The Basilica Of Clovis - Sainte Genevieve
( Originally Published 1921 )
WHEN Paris was confined to the ile de la cite it had for defence a thick wall and for moat the bed of the Seine. The Petit Pont, replacing an ancient Roman bridge, was the earliest means of exit from the Cite to the left bank of the river and led the way to the Route d'Orleans, itself a Roman road dating back to the time of Caesar. This bridge must have been in constant use by the Roman emperors and governors in coming and going between the primitive city of Lutece and the Palais des Thermes, without the walls.
Regarding this first wall of Paris, history is obscure, but we know that the Grand and the Petit Chatelets were the development of the ancient gates of Lutece. The Grand Chatelet, or Porte de Paris, of which there now remains merely the site and the name bestowed upon a place and a theatre, was reputed to have been an old chateau built in the time of the Romans, of which in the XVIIIth century there still remained several old towers incorporated in a modern construction (1684) enclosing several prisons and a famous torture chamber. A vaulted passage under the fortress served as egress from the island to the right bank of the river. The Petit Chatelet guarded the approach to the Cite on the site now called Place du Petit Pont. It was an antique fortress composed of a massive quadrangular castle with round towers on the side towards the Seine, under which passed a vaulted passage, closed by a heavy gate which served as the second Porte de Paris.
Both Grand and Petit Chatelets served as official residences for the provost and vicomte of Paris, as seats of justice, and as prisons, the latter, says cheerfully an old writer, ordinairement Bien garnie. The passage under the Petit Chatelet, though dark and narrow, according to the early descriptions, was the most frequented entrance to the Cite. Destroyed by the Normans, it was re-built in 1369 under Charles V in the form familiar through engravings. By an old custom the clergy of Notre-Dame walked here in procession annually on Palm Sunday and liberated one prisoner. After the capture of Paris by the Burgundians, in 1418, there was a general massacre of the prisoners, which included at the time the bishops of Bayeux, Evreux, Constances, and Senlis. The picturesque old buildings of the Petit Chatelet were pulled down in 1782.
Without the walls, on the left bank of the Seine, extended a vast prairie, on the outskirts of which stood the ancient palace of the Caesars, adopted as a royal residence by the kings of the first race in France. This palace in the course of time, instead of commanding a Roman camp, became a sort of centre between the two first faubourgs of Paris, built both on the rive gauche, the one, Saint-Pierre (later Sainte-Genevieve), upon the rise of land where now stands the Pantheon, and the other, Saint-Vincent et Sainte-Croix, nearer the river (later Saint-Germain-des-Pres).
The great Clovis built the basilica of Saint-Pierre, or of the Saints-Apotres, as Gregoire de Tours usually names it, as a monument to his victory over the army of the Visigoths ; Childebert, son of Clovis, second king of Paris, gave the other and grander church to enshrine the trophies of his victories in Spain.
The steep and winding Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve leads through one of the most characteristic bits of old Paris, from the Boulevard Saint-Germain at the Place Maubert, to the site of the church of Clovis. One may approach it directly from the cathedral by crossing the Pont au Double, taking the Rue Lagrange to Place Maubert, and thence, across the boulevard, by ascending the narrow Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve.
The quarter, despite the heavy domination of the Pantheon, the modern temple to the saint, built by Louis XV, and the alien library which preserves the books of the old abbey, keeps much of its primitive tone. We shall come back to it, in a later chapter, for Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, its chief existing interest; but for the present there is still standing the tower of the old Sainte-Genevieve, with its Romanesque base, enclosed within the precincts of the Lycee Henri IV, which occupies part of the buildings of the ancient abbey, while the quiet Rues Clotilde and Clovis guard the memory of the founders.
After the death of Clovis, his queen, Clotilde, finished the church, and in the sanctuary interred the bodies of Sainte-Genevieve and her consort, and, later, her two grandchildren, the sons of Clodomir, who were murdered by their uncles, Childebert and Clotaire, whose power and dominion they, as their father's heirs, menaced and diminished. Clotilde survived this tragedy twenty years, years devoted to strictest piety, to numerous charities; she distributed her domains to churches, to monasteries, in a constant effort to efface by the practice of religion the memory of this horrible catastrophe.
