Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church is the heart of the fashionable neighborhood of the same name in Paris. It is the oldest church in Paris, and it used to be the church of a Benedictine abbey. The son of the
King Clovis of the Franks, Childebert I, built it in the sixth century. In the 8th century, after being destroyed by Vikings, it was rebuilt and given its current name in honor of Saint Germain, the city’s Bishop, back in the day.
The church’s original site was on the “pres,” or meadows, of the Left Bank, outside the walls of medieval Paris. As time passed, it was included in a prestigious abbey complex known for its wealth and the quality of its illuminated manuscripts and academic research. Germanus, Childebert, and other Merovingian rulers were buried in the church.
Abbot Morard originally constructed the lower section of the western tower of the present church in the year 1000. It has undergone some restoration and modification since then. The flying buttresses were the first made in the Ile-de-France.
It stands as a patriarch among Paris’s religious landmarks, watching over an area made popular by philosophers and writers. You can’t go to Paris and not see the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the neighborhood around it.
Table of Contents
- History of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Paris
- Childbert I and the relics
- Dedication to Saint Germain
- Renovation of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church in Gothic architecture
- The Saint Germain Church during the French Revolution
- The Reimagination of the Church
- Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Today
- The Church from the Outside
- The Interior
- Going to Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church
- Where to go near Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church
- Inside Saint Germain
- Outside Saint Germain
History of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Paris
Near the church’s future location stood a Roman temple. A Roman road along the Seine River, elevated high above the river to prevent floods, passed by the area.
Childbert I and the relics
Childebert I, the son of the first King of the Franks, Clovis I, established the Abbey in the 6th century. The church was constructed so Childebert could display two priceless relics. These were a piece of the True Cross and a piece of Saint Vincent’s garment, which he had acquired during the siege of Saragossa, Spain. Droctovaeus, a former student of Bishop St. Germain, became its first abbot.
When Childebert passed away in 558, the Abbey was properly dedicated. After his burial in the cathedral, the Abbey served as the first cemetery for the early Kings of France. This was until the Basilica of Saint-Denis took over that role.
Dedication to Saint Germain
The church was consecrated to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent. In about 754, the basilica and monastery were rededicated to St. Germain of Paris. St. Germain was a prominent bishop of Paris whose remains had been buried in the church since 576. There are no relics of the medieval tombs, as they were all removed later.
Two Viking raids towards the end of the 9th century destroyed the church and monastery. Abbé Morard, a monk, rebuilt the Abbey in the 10th century. The rest of the monastery was reconstructed by the end of the 13th. At this time, construction was complete on the first four floors of the bell tower and the nave and transept. The church also features several carved column capitals and faint traces of frescoes that date back to the same period.
Royal support helped the Abbey grow into one of Europe’s leading institutions of higher learning. In the 11th century, it served as home to a significant scriptorium that produced scholarly texts widely disseminated across Europe. Up to the turn of the 18th century, it served as a hub for cultural production through religion, learning, and the arts.
Renovation of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church in Gothic architecture
Saint Germain-des-Prés church underwent renovation beginning in the 12th century. The church was renovated in the Gothic style, and its current choir was constructed in the middle of the 12th century. On 21 April 1163, Pope Alexander III consecrated the freshly reconstructed church. Flying buttresses were built, making it the earliest Gothic structure in the Ile-de-France.
In the 13th century, the monastery’s other structures were renovated one by one. The new church was designed with the inspiration of Saint Chapelle. The current classicizing entrance was installed in 1606. It replaced the collapsed 12th-century portal in the west-end tower of the church. The choir’s apsidal east end is an early example of flying buttresses.
During the reign of Philip II of France (1200–1214), he had the Wall of Philip II Augustus constructed. It did not completely encircle the monastery, leaving the inhabitants vulnerable. Because of this, Abbey’s property was effectively divided in half.
The Congregation of Saint Maur, a new order of Benedictine Monks, was established in the Parisian neighborhood of St. Germain in 1621. They were especially interested in research and learning. As a result, Paris became one of Europe’s foremost learning centers. Its monks became renowned for their extensive knowledge. The quality of the illuminated manuscripts they produced also made them popular.
