The Madeleine Church

Well, here we are again, ready for another stroll. If you have been waiting for me very long, you may have noticed that the front of the Café de la Paix faces the Boulevard des Capucines. This is one of the sections of the Grand Boulevards I mentioned to you two days ago, and as you might have guessed, it derives its name from the Capucine Convent I mentioned when I described the Place Vendome to you yesterday.

If we walk two short blocks on this boulevard to our right we will come to the Boulevard de la Madeleine, which is the first boulevard of the Grand Boulevards. Two more short blocks on that, and we will be at the Madeleine Church. However, as the Boulevard de la Madeleine runs into this church at a sharp angle, we will not see this church until we are practically on top of it.

As in the case of so many other buildings in Paris, the Madeleine Church has had a turbulent history, although, after the design had once been decided upon, i t took only thirty-seven years to complete, including the years on which no work was done on it whatever. Although the actual work on the Madeleine Church was not started until Napoleon ordered it built as a temple to his armies, the idea of building a church of some kind on this spot goes back all the way to the time of Louis XV. At that time the beautiful Rue Royale, which now leads away from the church and runs all the way to the Place de la Concorde, had not yet been built-and neither had the Place de la Concorde.

It seems that shortly after Madame de Pompadour died-the poor girl only lived to be forty-three-she had persuaded Louis XV to build a church where the Made leine now stands. This church was to replace a dilapidated chapel which had belonged to the Sisterhood of Magdalens, and stood somewhere in the neighborhood. The corner stone for this church, which was to be modeled after Saint Peter’s in Rome, was actually laid by Louis XV on April 3, 1764. However, before the building could get properly under way, Madame de Pompadour died, and so did the architect. The second architect then tore down what little had been built by the first architect, and planned, instead, a building which he intended to model after the Pantheon, which was then still in process of construction. But this architect also died, and when the French Revolution put an end to all churches, the work had, again, only partly gotten under way. For many years, nobody could decide what to do with the unfinished building. Some people wanted to make a National Library out of it, others a bank, still others a stock exchange, and some even a National Assembly. But this was a time when anyone’s idea was as good as anyone else’s, and that is where matters rested until 1806, when Napoleon decided to tear down everything again and erect in its place the Greek Temple you see there now. Across the front of it, where you now see the Latin inscription, was to be written “L’EMPEREUR NAPOLEON AUX SOLDATS DE LA GRANDE ARMEE,” and nothing else.

Napoleon, who, like Louis XIV, and his ultimate successor, Napoleon III, was also a great builder, entrusted the design of this temple to the architect Vignon. Since this was to be a temple of glory, Vignon quite naturally modeled it after the Parthenon. From then on the building advanced as rapidly as one could expect a building of its gigantic proportions to advance. However, it could no doubt have been completed much sooner had Napoleon not been exiled and succeeded by Louis XVIII, the first time in 1814, and then again in 1815, after Napoleon’s second and final exile.

For many years the huge columns for this church stood there like giant candles, awaiting the completion of the rest of the building. But when Louis XVIII returned to the throne for the second time, the work was taken up anew and it was he who decided to make a church out of it again. However, neither he nor Vignon ever saw its completion. Louis (lied in 1824 and Vignon who, incidentally, is buried in this church, four years later. After Louis XVIII’s death, the Madeleine Church suffered only one more threat. When the Gare St. Lazare was being planned in 183’1, under the reign of LouisPhilippe, who liked to call himself a citizen King, the Madeleine Church very nearly got turned into a railway station. It was, however, finally consecrated as a church in 1842 and has remained a church to this day. Since that time, partly because it is so easy to get to and partly because it is one of the truly great sights in Paris, no tourist has failed to walk past it.