The details of this murder merit perhaps a passing word as throwing light upon the extraordinary cruelty of this primitive race of kings. Upon the death of Clodomir, the eldest son of Clovis and Clotilde, whose heritage was the kingdom of Orleans, his widow, Gondiuque, married her brother-in-law, Clotaire, and his . three male infants were confided to their grandmother. Clotilde showed for the young heirs such tenderness that her remaining sons, Childebert and Clotaire, were alarmed. The estates of Clodomir had not yet been divided amongst his children, and Childebert proposed to his brother the murder of their three nephews. Clotaire was readily persuaded and under the pretext to establish them as rulers of their father's domain, the brothers sent for them. Clotilde, filled with joy at the prospects of her grandsons, sent them forth, accompanied by a numerous suite.
Immediately upon their arrival the young princes were taken prisoners and the suite dispersed, whereupon the senator of Auvergne, Arcadius, was sent to Clotilde with orders to present himself before her with a drawn sword in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Now the Merovingiens wore their hair long as a sign of royalty, and Clotilde recognized at once the choice which was presented to her. In her impetuous indignation she returned the messenger with the brusque word that she would rather have the children killed than shaven and deprived of their estates.
Arcadius hastened to report this decision of Clotilde, whereupon Clotaire seizing the oldest of the princes threw him upon the ground and killed him with one stroke of his sword. The youngest fell upon his knees before Childebert imploring his protection, upon which this extraordinary king, says the old narrative, was touched to tears, but Clotaire, who was of sterner stuff, cried : How now! it was you who decided me to commit this crime, and you weaken! Perish yourself or deliver to me this child. (" C'est toi qui m'as decide a commettre ce crime, et tu recules! Peris toi-meme ou abandonne-moi cet enfant.") Childebert gave way and another victim was killed.
The third prince, Clodoald, was saved by the guard, and later he himself cut off his long hair and took sacred orders. After his death he was sanctified, and his name, somewhat modified, was given in his memory to the village Nogent-sur-Seine, thereafter known as Saint-Cloud.
Out of such triste and inglorious beginnings, wars, massacres, murders, parricide, grew then the great and powerful abbey of Sainte-Genevieve in the suite of the church founded by Clovis and endowed by his queen. Upon her death Clotilde was interred near the sepulchre of the saint and after a thousand years (in 1539) her remains were enclosed in a silver shrine. Like Jeanne d'Arc, Sainte-Genevieve, the shepherdess of Nanterre, touches strongly French sentiment and patriotism; together with Saint-Denis, the apostle of Paris, she figures on most of the Gothic remnants which have come down to us, having for Paris her special local appeal. Her shrine still attracts thousands of the faithful.
Tradition pictures the youthful Genevieve as a peasant girl of the environs of Paris, born in 421, and signalled out by Saint-Germain, the bishop of Auxerre, as predestined for special service in the cause of Christianity. In one of the two voyages which he made to Great Britain, Saint-Germain passed by Nanterre and consecrated to the Seigneur the Virgin Genevieve, who became the patron saint of Paris.
In the strange old church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, buried behind the cemetery Pere La-chaise, is a large canvas of the XVIIth century, representing Saint-Germain standing in his pontifical robes consecrating to God the little Genevieve, led by her mother.
Saint-Germain-d'Auxerre was one of the great figures of the Christian church in Gaul in the Vth century. The bishop of Auxerre, he must not be confounded with Saint-Germain, the bishop of Paris, who lived in the VIth century. The first is the patron saint of the churches, Saint-Germainl'Auxerrois and Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, the second is the patron of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. In the Middle Ages these two bishops with Saint-Denis, Saint-Martin, Saint-Remi, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Etienne, and Sainte-Genevieve were very popular, especially in the Paris region.
Sainte-Genevieve had rendered great service to Paris during the troublous times of the barbarian invasions. When Attila threatened to lay siege to the little city, it was Genevieve, warned of God, who addressed the people telling them not to abandon their homes and promising them the protection of Heaven. When Childeric, the father of Clovis, invested the city it was again Genevieve who to relieve the famine took command of boats sent up the river to Troyes for help. By her prayers she stilled the tempests and brought back her ships, laden with provisions. The history of her pious life is pictured in the famous modern frescoes of the Pantheon, while upon early buildings sculptors delighted to represent her accompanied by a devil who tries vainly to blow out the flame of her lighted taper, the symbol of Christianity, of which she was a devoted disciple and teacher.
