Sunday, 30 December 2012

27. Wonder: The Sacre-Coeur

(For the Sacre-Coeur preview, please click here.)

For patriotic French Catholics, 1870 and 1871 were not good years. A war with Germany went very badly, and France found itself invaded and conceding territory to the Germans. Even Paris fell, in early 1871. Being Catholic wasn't much better. In 1870, Rome fell to armed forces fighting for the unification of Italy, ending the Church's control of the city, and seeing the pope entering into a kind of voluntary imprisonment in the Vatican as part of his refusal to accept Italian authority. So, Paris fell to the Germans and the Pope was in prison: a lot of French Catholics were feeling pretty gloomy. How do you cheer yourself up from this sort of misery? Why, you build yourself a huge white church on a hill of course.

The origin and the motives for building the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris on top of the city's Montmartre district boil down to this, to a straightforward dissatisfaction about how the world was turning out. Devout Catholics in France during the 19th Century - and there were many - had seen a tough century, a century in which religious authority had been severely challenged and defeated, and national pride had been wounded. In the face of ongoing catastrophes, the masses had adopted a small sign of resistance - the emblem of a heart. Symbolising the sacred heart of Jesus, pierced on the cross by a centurion's lance, it was a badge that essentially promised that, God willing, things would get better. France would become great again. But it wasn't a one-way deal: God needed a little something first.

A man called Alexander Legentil, a Parisian exiled from his city, offered it. In 1870, channeling a widespread sentiment, he made a pledge: if God would deliver France from this national disaster, he would build a shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Paris. This harked back to a 17th Century nun, called Marie-Marguerite Alacoque. She was made a saint in 1920, but this process had begun in the mid-19th Century and her "pure" body was already something of a tourist attraction for visiting pilgrims. Her visions of Jesus had sparked a wave of pious patriotism, with her central message - via a direct line from heaven - being that the French were the chosen people and God would seal the alliance with France and make the country great if they could just do a few simple things. These were: have the King pledge himself to the Sacred Heart, put an image of Jesus's heart on the royal insignia, and built a chapel in honour of it.

Alas, the kings of France didn't pay much attention to the visionary nun, and perhaps as a result France went to ruin. There was a Revolution, the royals got their heads cut off, France got itself well and truly stuck into a bunch of wars under Napoleon, and the country had started tearing itself to pieces in the eyes of the devout. Impotent in this tidal wave of negative change, Legentil's pledge was something of a desperate hope. But he spread the word, and backing came. Despite swimming very much against the tide of increasingly secular and republican politics, he received wave upon wave of support from the French public, who made pilgrimages and donated what they could. There may have been no French king to see it, let alone pledge allegiance to it, but France got its church dedicated to the Sacred Heart.

It was a damn close shave though. After the German occupation and a short spell of civil war, in 1872 the archbishop of Paris selected Montmartre as the site for the new church. The following year the government - in a decision they would soon regret - declared it a "public utility". This essentially declared the pledge and the church as being in the national interest, and fast-tracked the acquisition of the necessary land. But by the time the project finally got underway, in 1875, a lot of hostility had arisen, with the building of a pro-monarchist religious monument regarded as a provocative act. Some accused it of being politically motivated, against the newly set up Third Republic. The Sacre-Coeur, with construction not even begun, was already out of date.

And remarkably, in 1880, the Paris city council changed their mind. They voted overwhelmingly to rescind the awarding of public utility status to the Sacre-Coeur, thus preventing it being built (it was then no more than foundations). Instead they would build a pro-republic national monument there. The government backed the council - they too voted to abolish the public utility law, by 261 to 199. Stop construction of the Sacre-Coeur, they ordered.

So why am I able to stand at the base of the steps and look up at it? It's all because of a technicality. The new government law was passed too late in the political session to meet all formal requirements. Before the next session began some of the politicians came to their senses, realising that the terrible financial implications involved if it were to be passed: the compensation would be colossal. And so they worked quietly behind the scenes to prevent the motion to abolish the Sacre-Coeur from being reintroduced. Somehow, the 261 wanting abolition forgot about the whole thing - or chose to, perhaps. The issue of its construction remained highly contentious, but as the years went on, and construction advanced, it was simply too late to stop.

