The Church of Saint-Séverin

A historical hodgepodge of the Latin Quarter

As the oldest church in the heart of the Left Bank, the Church of Saint-Séverin is a site of religious history, art, and architecture. The church has survived a Viking attack, is home to the oldest bell in Paris, and had skirted destruction in the wake of modernizing Paris.

The church began as a humble oratory in the sixth century then morphed into a chapel and later a basilica. Nothing remains of the eleventh century structure after it was attacked by Vikings and was rebuilt in the thirteenth century. Three quarters of that building was burned down at the end of the Hundred Years War and it was rebuilt yet again in the fifteenth century. At the time, the fifteenth century construction boasted the tallest bell tower in Paris. In the sixteenth century, surrounding buildings were torn down and the church was expanded to accommodate its growing number of parishioners. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV’s cousin, the Duchess of Montpensier, funded the southern chapel addition.

The current flamboyant Gothic facade dates back to its fifteenth century reconstruction. The gargoyles are indicative of the traditional Gothic style but the flame-like adornments mark the flamboyant Gothic style. The main entrance to the church is decorated with the Madonna and Child portal. It was installed in 1837 after being pulled from the Church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Boeufs on Ile de la Cité after it was torn down during a road widening project in the 1800s. The original entrance to the church was through the base of the bell tower that is now barred from public use and it is decorated with a relief of Saint Martin of Tours sharing his cloak with a beggar. As a saint of travelers, he is a popular stop to request protection for the duration a journey. Above in the tower, is where Macée, the bell cast in 1412, resides. Macée is the oldest bell in Paris because during the French Revolution church bells and plates were melted down into cannon and coin by the revolutionists during their war against the royal family. Through the south, the public can access the church courtyard that once operated as the graveyard. There in 1474, a condemned archer underwent the first kidney stone operation. The surgery was a success, the archer survived, and was pardoned of his crimes.

Inside, the stained glass illustrates the church’s complex history. The lower western windows were originally designed for the College of Beauvais in the fourteenth century and installed at the Church of Saint-Séverin in the fifteenth century. The rose window and clerestory windows also date from the same era. In the 1880s, Emile Hirsch designed the southern stained glass windows depicting the lives of the saints. The most recent additions are the seven sacraments in the ambulatory designed by Jean René Bazaine and were installed in 1970.

Directly across from the ambulatory is the church organ. Historical documents note an organ on the premises as early as 1521. The first was replaced in the sixteenth century and after various remodels and repairs a third was installed in 1745, done in the Louis XV style. In 1825, a writer called the organ a public interest and health hazard and it underwent repairs in 1889. After the 1958 restoration, nearly every piece of the third organ had been replaced. In 2005, it was reevaluated for another repair which was completed in 2011.

The church has a variety of intriguing components that entice tourists to visit. In the double ambulatory is a Madonna and Child sculpture as well as the twisted pillar that is surrounded by the grove of simple pillars. A painting of Saint Paul by Claude Vignon is hanging in the church and in a glass case there are bones reportedly belonging to Saint Ursula and her followers.

The Church of Saint-Séverin with all of its novelties is a beloved Left Bank site. It has survived multiple attacks while it served the students of the universities and to this day it continues to operate as a public church. Visitors can enjoy the music of the organ and choir while basking in stained glass light. This hodge-podge of Parisian history is a delightful location full of character that should not be overlooked.

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3 Rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin, 75005 Paris, France