The Madeleine Church is three hundred fifty-four feet long, one hundred forty-one feet wide, and ninetyeight feet high, and has often been pointed out as an example of perfect proportions, as it should be, since it is modeled after the Parthenon. It is, however, considerably larger than the Parthenon, as I shall point out to you later. The fact that it stands on a massive perron, about ten feet above the sidewalk, adds greatly to its majestic appearance. The entire front of the building is taken up by the steps-twenty-eight in number-which lead up to this perron. The central doors are of bronze, and in keeping with the size of the building, thirty-three feet high and fifteen feet wide. Around the exterior of the church are fifty-two huge, fluted Corinthian columns, sixty-five feet high and six and one-half feet in diameter. This compares with forty-six columns on the Parthenon. Between the walls and these columns there is a continuous colonnade around the entire circumference of the building. However, as the church was built as a temple, there are no windows in these walls, all the light for the interior of the church being derived from three cupolas in the roof. The interior of the church is, in consequence, quite dark. The gigantic pediment, which goes all the way across the front of the church, shows the “Last judgment” with Mary Magdalene in the center of it.

Like most buildings in Paris, the Madeleine Church is built out of a dark stone, which seems to get darker with age. (This is not, however, as many people seem to believe, the result of soot, as there is no soot in Paris.) As a result of this, the exterior of the church at times appears almost black. But no matter at what time of the day you may come upon it, whether during an early morning mist, on a bright day, or in the middle of the night, the tremendous mass of this majestic building, dark as it is, is bound to impress you tremendously. About the only color you will find on the outside of this church is the colorful flower market, which stretches along the entire east side of it, and that alone is worth a special visit. It is held here every day except Sunday.

As I mentioned before, the Madeleine Church stands at the very beginning of the Boulevard de la Madeleine, but it actually stands on a square known as the Place de la Madeleine. However, this church is so huge that the so-called square is reduced to mere streets on each side of it. On the far side of the church, the Boulevard Malesherbes runs off at another sharp angle. However, this boulevard is no longer part of the Grand Boulevards, but just a boulevard. It derives its name from the courageous lawyer who undertook the defence of Louis XVI during his trial. He was already seventy when he undertook this hopeless case. Two years later, on April 23, 1794, he was rewarded for his courage by being sent to the guillotine. This boulevard will ultimately bring you to the Parc Monceau, another must for Paris. At the rear of the church, also running off the Place de la Madeleine, is the Rue Tronchet which, after a short walk, will lead you into the Rue de Havre and the Gare St. Lazare, where you probably arrived. These two streets are not particularly significant, but the Rue Royale, which leads away from the front of the church is.

Prior to 1705, the last western city wall used to stand -where the Rue Royale now is. But like the Rue de la Paix and the Rue de l’Opera, it is now a street of fine stores, specializing mostly in perfumes, fine millinery and antiques. There are no cafes, on this street, but the world-famous restaurant, Maxim’s is there, near the Place de la Concorde end. As you may remember, Franz Lehar used this restaurant as the setting for his light opera, “The Merry Widow.” But whether or not the Lo-Los and the Do-dos are still at chez Maxim’s, I am afraid you will have to find out for youself. But if they are not, there are a lot less expensive places where they still are. But even without the Merry Widow, the Rue Royale will probably be one of the streets you will walk down on on even a short visit to Paris and that for no other reason than that it will lead you straight into the Place de la Concorde. But this street is also noted for one of those breath-taking vistas that you can find only in Paris, and that alone makes it a must. When you stand on the steps of the Madeleine Church, you will see, almost three quarters of a mile away, on the other side of the Seine, the pediment of another building which looks like a duplicate of the pediment on the Madeleine Church and that is no accident. This building is known as the PalaisBourbon and was built as a one story mansion in 1722 by the Duchess of Bourbon, who was the daughter Louis XIV had by Madame de Montespan. When Napoleon ordered his temple of glory, he ordered this façade added in order to harmonize it with the façade on the Madeleine Church. The view from either end, with the obelisk of Luxor, on the Place de la Concorde, standing in the exact center of your line of vision, is something that you will remember for a long time. This building is now the National Assembly.

Tomorrow, I am going to take you down the Rue Royale to the Place de la Concorde, and if you wish, you can meet me at our usual rendezvous again.