The early church upon the " mountain," behind the palace of the Caesars, took the name Sainte-Genevive as early as the VIIth century, on ac-count of the miracles performed at the tomb of the saint. Ruined in the IXth century by the Normans, it was completely rebuilt at about the end of the XIIth century, upon the old foundations, while from time to time under different kings it was enriched and embellished.
The reliquary, in the form of a church, containing the remains of the saint, was executed in 1242 by order of Robert de la Ferte-Milon, abbot of the monastery, by Bonnard, one of the cleverest of French goldsmiths. One hundred and ninety-three silver marcs and seven and one-half marcs of gold were employed in its confection. Kings and queens of France covered it with precious stones, and Marie de Medicis gave a rich bouquet of diamonds which surmounted the gable of the principal face.
Four statues of women, larger than life size, carved from wood by Germain Pilon, placed upon marble columns behind the high altar, supported the shrine. The arms of the figures have disappeared, but the fragment stands otherwise practically intact and forms one of the chief ornaments of that beautiful Salle Jean Goujon, at the Louvre, where so many rare examples of French Renaissance sculpture are preserved. The figures stand back to back in a circle, and their arms were evidently raised to hold the shrine. It is amusing to see how far one had come from ,the severity of the epoch of the saint in the opulent period in which the accessories to the shrine were made. The four women are beautiful, mundane creatures, the true companions to the Diana of Jean Goujon, a supposed portrait of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, by whose side they now stand. They are exquisitely coiffed and wear transparent, filmy draperies, which reveal the delicious contours of their figures. The heads are elegantly poised, but seem rather insignificant, while the masterly touch of the sculptor comes out strong in the vigorous carving of the feet.
From remotest times the relics of the saint had been considered the safeguard of the city, and the shrine was often carried in procession to ward off calamities. In 1793 the municipality of Paris had the relics thrown into the fire, the shrine melted in the furnace of the mint, an excess of democratic vandalism which yielded only twenty-one thousand livres to the national treasury.
When, in 1755, Louis XV, in fulfilment of a vow, commenced the building of the great monument, now the Pantheon, which was to supersede the antique church as a memorial to the patron of Paris, Sainte-Genevieve was condemned and allowed to fall into ruins. It was demolished in 1801-7, when the cutting through of the Rue Clovis blotted out its foundations and destroyed its souvenirs.
The crypt was the largest and most venerated of all Paris. From its ruins was taken the stone sarcophagus which had for so many centuries enclosed the remains of the Saint. Covered by a modern shrine it was installed in the neighbouring church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, where it is still the object of many a pious pilgrimage. All day long and at all seasons of the year candles, placed by the devout who hope to gain the intercession of the saint, burn upon it.
Something of the beautiful workmanship of the Merovingien basilica raised by Clovis to the Saints-Apotres, may be divined by the study of a remarkable fragment preserved in a room devoted to French sculpture of the Moyen Age (Salle IX) at the Louvre. This is the capital from one of the columns, in marble of a fine grain, appearing to have been cut at two different times. Ac-cording to the label, the face, representing Daniel in the Lions' Den is Roman and the back, carved in the acanthus leaves of classic antiquity, is of the VIth century.
Not only is the capital highly decorative in its embellishment, but the biblical story is told with striking conviction. Daniel is seated in the centre between the lions, in a peaceful and contemplative attitude, his cheek in the palm of one hand and the other covering his knee. He has large, calm eyes which look out into illimitable space, and the expression on his face is truly delightful. The lions achieve to the utmost their purely decorative quality and show their good will by smiling broadly, and their entire submission by their tails, which are not only between their legs, but owing to their great length are curled up again over their backs, where they terminate in ornamental tassels. In the whole of this conception there is something distinctly Chinese. Daniel is Buddhistic, especially in his mystic remoteness and sublimity, while the lions are surely akin to the sacred Chow.
Not far from this fragment of the Merovingien basilica is an important relic of the XIIIth century restoration.' This is the large statue of the saint herself, taken from the central pier of the entrance. The figure stands against the original pillar, upon a pedestal, and is covered by a small canopy. Following the tradition, the saint holds, or rather held, a candle and a book; a demon perches on her left shoulder, an angel leans over the right. One tries to extinguish and the other defends the flame which should guide the virgin in her nocturnal pilgrimage to the tombs of the martyrs. In the general wreckage of her environment Sainte-Genevive has lost her nose and her candle, and the devil his head, so that without the key the significance of the statue is lost. The angel is quite intact and leans protectingly over the saint's shoulder. The statue dates from the beginning of the XIIIth century.