My first visit to the Sacre-Coeur was on a dimming Sunday afternoon just a couple of days before Christmas. Danielle and I had walked from the Opera building in the centre of Paris, up the slope of Montmartre, approaching the basilica from the side. This isn't the ideal approach; rather, you should approach the famous facade square on, walking up the road that leads from the Anvers Metro station, as I later did on Christmas evening. Being Christmas time, a Christmas market was set up just outside the steps of the Sacre-Coeur, and Danielle and I enjoyed some mulled wine - we drank a lot of mulled wine during our four days in Paris. We wandered down a set of steps for a clearer view of the building, jostling for space with a man setting up a puppet show and various ad hoc salesmen with their legally dubious wares spread out on sheets lain on the ground. Not long after, a large brass band started playing Christmas songs on the steps, attracting a large audience.

Christmas markets, puppet shows, salesmen and brass bands - it was an unusual set up for a religious institution, and the festive period was certainly part of the cause. But I can't help but feel there is a slightly unusual air about the Sacre-Coeur in general. It only exists through a series of historical flukes, and by the time it was completed , almost fifty years after it had begun, all the people initially involved were long dead. Deeper than that, the burst of religious sentiment that had given it life was also dead. The Sacre-Coeur was finished in 1914, but because of the First World War only consecrated in 1919. By that time, France had changed, the world had changed, and the religious and royalist motives behind the constriction were redundant. The Sacre-Coeur was a bit like an uninvited guest. Or sadder, an uninvited baby. It was born into a world that didn't need it.

Additionally, the Sacre-Coeur looks unusual. A strange-looking uninvited baby. Not in a bad way, not at all, but for me it has a slightly quirky-beautiful look, which to use a happier comparison than this poor baby, is like an offbeat girl with a distinctly unusual look, but a strikingly attractive one nonetheless. Stylistically, it is anachronistic. It is Roman-Byzantine in style, in an age where Gothic or Classical was the norm. The Byzantine style, a deliberate nod to early Christian style, favours domes, which are the clear focus of the Sacre-Coeur. But in a twist, the Sacre-Coeur has its domes oddly stretched. Take a look at it - it's as though the domes have been pinched at the top and then pulled up, making them long and pointy.

In fact, this was another very deliberate part of the design by the architect, Paul Abadie. The Sacre-Coeur is by far his most known work, and his last, as he died in 1884 when it was still little more than a set of foundations (a series of six architects succeeded him). He was known for building churches, and had been involved in restoration with numerous other monuments, which included the Notre-Dame de Paris. In fact, he'd replaced blog-favourite Viollet-le-Duc in this capacity, and had worked according to Viollet-le-Duc's precepts in his restorations - that is, restoring churches not to their prior state, but to their ideal state, something involving a certain degree of personal interpretation. For this he had been sometimes criticised, especially for whimsical additions.

And the criticisms didn't stop upon winning the competition to build the Sacre-Coeur. The committee overseeing the construction had set a competition to build as grand a building as possible, one that would be imposing, consistent with Christian tradition, but distinct from secular "monuments of vice and impiety". A competition for a building's design was quite a modern approach back then, especially for a church, but one unfortunate consequence of it was that it seemed to automatically generate instant opposition. Abadie won, but eighty others didn't, and some of them were vocal. Although Abadie was a respected architect, he wasn't regarded as outstanding, and his winning design was well against the grain of what was popular. They wanted Gothic, not something Romanesque or Byzantine, and complained it had too many domes. Some even thought it resembled something foreign or pagan. "A Mohammedan building in Paris?" you can almost hear them say, eyebrow arched.

