Sacré-Cœur Basilica, a surprising landmark of Paris

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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. Let’s have a closer look at this surprising landmark of Paris.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica: A bit of history

Sacré-Coeur from Rue G Lardennois © French Moments

Sacré-Coeur basilica from Rue G. Lardennois © French Moments

The top of the hill of Montmartre where the church now stands has been a sacred site in Ancient Times. Legend has it that druids worshipped up there. Then, the Romans built temples dedicated to gods Mars and Mercury.

The legend of St. Denis

Around 270 AD, the Christian community built a chapel on the site in honour of Paris’ first bishop, St. Denis.

St Denis in Square Suzanne Buisson © French Moments

Statue of St. Denis in Montmartre (Square Suzanne Buisson) © French Moments

According to the legend the Romans beheaded the Patron Saint on the top of the hill.

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. On the site where he fell completely dead, Christians raised 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.

Why was the Sacré-Cœur basilica built?

Firstly, a pledge was made to build a church if Paris escaped untouched from the war with the Prussian 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 included the building of 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.

A Romanesque-Byzantine style

Architect Paul Abadie (1812-1884) designed the church in Romanesque-Byzantine style.

Paul Abadie (1812-1884)

Architect Paul Abadie (1812-1884)

Interestingly, this was 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 basilica

Construction of the church started on the 16th June 1875 with the layout of the first stone.

Construction of Sacré-Cœur 1882

The construction site of Sacré-Cœur in 1882

When Paul Abadie died in 1894, Lucien Magne continued the project until 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Construction of Sacré-Cœur, 1897

The construction of Sacré-Cœur in 1897

The inauguration of the central dome and the surrounding cupolas took place in 1899.

Then, in 1912 Lucien Magne added an 83-metre tall campanile to house the world’s largest clock of the time: ‘La Savoyarde’. The bell was a creation of the Paccard bell-foundry in Annecy.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica Montmartre Paris © French Moments

The Sacré-Cœur basilica © French Moments

Why the name ‘Sacré-Cœur’?

The sanctuary was given the name of ‘Sacré-Cœur’ meaning Sacred-Heart in English. This is a reference to the heart of Jesus, which is the representation of his divine love for humanity.

However, the consecration of the church, initially planned for the 17th October 1914, was delayed to the 16th October 1919 due to the war.

The official completion of the project took place in 1923 with the inauguration of the decorative mosaic of the choir.


The exterior of the Sacré-Cœur basilica

Sacré-Coeur basilica © French Moments

Sacré-Coeur basilica © French Moments

A few famous monuments inspired the Romanesque-Byzantine style of Sacré-Cœur: Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

In fact, the whipped cream look of the edifice is mainly due to its stone: the ‘Château-Landon’ stone which comes from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarries (département of Seine-et-Marne).

Therefore, in wet weather, the calcite contained in the stone acts like a bleacher. It gives the church a definite chalky white appearance. In addition, the whole church is covered with a robust scale paving.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre © French Moments

The white façade of Sacré-Cœur basilica in Montmartre © French Moments

General dimensions

The dimensions of the basilica are:

  • width of 85 metres,
  • length of 35 metres, and
  • maximum height reaching 91 metres.

The church stands on top of the hill of Montmartre at an altitude of 130 metres above sea level.

The central dome

The central dome is 83 metres tall and is supported by 80 columns each topped with a different capital. In addition, the ovoid dome is surmounted by a lantern with a colonnade.

Cross of Dome Sacré-Coeur © French Moments

Cross of Dome Sacré-Coeur © French Moments

Also, 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.

In fact, nearly all the monuments of Paris can be seen with binoculars. On a clear day, one can see as far as 30 km.

View from Dome of Sacré-Coeur © French Moments

View from Dome of Sacré-Coeur © French Moments

The bell tower

The bell tower or campanile (completion in 1912), is surmounted by a cross reaching an altitude of 91 metres above sea level.

Interestingly, 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).

France’s largest and heaviest bell

The campanile houses the largest bell of France.

Sacré-Cœur and the Savoyarde Bell

Sacré-Cœur and the Savoyarde Bell

Cast by the Paccard bell-foundry in Annecy in 1895, it was a present from the four dioceses of Savoy.

In fact, it bears the nickname ‘La Savoyarde’ because of its origins. However, 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.

The equestrian statues in bronze

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments

Equestrian Statues of Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments

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.

Then, above the narthex and the two equestrian statues stands a representation of Christ. It is the basilica’s most important statue set inside a niche. The giant 5 m tall Jesus shows his heart to the whole city of Paris.

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments - Paris 34

Statue of Christ, Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments


Inside the Sacré-Cœur basilica

Sacre Coeur Floorplan copyright French Moments

Attracting more than 11.5 million 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 floor plan

The Sacré-Cœur is designed with a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross decorated in Romanesque-Byzantine style.

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments

The nave is 60.90 metre long.

Seven chapels surround the nave and the choir features a vast cupola rising up to 55 metres and of a diameter of 16 metres.

The ceiling’s mosaics

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 original stained-glass windows from 1903 to 1920 were destroyed by bombing in 1944. New windows replaced them in 1946.

The crypt

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments - Paris 27

Statues of the Virgin and Saint-Denis in the crypt of Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre © French Moments

Finally, the vast crypt and its vaults feature statues of Patron saints and a relic believed to be the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.


Find out more!

Access inside the church is free but there is a charge for entry to the crypt and the ascent to the dome.

Where to find the Sacré-Cœur basilica?

Click on this link to open google map or use the map below:


Pin it for later

10 Facts about the Sacré-Cœur © French Moments

More photos of the church

Here is a little selection of Sacré-Cœur photos I took during my visits to Montmartre. Enjoy!

"Sacré-Cœur" Paris Montmartre

Sacré-Cœur viewed from Avenue Trudaine © French Moments

Montmartre in the spring:

Spring sunny day in Montmartre © French Moments

Spring sunny day in Montmartre © French Moments

March in Montmartre 04 © French Moments

Tree in bloom in Square Louise Michel in Montmartre with the white dome of Sacré-Cœur in the distance © French Moments

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre © French Moments - Paris 41

Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre © French Moments

Parc des Buttes Chaumont © French Moments

Montmartre seen from the Parc des Buttes Chaumont © French Moments

Sacré-Cœur basilica and the River Seine © French moments

Sacré-Cœur basilica and the River Seine © French moments

A view of Montmartre from Montparnasse Tower:

Hill of Montmartre © French Moments

Hill of Montmartre © French Moments

Sacré-Cœur at Christmas time:

Sacré-Cœur Montmartre Christmas LR © French Moments

Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre © French Moments

Sacré-Coeur at Christmas © French Moments

Sacré-Coeur at Christmas © French Moments


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

4 Comments

  1. Great article, Pierre! Your photos are beautiful as usual. If the dome is accessible this fall, I’ll try to muster the strength to climb the steps.

    • Merci beaucoup Ellen! Yes if you can climb to the dome you’ll be spoiled with one of Paris’ most amazing views. Hopefully it will be opened on your next trip to Paris!

  2. Great photos! And thanks for your research to find some historical photos too. I wanted to point out a perhaps not-too-well-known view of the Sacre Coeur. We were wandering through the toy department at Galeries Lafayette Hausmann on vacation one time and happened to look out the large windows. Quite magnificent!

    • Thank you Bruce! Yes, it is indeed a very beautiful spot to see the Sacré-Cœur… with the neo-Renaissance bell tower of St. Trinité church. 🙂

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