Situated in the 18th arrondissement, the majestic Sacré-Cœur basilica is one of Paris’ most visited monuments. The sanctuary stands like a whipped-cream edifice atop the hillock of Montmartre, sharing more resemblance with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul than the nearby Notre-Dame cathedral.
A bit of history
The top of the hill of Montmartre where the church now stands has been a sacred site where druids were thought to have worshipped there. The Romans had built temples dedicated to gods Mars and Mercury.
A first Christian chapel was built on the site circa 270 AD in honour of Paris’ first bishop, St. Denis. According to the legend the Patron Saint was beheaded there by the Romans. After his execution the body of Denis would have picked its head up and started to walk while the mouth was delivering a complete sermon. The body stopped its stroll somehow and at the site where he fell completely dead was later erected a small shrine: the present-day St Denys-la-Chapelle. The name was eventually anglicised as Sydney.
The Sacred-Heart project
The project to build a monumental basilica atop the hill of Montmartre was triggered by a group of influential people who had two good reasons to do so.
Firstly, a pledge was made to build a church if Paris escaped untouched from the war with the Prussians army in 1870-1871.
Secondly, the defeat of the French army in 1871 was interpreted as a moral condemnation of the sins of Paris.
Authorised by the National Assembly in 1873, the project was to build an imposing Christian church visible from all over Paris. In a way, the sanctuary commemorates the 58,000 who lost their lives in the Franco-Prussian war.
The basilica was designed by architect Paul Abadie in Romanesque-Byzantine style, in sharp contrast with the Gothic style of other famous Parisian churches (Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Saint-Eustache…). Abadie was an architect also known for restoring the cathedral of Périgueux which design looks similar to that of the basilica in Montmartre. The architect won the competition after beating 77 other projects.
Construction of the church started on the 16th June 1875 with the lay out of the first stone. When Paul Abadie died in 1894, the project was continued by Lucien Magne until 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The central dome and the surrounding cupolas were inaugurated in 1899. In 1912 Lucien Magne added an 83 metre tall campanile to house the world’s largest clock of the time: ‘La Savoyarde’.
The sanctuary was given the name of ‘Sacré-Cœur’ meaning Sacred-Heart in English, a reference to the heart of Jesus, which is the representation of his divine love for humanity.
The consecration of the church, initially planned for the 17th October 1914, was delayed to the 16th October 1919 due to the war.
The project was officially completed in 1923 with the inauguration of the decorative mosaic of the choir.
Exterior of the church
The Romanesque-Byzantine style of Sacré-Cœur was inspired by Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as well as St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. The whipped-cream look of the edifice is mainly due to its stone known as ‘Château-Landon’ which come from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarries (département of Seine-et-Marne). In wet weather, the calcite contained in the stone acts like a bleacher to give the church a definite chalky white appearance. In addition, the whole church is covered with a robust scale paving.
The dimensions of the basilica are: width of 85 metres, length of 35 metres and maximum height reaching 91 metres.
The church was built on top of the hill of Montmartre at an altitude of 130 metres above sea-level.
The central dome
The central dome is 83 metre tall and is supported by 80 columns each topped with a different capital. The ovoid dome is surmounted by a lantern with a colonnade.
The circular gallery inside of the dome is accessible to the public. One must climb a spiral staircase made up of 237 steps to enjoy a breathtaking view of Paris. The panoramic view extends to La Défense, the Eiffel Tower, the Montparnasse Tower, the Panthéon, the Bois de Vincennes, the Buttes-Chaumont and the city of Saint-Denis. Nearly all the monuments of Paris can be seen with the binoculars. On a clear day one can see as far as 30 kms.
The bell tower
The bell-tower or campanile which was completed in 1912, is surmounted by a cross reaching an altitude of 91 metre above sea-level. This makes the Sacré-Cœur the second-highest point in Paris (213 m) after the Eiffel Tower (324 m) and just before the Montparnasse Tower (210 m).
The campanile houses the largest bell of France. Cast by the Paccard bell-foundry in Annecy in 1895, it was given as a present by the four dioceses of Savoy. It is known as ‘La Savoyarde’ because of its origins, but its real name is “Françoise Marguerite”. The bell has a diameter of 3 metres and weighs 18,835 kg. Its clapper alone has a weight of 850 kg. When in use it could be heard ringing 10 km away.
Equestrian statues in bronze
Above the narthex stand two equestrian statues in bronze by sculptor Hippolyte Lefebvre: to the right Joan of Arc holding her sword and to the left Saint-Louis with the crown of thorns in his left hand.
Above the narthex and the two equestrian statues stands a representation of Christ, the basilica’s most important statue set inside a niche. A giant 5 m tall Jesus is portrayed showing his heart to the whole city of Paris.
Inside the basilica
Attracting more than 11.5 millions visitors (tourists and pilgrims alike) each year, the Sacré-Cœur basilica is France’s second most visited church after Notre-Dame Cathedral.
The access into the sanctuary is through grand bronze doors with foliage designs and relief sculptures illustrating scenes from the life of Christ, such as the Last Supper.
The Sacré-Cœur is designed with a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross decorated in Romanesque-Byzantine style.
The nave is 60.90 metre long.
The choir is surrounded with 7 chapels and is surmounted by a vast cupola rising up to 55 metres and of a diameter of 16 metres.
The ceiling of the apse is ornate with France’s largest mosaics, measuring about 480m2. Designed by Luc-Olivier Merson in 1922, it represents Christ in Majesty with a Latin inscription: to the sacred heart of Jesus from a fervent, penitent and thankful France.
The bronze altar is based on the one at Cluny Abbey (Burgundy).
The stained-glass windows were originally installed between 1903 and 1920. Destroyed by bombing in 1944, they were replaced in 1946.
The vast crypt and its vaults feature statues of Patron saints and a relic believed to be the Sacred Heart of Jesus-Christ.
Access inside the church is free but there is a charge for entry to the crypt and the ascent to the dome.