The origin of Saint-Severin is obscure. The supposition is that it existed first as an oratory built in honour of a pious ” solitaire,” who lived in Paris in the time of Childebert I and who took Clodoald (Saint-Cloud), at the time that he escaped murder at the hands of his uncles, as a disciple. It has been thought that this oratory was consecrated by Saint-Cloud himself in memory of his master. Other authors think that the church was called for the abbot of Agaune.
Be that as it may, the oratory on the site of the hermitage, having been sacked by the Nor-mans, was rebuilt in the Xlth century as the ” Ecclesia Sancti Severi Solitarii,” and became the chief church of an immense parish, comprising nearly all of the southern part of Paris.
In its actual state it dates from the XIIIth century. The clocher, a square tower, rises from the northwest angle; the elegance of its long, pointed bays, with their pretty little columns at the embrasures, and the fineness of the workman-ship indicate the middle of the XIIIth, century. The tower terminates in a sharp steeple decorated with dormer windows, capped with a lanthorn, whose point can be seen all along the quays.
The main entrance, now usually closed, is under the tower, and opens from the Rue Saint-Severin. It has a good porch with columns, under which are still vestiges of an inscription, in small Gothic letters of the XIIIth century, while to the right and left, let into the walls, are two reliefs of lions, small and extremely ornamental.
In the tympanum is a wretched relief replacing the contemporary destroyed panel, representing Saint-Martin sharing his coat with the beggar. The church possessed a piece of this glorious vestment and had also a chapel dedicated to the charitable bishop of Tours, venerated as one of the chief patrons of the parish. Saint-Martin is always represented mounted on horseback and travellers took him for their protector; when setting out upon voyages or upon their return it was customary to come to Saint-Severin and attach a horse-shoe to his image, and the door, under the image, used to be completely covered with them. When the voyage was likely to be long or hazardous the rider frequently branded his horse’s hoof with the key of the church door.
The west door is interesting as conserving the ancient portal from the destroyed church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Bceufs, brought here in 1837. It dates chiefly from the early XIIIth century, except for its modern tympanum. The oak panels of the door itself, ornamented with medallions of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is XVIIth century.
Within, despite many changes, the church is exceedingly curious and interesting still. The visitor is at once struck by the series of handsome XVth and XVIth century windows, which, to the number of fifteen; make the unbroken series from the fourth bay of the nave in the clerestory. These were all dismounted during the war and at the moment are in process of being put back. Restoration suppressed some of, the backgrounds and borders to gain light in the church, but the windows retain their beautiful shape and are embellished with coats of arms and figures of their donors.
The church is curious in that it has no transept. Its shape is that of a long parallelogram, terminating in a circular apse. Like Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, Saint-Severin once had a rood-loft, erected in 1414 by a bequest of Antoine de Compaigne and his wife Oudette. It was destroyed to open the sanctuary to the view of the faithful in the latter half of the XVIIth century, at which time the church received also the modern decoration which disfigures the spaces over the pointed arches of the nave.
The double ambulatory adds greatly to the picturesque aspect of this old church, and is interesting for its groined vaulting, whose complications appear to proceed, in a manner, from a curious twisted pillar in the centre of the apse behind the high altar. The second aisle on the right is the earliest; it dates from the XIVth century, and contains many beautiful carved escutcheons, and Gothic consoles.
In the chapel dedicated to Saint-Jean-l’Evangeliste are some early decorations by Hippolyte Flandrin, done in 1839. These consist of four compositions full of charm and religious sentiment. The subjects: ” The Calling of the Aposties,” ” The Last Supper,” ” The Martyrdom of Saint John,” and ” Saint John Writing the Apocalypse.”
Many other souvenirs attach to this old church. At Pentecost a flight of pigeons used to be sent down during mass through holes in the vaulting to typify the descent of the Holy Spirit. Between the lions of the north porch the magistrates of the town administered justice. In the churchyard of Saint-Severin the first operation for gallstone was performed in public, in January, 1474. The patient was a soldier, condemned to be hung for theft, and upon the success of the operation he was pardoned and rewarded.