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Last Updated: 29 February 2020

With its soaring symmetrical twin spires visible from many points all over Paris and its majestic Gothic facade, it is almost hard to believe that the impressive Sainte-Clotilde Basilica dates only from the 19th century.

Sainte-Clotilde Basilica: a bit of History

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The façade of the basilica © French Moments

The construction of the church was first considered by the Paris City Council in 1827. After much discussions, Rambuteau, Prefect of Paris, choose the project of François-Christian Gau (1790-1853) who designed a Neo-Gothic edifice. It was asked from the German architect from Cologne to be inspired by churches such as St. Ouen in Rouen. Since the Renaissance era, the Gothic style had been considered old-fashioned, therefore the architect had to come back to the basics: the use of pointed ribbed vaults channeling the weight meant that walls did not need to be so weighty, leaving much room for beautiful stained-glass windows (such as in Metz Cathedral or in the Sainte-Chapelle).

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The façade of the church © French Moments

The construction in the 1850s

Work on the church began in 1846 with construction stone coming from quarries in Chatillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy. Gustave Eiffel participated in the laying out of the metal framework. Gau intended to build two high steeples but in 1853, upon insistence by the Civil Buildings Commission, the architect had to abandon his grand project. The reason given was that the towers were not strong enough to support such a weight. Gau did not have any choice but to rework the façade with two large towers topped by a balustrade.

The completion of the church

However, François-Christian Gau never saw his project completed as he died in 1853. His younger partner and successor Théodore Ballu continued the work to its completion in 1857. In doing so, he allowed himself to alter the initial plans by increasing the volume of the façade. He managed to build the steeples after major modifications to the towers.

The church was consecrated on the 30th November 1857 by Cardinal Morlot and dedicated to St. Clotilde – wife of Clovis – and St. Valerie, a martyr maid from Limoges.

In 1897, 1,400 years after the baptism of Clovis, the sanctuary was granted the status of minor basilica by Pope Leon XIII.

Exterior of Sainte-Clotilde Basilica

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The façade of Sainte-Clotilde Basilica © French Moments

With its symmetrical twin spires, the church’s façade is quite outstanding, particularly when admired from Square Samuel Rousseau.

Between the two towers, a statue of St. Clotilde watches over Paris like a latter day St. Geneviève.

Under the wide porch, statues of Clovis and his wife St. Clotilde exemplify the Christian couple. Around them are statues representing Merovingian saints.

The tympanums and gables of the three portails of the façade are decorated with Biblical scenes such as Christ showing his wounds in the presence of angels.

Dimensions of Sainte-Clotilde Basilica

The church is 96 m long and 39 m wide at the transept. The spires rise to a mere 70 metres at the very same height of the bell towers of Notre-Dame.

The chevet

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The chevet © French Moments

The view of the chevet from Rue de Champagny is consistent with the faithful reproduction of a Gothic church with pinnacles and flying buttresses. However, as the church was built with a metal framework (by Gustave Eiffel), these typical Gothic features were not needed and had been placed for decorative purposes only!

Interior of the basilica

The Nave

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The nave © French Moments

The interior of the basilica is rather austere but well-lit thanks to the large windows of the nave.

The nave is flanked on each side by a side-aisle.

The beautiful elevation of the nave is on three levels: pointed-arcades, windowless triforium and arched windows filled with stained-glass.

The multi-lobed pillars are decorated with small columns rising to the crossed ribbed-vaults with great elegance.

The Baptism Chapel

The Baptism Chapel opening onto the nave with its fine baptismal font cover is followed by a set of stained-glasses representing pairs of sacred figures including St. Genevieve and St. Radegonde, Queen of France and wife of Clovis’ grandson.

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
Baptismal font © French Moments

The organ

Built by Aristide Cavaille-Coll, the organ is one of the finest ever built by the workshop mainly due to the quality of its voicing.

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The main organ © French Moments

It is set inside a fine case on the second floor of a high wooden gallery above the main door of the church.

The organ has 60 registers, some of them of rare quality. Famous organist César Franck (1859-1890) was the first titular of the instrument.

The organ case partly hide the third rose window of the façade by Thibaut.

The Transept

The transept is lit up by two stunning rose-windows by Thibaut, one of the most reputed stained-glass artists from the 19th century.

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The transept © French Moments

Two chapels are found in each arm of the transept.

In the eastern side, the St. Clotilde Chapel is ornate with frescos by Laugée and other decorations by Lamothe. A statue of Queen Bathilde, wife of Clovis II, by Mercier is set against the entrance to the chapel.

Matching the St. Clotilde Chapel opposite in the western side, the St. Valerie Chapel contains paintings by Lenepveu and decorations by Chancel. The scenes on the stained-glass windows depict the Old Testament compared with the New Testament. A statue of St. Valerie by Préault, is leaning against the pillar at the entrance of the chapel.

