PHOTOS: The Most Beautiful Churches in Paris
Badly damaged by fire in 2019, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris will reopen in time for the city's turn hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024, French government officials insist. But even with its most famous church out of commission, Paris remains an unrivaled locus of sacred splendors. Any doubts about that will be quickly dispelled with a look at Churches of Paris (ACC Art Books; $60), a gorgeous compendium of 37 houses of worship across the French capital.
Writer-photographer Peggy Shannon spent 6 years researching the book, gathering insights from historians, clergy members, administrators, and tour guides to tell the stories, as NPR's Scott Simon puts it in an introduction, "of how human hands and hearts have built (and sometimes looted and desecrated), and keep on reimagining and rebuilding" these world-famous as well as lesser-known structures spanning the 12th to the 19th centuries.
Accompanying the text are Shannon's ravishing photos of dazzling stained-glass windows, imposing stonework, intricate wood carvings, and intriguing details such as altarpieces, statues, relics, and paintings. Whether religious or not, readers can't help but feel the majesty and the mystery of these spaces that put the holy in holy moly.
Scroll on to see a selection of some of our favorite images from the book.
Pictured above: Saint-Eugène-Sainte-Cécile Church in the 9th arrondissement
The small chapel dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul (1581–1660) displays the waxed remains of the Congregation of the Mission founder in a spectacular silver-and-glass casket. It looks very expensive, which is ironic since the saint was famous for dedicating himself to the poor. The same chapel houses a shrine (pictured above) to John Gabriel Perboyre, a priest killed in 1840 while serving as a missionary in China.
Located in the suburbs north of Paris, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is said to stand on the ground chosen by Denis, the 3rd-century bishop of Paris, as his burial site—a selection he made, per church lore, after getting decapitated, picking up his severed noggin, and walking to his preferred place of eternal rest. Several centuries' worth of French kings were subsequently buried here as well. The grandeur of the church's Gothic interior, especially when sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows creates a kaleidoscope of colors on stone surfaces, is enough to set your own head spinning.
Cobbled together over several centuries, the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés supplies a pretty thorough survey of medieval architecture. Shannon points to the choir (pictured above) as one of the leading examples of Gothic construction in Paris. Completed in 1163, the dramatically vaulted space is strengthened on the exterior by the first flying buttresses in town.
As Shannon explains, the enormous church of Saint-Sulpice in the Latin Quarter has racked up an impressive string of artistic and literary connections. Victor Hugo got married in the sanctuary, and the Marquis de Sade was baptized here (it didn't take, apparently). Composer Jules Massenet and author Honoré de Balzac put the church in an opera (Manon) and novel (The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans), respectively. The church has a role in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, too.
The church's own art collection includes three monumental paintings by Eugène Delacroix. The influential Romanticist's masterful Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (pictured above) occupies a wall in the Chapel of the Holy Angels.
The patron saint of Paris, Geneviève, earned her title, as Shannon relates, by interceding with God to stop an assault on the city by Attila the Hun (in other words, she managed to pray the fray away). Visitors can pay their respects at the saint's ornate shrine (pictured above) inside Saint-Étienne-du-Mont near the Panthéon. Philosopher Blaise Pascal and playwright Jean Racine are also interred onsite.
Thanks to Sacré-Coeur's position atop the butte of Montmartre, the steps to the multidomed, Byzantine-inspired building have become a popular gathering spot for appreciating a far-reaching view of Paris, particularly at sunset. But what you'll see inside the 19th-century church isn't too shabby either. The massive Christ in Glory mosaic presides over the apse, while the dome of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin (pictured above) depicts Mary's assumption into heaven in golden hues and vivid detail. Climb the 300 steps of the main dome for a sweeping, 360-degree look at the city from on high.
Churches of Paris by Peggy Shannon (published by ACC Art Books; $60) is available now in bookstores and from online booksellers.