But Abadie knew what he was doing. He knew that the basilica would be seen mostly from the distance, due to its prominent position above Paris. The Gothic style would be less suited for this, as the detail wouldn't be so obvious from far away. The overall shape, the profile, however, would be much more relevant. Hence the distinctive shape and design of the facade, without being packed with ornate sculpture or detail. The reason the Sacre-Coeur's domes are long and pointy - ovoid - was due to his concern that regular domes would appear too flat when viewed from a distance. Stretching them would resolve this. A curious solution in my opinion - warp the structure so it looks normal from far away, never mind how it looks up close.

But it works. Critics of the Sacre-Coeur - and there have been many over the years - might complain that it doesn't fit with Paris, or that it looks like a "lunatic's confectionary dream", like a wedding cake on top of Montmartre, but this smacks a little of architectural snobbery. Sure, the Sacre-Coeur doesn't conform to the Classical ideals, or imitate the grandeur of the Gothic, but instead it stamps its own identity upon Paris. Paris is, after all, a city that doesn't like to play safe with its architectural choices - just look at the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Pyramid. By taking the slightly odd choice to avoid making the Sacre-Coeur look too flat, Abadie created an immediately recognisable landmark. The Sacre-Coeur looks a little like it's being stretched up into the sky - by God Himself perhaps, realising the pledges haven't been met - but this unusual feature doesn't hinder its look or appeal. Quirky, but attractive, the Sacre-Coeur looks unique. And in my world of wondering, which features an awful lot of Christian architecture, this is no mean feat.

As well as the ovoid domes defining the Sacre-Coeur's look, they also make for a very enjoyable visit. For only €6, you can climb a series of winding stairways eventually leading to the base of the main dome. Even before arriving at the dome, the route allows views of the top of the basilica, and a good view of the often-overlooked clock tower at the rear of the Sacre-Coeur. It's the tallest part, at 84 metres, but because you can't see it from the regular picture postcard view of the facade, everyone forgets about it.

It was unintended, but we timed our visit very well. It was just 30 minutes before closing, and there was barely another soul. The visit to the south tower of the Notre-Dame was an exercise in tourist herding, but the Sacre-Coeur was very peaceful. Plenty of space to move around, plenty of time to appreciate the experience, unhurried. And when you have a view as you do from the Sacre-Coeur, this is exactly how you want it to be.

One of the Sacre-Coeur's main plus points is the view. Built, as it is, on top of Montmartre, the focus by Abadie and others during construction was how it would look when seen from the rest of Paris. But of course, it works the other way too. Stand by the foot of the basilica, or even better, climb up to the dome, and the view is spectacular. Surely the best view anywhere in Paris, because from the dome you can see from every direction, 360 degrees, and unlike views from other prominent points, the hill of Montmartre isn't a limit. It's claimed that on clear days, the view stretches for 50 kilometres. I can't verify that, as it was overcast during my visit and I left behind my measuring tape, but in the dimming light we didn't need to see for 50 kilometres, the view of a nightlit Paris was more than enough.

Despite its controversial origins, and occasional critics, the Sacre-Coeur is one of Paris's main icons, no mean feat in a city full of them. A visit to any souvenir shop tells the story. There you'll have the Eiffel Tower (lots and lots and lots), the Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe - and the Sacre-Coeur. I bought a fridge magnet that tells the same story.

The tourists flock, and both times I visited there were crowds inside and out - although I accept visits on a Sunday and on Christmas Day may not be the quietest of times. Both times I went inside I happened to interrupt a Mass, although as I was interrupting along with hundreds of other tourists, slowly shuffling around the periphery, I didn't feel like I was intruding too badly. The interior is suitably grand, and not too flashy, although I admit the decor wasn't always to my taste. Its dominated by a massive mosaic in the apse (the semi-circular part on the inside of the dome) with a massive image of Jesus with outstretched arms, and a golden heart. Worshippers gather around him. Covering about 375 square metres, it was completed very late, only in 1923. It's all very glitz and bright, and not unattractive, but doesn't really rate when compared to the subdued majesty of the Notre-Dame's interior. However, on a quiet day, with fewer tourists, it would still make a good place to sit and contemplate the world, as all large churches are.

