit our explorations; but we soon realised that the handful of other visitors were respectfully making their way around the fringes and that we could do the same. I have since read on the website that photography inside isn’t permitted but I saw no signs to that effect and wasn’t challenged at all. But of course I didn’t even consider using flash (something I would avoid in any case, as it kills atmosphere).

I won’t try to describe the interior except to say that on this bright September day it glowed in the colours diffused through beautiful stained-glass windows.

The apse mosaic is the most striking feature. From the official website:

It represents the risen Christ, clothed in white and with arms extended, revealing a golden heart. Surrounding him, in various sizes, a world of adorers is represented, including the Saints who protect France: the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael, Saint Joan of Arc, as well as a personification of France offering her crown and Pope Leo XIII offering the world.

I visited Paris most recently in 2021, when all these photos were taken


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