Leaving the Ile de la Cite by the Grand Pont, from earliest times ran a road irregularly towards the north, leading to the Butte Montmartre and the Chapel of the Martyrs, called the Chemin de Montmartre. The Hanes Centrales now partly cover its ancient bed, but from the Place du Chatelet, the Rue des Hanes to the centre of that vast market, then across its width to the rear of Saint-Eustache, one finds again the old thorough-fare under its ancient name, and mounting that street to its end, before Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a deviation to the right will lead up the steep Rue des Martyrs, from whose termination a choice of means of ascent presents itself for the final stage of a pilgrimage to that famous hill which over-looks the whole of Paris.
The great, dazzling basilica of the Sacre Coeur, which now caps the mountain with its ostentatious piety, throws the picturesque village of that primitive Paris, so fast disappearing, completely out of scale. It is only by a direct effort of will that one can disregard the sense of its impending nearness, of its oppressive insistence as the. thing to be seen on the historic hill. From the horrid funicular which hauls the unimaginative up a final stretch of perpendicularity which the pious ancients took upon their knees, to the indiscriminate hawkers of secular and religious souvenirs and emblems, with which the environment of the whole irrelevant, theatrical mass is literally infested, the utmost has been done to deprive the sacred site of its legitimate interest.
That legitimate interest one takes to be primarily the fact of the martyrdom, upon this hill, some sundry centuries ago, of the first apostle of the Gauls, that same Saint-Denis who, sent from Rome in the beginning of the Christian Era, converted the Parisii, and was put to death by order of the Roman governor. The epoch of Saint-Denis is uncertain, but the tradition which indicates the summit of Montmartre as the place of his death and which places his tomb where is now the city of Saint-Denis has never been contested.
” After being decapitated,” says Hilduin, the abbot of Saint-Denis, writing only four or five centuries after the event and with the conviction of an eyewitness, ” the saint rose up on his feet, took his head in his hands, and walked about a league while angels sang about him, ` Gloria tibi Domine ‘ and others responded three times, ` Alleluia.’ Finally he arrived thus at the spot where now stands his church.”
Thus the name, Mons MartisMons Martyrum, is in memory of the martyrdom of the first bishop of Paris and of his two companions, Rustique and Eleuthere, whose heads, according to the tradition, were cut off upon this hill. From time immemorial three streets of the summit of Montmartre recorded the names of the three martyrs. The Rue Saint-Eleuthere holding with-in its curve the remains of the old abbey, which once dominated the hill, still retains the name of the deacon who accompanied the apostle, and a narrow old street on the other side of the place before the ancient church of Saint-Pierre still bears the inscription, ” Rue Rustique “; but a negligence all too regrettable has allowed to lapse the name of the principal figure of the legend and the centuries-old Rue Saint-Denis is lost in the modern Rue Mont-Cenis, which follows the way that, carrying his head in his hand, the saint took down the northern slope of the hill, towards the stopping place upon the plain beyond which was to become his sepulchre. Rue de la Procession, without the present walls of the city, covers the route of that extraordinary march, anciently marked by stations of the cross.
Two edifices of which we have but vague information preceded the present church Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre. The existing chapel, re-stored from a state of general decay, but still preserving an authentic air of antiquity, dates from 1163, when Louis le Gros and his queen, Alix of Savoie, having established at Montmartre the nuns of the order of Saint-Benoit, commenced its construction. In 1147 the church was consecrated by Pope Eugenius III, who was in Paris to celebrate Easter at Saint-Denis, in the presence of Saint-Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, and Pierre le Venerable, abbot of Cluny.
The church served as chapel to the royal Benedictine conventroyal because its abbesses were appointed by the king. Amongst the famous women who became abbesses of the convent were Marie de Beauvilliers, the nun carried off by Henri IV, described in the Amour Philosophe, and Marguerite-Louise d’Orleans, grand-duchess of Tuscany, took up her abode here after her separation from her husband, Cosimo III, in 1675.
Queen Alix was buried in the church, but her tomb was destroyed in the Revolution. There exists, however, a good XIIth century tomb of an abbess with her effigy engraved upon the stone.
Louis XIV rebuilt the abbey, and from this later construction is preserved, in the garden, a Calvary with a Holy Sepulchre containing a figure of Christ at the tomb.
Lamartine, in his Histoire des Girondins, de-scribes the tragic fate of this convent during the Reign of Terror, when it was suppressed and its inmates guillotined. The abbess at the time was Madame de Montmorency, the nuns included young girls and elderly women with white hair, ” whose sole crimes were the will of their parents and the fidelity of their vows.” Grouped about their abbess in the charrette as it rattled along through the thronged streets of Paris towards the scaffold, they sang continuously the sacred chants of their faith, chanting ” to the last voice the hymn of their martyrdom. Their voices troubled the hearts of the mob, and the extinction of such combined youth, beauty, and religion forced the people to turn away their eyes.”
The interior of the little church is of a primitive severity. One fancies one’s self far from Paris, in some tiny province, as rounding the Rue Saint-Eleuthere into the ancient Rue Saint-Denis, and crossing the desolate little place before the church one enters through its modest portal. Ruin and restoration have left many fragments of the original stone carving, and a few intensely interesting archaeological souvenirs.
Against the wall of the facade, inside, are two pillars formed of three columns each. The principal column of each group is of black and white marble from Aquitania, with capitals in white marble carved with the acanthus leaf. For a long time these two columns were thought to be re-mains from a pagan temple built on the hill in honour of Mars or Mercury, but modern archaeologists 1 attribute them to Christian origin and think that they date from a Merovingien edifice raised on the summit of Montmartre. A primitive cross carved on the volute of one of the leaves seems to justify this theory.
The church is composed of a nave with four bays, a choir of one bay, and a circular apse. The nave is wide and has two aisles which terminate at the birth of the apse. The pillars of the nave are massive and formed of three stout columns.
The little apse retains its primitive vaulting and its XIIth century pointed arches. The windows, except the middle one, have been dosed up and reopened and much restored.
In the choir, separating the rectangular portion from the round-point, are two granite columns with white marble capitals, of great antiquity and considered to have come from the earliest Roman temple.
The little church of Saint-Jean and Saint-Francois, in the Marais, behind the Musee des Archives, contains a rarely beautiful statue of Saint-Denis by Jacques Sarazin, made by order of Anne d’Autriche for the abbey of Montmartre.
From this sumptuous statue alone, one may build up an idea of the importance of the abbey for which it was designed, and it is interesting to see how far from the original austerity of the history of the martyr one had already strayed in the XVIIth century. Sarazin presents the first bishop of Paris in his pontifical robes, kneeling in graceful suppliance which suggests the courtier of the regency of Anne of Austria. The modelling is soft and plastic, the figure has grace, elegance, and an appealing beauty, and is clothed in voluminous draperies which fall in handsome folds and show superb handling.
The little church which gathered in the relic after the Revolution, was founded in 1623, for a chapel to the convent of the Capuchins, and is therefore contemporary with the statue. The chancel is beautifully done in wood panelling of the epoch and many of the details are worthy of attention.
As a pendant to the statue of Saint-Denis has been placed, the two within the chancel rail, another kneeling statue, of Saint Francis of Assisi, made by Germain Pilon.