But the Sacre-Coeur wasn't intended to be empty or quiet, it's always been a monument of the people - a subtle irony considering it was such a conservative, pro-monarchist monument. It exists due to donations; for 30 years, over 8 million people and pilgrims donated over 50% of the total eventual cost of 40 million francs (84 million, or £70.5 million in modern terms). Clever fundraising and marketing techniques were used to keep the levels of enthusiasm up. The "Card of the Sacred Heart" was produced, a heavy paper card with over 1000 squares, with the donors filling in one square for every 10 centimes donated. There were jumble sales and monthly magazines, and donors were allowed to "buy" things for the church. For example, for between 300-500 francs, you could buy a stone. 100,000 francs would get you a pillar. Or donors could write a prayer or wish onto a small scroll to be placed inside a glass tube, which was placed inside a niche in a stone during construction, and this was repeated hundreds of times. The Sacre-Coeur is literally built with and surrounded by the wishes of the people.

One thing though. The Sacre-Coeur, quite famously, is supposed to be white. I see it everywhere, written, and in photos. Perhaps I'm going mad, but having been there I have to say that it's really not all that white. The Taj Mahal is what I call white. The Millau Viaduct too. But to my eyes the Sacre-Coeur looks quite distinctly to be a light grey. Much lighter than the rest of Paris, but still a kind of "once-white-now-grey" shade. As I write, I asked Danielle what colour she thought it was and she veered between white, "off-white", and even hinted at a little beige, but didn't think it was grey. But look - is that not grey? Am I going mad?

It was a pretty gloomy, overcast day on that visit, so perhaps that has affected my perception. I'll have to visit on a bright sunny summer afternoon for a different perspective. Whether grey or white, it doesn't affect my overall opinion, but I was surprised to find my sanity challenged with a famously white building actually being grey. It looks great though, and especially at night, even if I daren't venture a guess at the colour. (Yellow? Off-yellow? Eggy white-grey?)

So, the Sacre-Coeur: a unwanted baby born into a world that didn't understand it. Happily, it's blossomed, and even if most of its visitors aren't the intended pilgrims or worshippers, it's still widely admired as an icon of Paris. Its vantage point on Montmartre, overlooking the city, with its distinctive ovoid domes, ensures that it keeps a high profile. Maybe it's even white. Let's have some criteria.

Size: The top of the dome is just over 83 metres high, and the bell tower at the back 84 metres. These are the highest points - overall the Sacre-Coeur is the size of a large church, big but not gargantuan. It position at the top of a hill makes it seem larger though.
Engineering: Surprisingly, a tougher job than it looks. Because Montmartre was so full of holes from earlier mining, it was a very unstable base for a large structure. Therefore eighty vertical stone-like piles had to be driven into the ground before construction begun to give it support, at a huge cost.
Artistry: A very pretty building.
Age/Durability: Just a hundred years old, which I think is much younger than most people would expect, and is still a junior in church terms. Being a stone structure, and being an instituion of Paris, I think its future is assured for some time.
Fame/Iconicity: It may only be the fourth most famous building in Paris (in my opinion) but Paris is hardly a shy and retiring city so this is still quite an accolade. I would suggest the majority of tourists in Paris would plan on visiting it, and its image is all across the city. Its profile around the world is less - I wouldn't regard it as world famous.
Context: Terrific. On top of the highest point of the city, it is in a commanding position, offering both a great view of it and a great view from it. Built anywhere else, deeper within the city, the Sacre-Coeur would become more anonymous, but its vantage point ensures it's not forgotten.
Back Story: I think it's a fascinating tale, from visionary nuns to city councils determined not to see it built, filled with ironies, near-misses, and some sadness. But it's a story you really need to dig to find, it's not immediately associated and I'd reckon most visitors would have no idea about it, which is a shame, and a slight missed opportunity.
Originality: Although based on Romanesque and Byzantine styles from early Christian architecture, the Sacre-Coeur has a look very much of its own, due especially to the pinched look of its ovoid domes that form the facade that faces the centre of Paris.
Wow Factor: More "ooh!" than "wow!". It's very pretty, but doesn't have the true grandeur of a Wonder.