Some fragmentary capitals from the nave of the old church may be discovered in the second court of the Beaux-Arts. These are in stone and of Xlth century construction, very large and clumsily executed. On one of them is the story of Adam and Eve in three episodes, making a continuous pattern upon the exposed side of the capital. In the centre, the serpent entwined about the tree offering Eve the apple in his teeth, and Adam and Eve in grotesquely unequivocal attitudes; to the left, the creation of woman, crude but unmistakable; to the right, the expulsion from Paradise. The figures are heavy and primitive while the foliage is well cut and well preserved. The motifs on the other capitals are less clear as to their meaning, it has been thought that they represent the signs of the zodiac. All are in a deplorable state of decay.
Upon the wall over the first mentioned fragment, is a handsome funeral stone of elaborate workmanship, representing Jean Disse, a chancellor of Notre-Dame of Noyon, who died in 1350. The stone has been broken, but put together carefully, and though covered with a patine from exposure is still clearly legible, both as to decoration and the inscription which runs around the border.
These things, we assume, were brought here at the time of the Revolution, and installed in the hastily improvised museum of French art, organized by that admirable patriot Alexandre Lenoir, to whose intervention and courage we owe the preservation of so many monuments which would otherwise have been destroyed.
A statue of Clovis, made in the XIIth century, from the abbey of Sainte-Genevieve, forms one of the chief treasures of Saint-Denis. This statue had been discarded in the XVIIth century, for a more imposing monument in white marble, erected in the middle of the choir of the church, by order of cardinal de la Rochefoucauld. The Revolutionists spent their rage upon the modern tomb, while the ancient stone effigy, whose place it had usurped, escaped their fury and was rescued by the indefatigable Lenoir for his Museum of French Monuments installed in the convent of the Petits-Augustins.
The figure with all its accessories and the bed upon which it rests are cut from a solid block of stone. The workmanship is heavy and coarse, and the statue, in contradistinction to the characteristic style of the epoch, which exaggerated the length and elongated the forms as a rule, is short and thick. The effigy is distinguished by the long hair and beard of the Merovingien princes, and tallies in all respects with the old engravings, which may be consulted in the works of Dubreul and Montfaucon.
From the vandalism of the Revolutionists these and some other monuments were spared, including the handsome mausoleum of cardinal de La Rochefoucauld, cut in marble by Philippe Buister.
The monument to Rene Descartes, though respectfully carried to the shelter of the Petits-Augustins, was afterwards dismembered, while the ashes of the great philosopher are interred at Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Thus may one visit the scattered relics of the demolished church, while upon the site itself stands, still marking the summit of the mount, the high and beautiful tower, spared since it did not trouble the line of the Rue Clovis. Roman at its base and pierced by rounded arches, it passes in its ascent, to Gothic, and its two upper stories belong to the XIVth and XVth centuries. The Roman construction is said to date from the reign of Philippe I (1060) or at the latest from the first years of the XIIth century. A winding stairway of stone mounts through a tourelle at the northeastern angle and at each story is a door-way opening upon an elegant balcony with fine wrought-iron grills. The balustrade and four little steeples are in the flamboyant style.
The convent buildings have been absorbed into the construction of the Lycee Henri IV, which after the suppression of the abbey took possession. The principal existing remnant is the refectory, a great, vaulted hall, constructed in the XIIIth century, and partially restored in 1886. This room serves as chapel for the college.
The library of Sainte-Genevieve, once celebrated in the world of savants, was housed on the top floor of the abbey, and constituted one of those remote fastnesses of archaeological, scientific, and literary research which are the delight of the elect. The collections were founded by the cardinal de la Rochefoucauld, about 1624, and greatly in-creased by the addition of the library of cardinal le Tellier, archbishop of Rheims, in 1710. The library is rich in manuscripts from the IXth to the XVIIth centuries, many beautifully illuminated, and contains a nearly complete collection of Aldine editions as well as a famous collection of about 8000 engravings, including nearly 5000 portraits.
The Revolution declared the library national property, and about the middle of the last century the long Florentine building on the north side of the Place du Pantheon was erected by the architect Labrouste and became the new Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve. The ancient sanctuary of science was denuded of its treasures in 1850 when the transfer of the collections to the new building was made.