Standing on the slope of Montmartre, a hill in the north of Paris, one foggy October morning in 1872, it all suddenly became clear for Joseph Guibert. Guibert was the new archbishop of Paris, a position not for the faint-hearted with his three predecessors all suffering violent deaths, and he was on Montmartre while searching for an appropriate site to build a church for the popular cult of the Sacred Heart. By building this church, so it was believed, God would lift France from the doldrums and return it to glory. The fog lifted; Guibert was afforded a great vision of the city below. France would become great again: this would be the site for the new church, he decided, the church we now know as the basilica of the Sacre Coeur.
The story of the Sacre Coeur is intrinsically tied in with the story of the Catholic cult that created it, and its origins are strange indeed. We have to go back to the 1680s and meet a nun called Marguerite-Marie Alacoque who, it's fair to say, was not your average nun. She was one of a number of visionaries from that time who reported seeing Jesus, and seeing him display his heart as a symbol of grace and love but also wounded by the many shortcomings of mankind. Marguerite-Marie took this a little further. She entered into a constant dialogue with Jesus, which escalated into intense spiritual ecstacies, often focussing on the chest wound Jesus had incurred on the cross when pierced by a centurion's lance. "He placed my mouth to the wound in his side, holding me tightly there..., yielding delights I cannot express," is a quote attributed to the sister. Here's a picture.
In fairness, that's of the 14th Century Saint Catherine of Siena, who also experienced unconventional visits from Jesus, and not of Marguerite-Marie, but you get the idea.
By modern standards, it seems a little weird. Hell, surely by 17th Century standards this must have seemed pretty weird too. Surely? Perhaps not. Whereas these days, we'd be seeing Marguerite-Marie being laughed at in an early round of the X-Factor, 17th Century France listened to her intently. At first her convent were somewhat unsure and concerned about some of her messages, which were often dark and disturbed and even included visions from deceased sisters suffering in purgatory. But then a Jesuit priest started taking notice; he validated her visions and gave them ambition. The central message that emerged was that the French were God's chosen people, and to seal the alliance the French king needed to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart, put an image of the heart on the royal insignia - and build a chapel in honour of it.
The king of France back then was one of the greatest France ever knew, the Sun King, Louis XIV, living it up in his brand new Palace of Versailles. Did Marguerite-Marie's message get to him? It's possible, as his confessor certainly knew of it, but there's no evidence. Louis had better things to do with his time than listen to the ravings of an obscure nun telling him to ally his kingdom with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But her message didn't die there. Instead, over the next hundred years it entered the public consciousness. The image became a talisman against troubles. It was credited with stopping a plague in Marseille in 1720. And when the French Revolution came, the king seemed to finally pay attention. Direct evidence is lacking, but it's known that Louis XVI's sister was an ardent promoter of the Sacred Heart, his wife Marie Antoinette had the emblem, and the common perception in royal and Catholic circles was the king too was devoted to it. But it wasn't enough to save him or his wife from the guillotine. But as so often happens, death only fuels a movement, and Louis XVI's execution converted the Sacred Heart into a symbol of resistance to the Revolution.
It became a massive grassroots movement with the devout population of France, opposed to the anti-clerical nature of the Revolution, and who believed, a la Marguerite-Marie, that reinstatement of the monarchy, and devotion to the Sacred Heart would make France great again. The tumultuous decades that followed the Revolution only reinforced this view, leaving much of the population dreaming of a return to the simpler halcyon days of war victories and pampered wig-wearing monarchy. The Franco-Prussian war of 1860, in which France had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany, had been the final straw. A Parisian citizen called Alexandre Legentil, in exile from his occupied city, vowed to build a great church dedicated to the Sacred Heart; his vow received popular and influential support, which was then only strengthened by a short civil war in which the archbishop of Paris - Guibert's predecessor - was executed. On the wave of this support, which included a 30,000-strong procession, the government approved a motion to purchase the site and finally build Marguerite-Marie's long-awaited church. Even better, the pope formally endorsed the vow and construction.
That moment, perhaps, was the high point of the Sacre Coeur. Because it only got worse from there. It very quickly transpired that the site chosen was a terrible one to build a giant church, as Montmartre had been mined for many years for what we know as plaster-of-Paris. To overcome this fundamental instability, the entire initial construction budget had to be spent on eighty stilt-like stone vertical piles driven into the ground to support the church. It is said that if Montmartre was to disappear, the Sacre Coeur would still remain, teetering on its stilts. Even worse was France's changing political situation. France had become the republican government known as the Third Republic, and monarchists were seen as backward-looking relics. Building a massive, prominent, pro-monarchy church was seen as madness. And the Paris Council did everything they could to sabotage the plans, including proposing to build a replica Statue of Liberty in front of it, and actually passing a motion halting its construction. The Sacre Coeur should never have been built.
But political technicalities, and more importantly, sustained public support ensured that it was. The Sacre Coeur was not a government-funded construction, it was funded by the public. In the first 20 years of construction, an estimated eight million pilgrims visited and donated over 50% of the spiralling budget (the remainder was donated by wealthy individuals). Of all my Wonders, have any had so many people involved? The greatest irony for a building so strongly associated with the conservative pro-monarchy and opposed to the left-wing ideals of the Revolution and, to a lesser degree, the Republic, is that it truly is a building of the people.
And it's perhaps a slight sadness that by the time the Sacre Coeur was complete, in 1914 (although it had to wait until after the First World War until it was formally consecrated), it was already irrelevant. France had truly entered a new era, had shaken off its monarchist past, and the Sacred Heart too was no longer a widely followed cult. These days, the Sacre Coeur is just a pretty white church overlooking Paris, a popular icon and tourist attraction of the city. Without a French monarchy to commit itself to the Sacred Heart, its meaning is lost. Marguerite-Marie would be spinning in her grave - and you can see for yourself, as upon her 1864 beatification, her wax-enhanced body was put on display for all to see (not, however, in the Sacre Coeur - you'll have to visit the Chapel of Apparition in the village of Paray-le-Monial).
As neither a monarchist, a Catholic, or someone with a heart, what does the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur hold for me? Well, like most of its visitors, I can appreciate it just for looking pretty. Because that the Sacre Coeur certainly is, hence despite being shorn of its meaning it still has become an enduring image of Paris over the last century. I'll be visiting it over Christmas this year, on holiday with Danielle, and will give a fuller account of its history, and my own impressions then.