It would take a mean-spirited person to not like the Sacre-Coeur, and I'm not that person. It's a very pretty, white(ish) church on a hill, with a quirky but distinct look. It's a deserved landmark of Paris. But a Wonder... no. It's charming rather than magnificent, and doesn't have the visceral punch in the guts that the big boys have. Likewise, although very appealing to look at, it isn't as transfixing as buildings such as the Taj Mahal or the Notre Dame, both of which I could sit and gaze at for ages. Definitely a key part of any Paris sightseeing trip, but I don't think many people would visit Paris specifically just to visit the Sacre-Coeur, so I would give it a firm mid-table position in my ratings, somewhere between the imposing repetition of the Forbidden City in China and the sheer improbability of Burma's Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Eiffel Tower
4. Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Funnily enough each of France's 3 biggest cities (Paris, Marseille, Lyon) has a 19th century basilica on its tallest hill.

    However if you are going to count the Sacré Coeur in your list of wonders then in my opinion you'd have to count Marseille's Notre-Dame de la Garde above it, and I'm not saying that just because I live in Marseille: a few aspects that I think are better are the view (it encompasses the Mediterranean), its impact on the city (it can be seen from most areas and has no other monuments to "rival" it) and its interesting collection of model ship ex-votos and detailed mosaics inside. On the downside, it isn't as famous as the Sacré Coeur, but I'd argue that most of S.C.'s fame comes from being in Paris rather than on its own merit.

  2. That's really interesting about the churches on the hills. I've not been to Marseille or Lyon so had been totally unaware of that.

    I admit I've not heard of Marseille's Notre-Dame until now. I'm a big fan of church architecture and there's a lot of terrific churches and cathedrals out there - so much so, that I've really got to be extremely discerning, otherwise my list could swell to a ridiculous number (more ridiculous than 102...). The Sacre-Coeur sneaked onto my list as a later addition - - and its real selling point was its fame (which I regard as an important ingredient of a Wonder), although it's a very distinctive and attractive building too. In the end, upon review, its position in my list isn't as a Wonder, just as a nice and impressive building.

    Every now and again I clean up my unvisited list of candidate Wonders, removing any I think won't make the grade, and adding newer suggestions. I'll put the Marseille Notre-Dame on my maybe list to look into, as a quick look at some Google images definitely appeal.

    For a church to score well though, it's up against the like of the Notre-Dame de Paris and Cologne Cathedral, both of which I've visited and love, and also as-yet unvisited ones like St Peter's, St Mark's, Chartres Cathedral and Amiens Cathedral. It's a very tall order.

    The suggestions are always welcome though, I always like hearing about previously-unknown places.

  3. You say "its real selling point was its fame (which I regard as an important ingredient of a Wonder)"; I do agree that it is very famous, but in my opinion its fame comes from the fact that it is in Paris (basically it's basking in the reflected glory of the other monuments that make up Paris and are truly famous in their own sake, and Paris as a whole). Like I said above, the 3 main cities of France have a 19th century basilica on a hill, and whichever one was built in Paris would have been more famous than the other two, just because it was built there. In other words, geographical location counts more than architecture in this case; in fact I'd say that Lyon's Fourvière basilica is the most original in style.

    I participate in a forum on, I have a thread on Marseille, I haven't got round to putting photos of ND de la Garde yet (I've neglected the thread a bit!), but I'll take a few pics this weekend and let you know via your comments section once they're up there if you're interested.

  4. Please do, I'll certainly check them out.

    The Sacre-Coeur being in Paris is certainly very important - being in one of the world's most famous cities, and very visibly so, is a major boost to any landmark. I'd incorporate that into my "Context" criteria. Possibly if the Notre-Dame de la Garde was in its place, it would be just as famous, as would any attractive church that otherwise might go unnoticed (in terms of widespread fame). However, I wouldn't say it simply basks in Paris's glory - it certainly contributes. But at the same time, as I said in my review, I don't many people would visit Paris specially just to see the Sacre-Coeur. In this sense, it is somewhat eclipsed by some far more famous, and striking, landmarks.