The Choir and Ambulatory

Once inside the church, the eye is drawn to the chancel and its fine stained-glass windows by Maréchal from Metz which depict a Christ in majesty and the figures of two titular saints.

The High Altar, stalls and pulpit of the choir were sculpted by various artists but designed by architect Théodore Ballu who wished to establish stylistic coherence and “concordance” between the 14th and the 19th centuries. In 2007, a new High Altar by Goudji was set up.

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
The altar © French Moments

At both entrances to the ambulatory is a haut-relief choir enclosure by Guillaume. On the left it represents the four stages from the life of Clotilde, Queen of the Franks: her marriage to Clovis, the healing of her son Clodomir, the baptism of Clovis and her death.

On the right, it depicts the four stages from the life of Valerie: her conversion, her condemnation, her decapitation, and her apparition to St. Martial, bishop of Limoges.

Sainte Clotilde Basilica, Paris © French Moments
Chapel in the ambulatory © French Moments

The five chapels of the ambulatory are particularly colourful with starlit heavens and polychromed window frames. Each chapel contains paintings and stained-glass relevant to the life of the titular saint. From left to right:

  • St. Louis Chapel with paintings by William Bouguereau about the life of King Louis IX,
  • Holy Cross Chapel where Brisset represented Christ carrying the Cross, the sacrifice of Isaac and the Calvary. A painting on the side wall shows the discovering of a Cross fragment by St. Helen. The Chinese ideograms refer to the fact that St. Clotilde Basilica is twinned with the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Guangzhou, China.
  • Blessed Holy Virgin Chapel with paintings from Lenepveu illustrating the life of Mary from her birth to the childhood of Jesus.
  • St. Joseph Chapel acts as an extension to the previous chapel. The stained-glass windows tell about Joseph’s dreams and his death.
  • St. Remi Chapel (from the name of Remi, first bishop of Reims) is decorated with painting and stained-glass windows representing the baptism of Clovis, the first King of the Franks to embrace the Christian faith.

Similarities with Guangzhou Cathedral

Guangzhou Cathedral © Zhangzhugang - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Guangzhou Cathedral © Zhangzhugang – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Situated at the heart of the busy old town at 56 Yide Lu (or Yat Tak Road), Guangzhou, China, the façade of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus shows great similarities with that of St. Clotilde Basilica in Paris.

The French Gothic-style church was funded by donations from Napoleon III and French Catholics.

French architect Léon Vautrin, a native from Nancy, was entrusted with the design of the new church in collaboration with Charles Hyacinthe (also from Nancy), and Antoine Hermitte from Paris.

The construction work started in 1861 and was completed in 1888. Made entirely from granite, the cathedral had to be built by hand as the Chinese workers lacked suitable machinery. The challenge of the construction was exacerbated by the fact that none of the Chinese workers had seen a Western cathedral before and consequently had no experience of building one! In addition, communication was another issue as the French and the Chinese did not speak each other’s language.

Today, the Guangzhou Cathedral ranks as the largest Gothic cathedral in China and Southeast Asia.

If the façade of the cathedral was modelled on that of St. Clotilde Basilica in Paris, its nave and choir were inspired by the Toul Cathedral in Lorraine.

Toul cathedral Lorraine © French Moments
The nave of Toul cathedral © French Moments

English-French Vocabulary

(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs

  • to adorn = orner (v)
  • altar = autel (m)
  • ambulatory = déambulatoire (m)
  • architect = architecte (m)
  • art = art (m)
  • baptism = baptême (m)
  • basilica = basilique (f)
  • to build = construire (v)
  • cathedral = cathédrale (f)
  • chancel = chœur (m)
  • chapel = chapelle (f)
  • chevet = chevet (m)
  • China = Chine (f)
  • choir = chœur (m)
  • church = église (f)
  • to dedicate = dédier (v)
  • façade = façade (f)
  • flying buttress = arc-en-boutant (m)
  • gable = gâble, pignon (m)
  • Gothic = gothique (m)
  • Guangzhou = Canton
  • martyr = martyr (m), martyre (f)
  • metal framework = armature en métal (f)
  • nave = nef (f)
  • organ = orgue (m)
  • organ case = buffet d’orgue (m)
  • painting = peinture (f)
  • pillar = pillier (m)
  • pinnacle = pinacle (m)
  • pointed ribbed vaults = croisée d’ovige (f)
  • porch = porche (m)
  • portal = portail (m)
  • pulpit = chaire (f)
  • quarry = carrière (f)
  • rose window = rosace (f)
  • sculptor = sculpteur (m)
  • side-aisle (of the nave) = collatéral (m)
  • spire = flèche (f)
  • stained-glass window = vitrail (m)
  • stall = stalle (f)
  • statue = statue (f)
  • steeple = flèche (f)
  • tower = tour (f)
  • transept = transept (m)
  • triforium = triforium (m)
  • tympanum = tympan (m)
  • window frame = encadrement (m)


Gems of Paris by French Moments
About the 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 Discovery Courses and books about France.

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