Most of the Left Bank of the River Seine west of the modern Boulevard Saint-Michel was Abbey property until the late 17th century. The Abbey exercised considerable administrative independence within this area. During this time, the abbot was Louis-César de Bourbon, the son of King Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.
A fun fact: René Descartes, the philosopher, is buried in a side chapel of the church. You’ll know Descartes in high school Mathematics.
The Saint Germain Church during the French Revolution
About 100 priests who refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to the new government during the French Revolution were held in the Abbey prison. They were there with aristocrats who had been arrested by the Jacobins and Swiss Guards who had survived a massacre.
In September 1793, news reached Paris that a Prussian army was advancing toward the city. On September 2, Revolutionary leader Georges Danton spoke to his followers on the Champ de Mars. He said that anyone who refused to give personal service or arms would be put to death.
The people who agreed with Danton’s plan went to the Abbey prison to carry it out. The prisoners were quickly tried and sentenced. The prisoners sentenced to die were taken outside and killed one by one by a crowd with swords, spears, and axes. 135 Swiss Guard prisoners were killed, 27 were moved, 86 had been freed, and the fates of 22 were unknown.
The Abbey and the church were closed during the Revolution and were used for storing and producing gunpowder and weaponry. Niter, a component of gunpowder, was refined in a section of the chapel. An unintentional explosion severely damaged the abbey church and other structures.
After the Revolution ended, the formerly destroyed church again served as a place of worship for Catholics. In 1802, the building was extensively damaged from saltpeter oozing down into the foundations. The Council of Civil Buildings kept the structure because of its extensive history. There was only the church and the bishops’ palace still standing. On April 29, 1803, they were officially given back to the church.
Some stained glass windows were preserved from the wrecked Chapel of the Virgin Mary. However, the structure was severely damaged and had to be destroyed. The small park next to the church now features some of the Virgin Chapel’s ornate arches.
Historical excavations picked up again after the Revolution. In 1799, two Merovingian tombs were uncovered behind the main altar. The Cluny Museum now houses them. In 1704 the marble columns of the altar were removed from the church and sent to the Louvre. The paintings were returned to the cathedral after being displayed at Versailles. The Virgin marble figure that Queen Jeanne d’Evreux had given to the Louvre was also found.
Damage to the pilings on the north side of the church caused by saltpeter stored there during the Revolution rendered the nave unusable. During the summer of 1822, the roofs of the two towers on the church’s north and south sides were torn off, leaving the structure with just one tower. In 1823, the deambulatory chapels and the apse’s six flying buttresses were renovated.
The Reimagination of the Church
Hippolyte Flandrin began the nave redecoration in 1843. He created colorful frescoes depicting Old Testament scenes of Christ’s life. Gold stars, azure backgrounds, and painted architecture encircled the murals. Baltard commissioned sculptors to build new capitals for the nave, choir, and apse arcade columns. They also added colorful capitals and columns. Paintings and ornamentation dominated the church’s architecture.
Baltard widened the scope of the ornamentation to include the furniture. He created new choir stalls, and Lassus created a new carved wooden enclosure for the apse. During the Revolution, the original stained glass windows were smashed. Glass artist Gérente recreated Flandrin’s designs for new stained glass windows in the chevet.
Between 1848 and 1853, Baltard opened the bays in the western tower. He remade the columns and other architectural characteristics. Any traces of the old 12th-century work were erased.
The City of Paris and the church restored the inside of the cathedral from 2017 to 2020. This restoration focused on the faded 19th-century murals in the nave. The French government and parishioners contributed to making this happen. The 2nd phase of restoration work was done between 2021 and 2022. It focused on the paintings in the deambulatory and the chapels at the church’s eastern end.
Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Today
The Church from the Outside
Before the French Revolution, the church had three bell towers. Now, only the present tower and its porch remain. This bell tower is one of the oldest buildings in France. Work on it began in the year 990. It looks like a square castle from the Middle Ages, right down to the corner towers. In the 1800s, the upper level of the tower was rebuilt in a style called Neo-Gothic.
The west entrance and porch of the church were built in the 1600s, but they didn’t have any fancy details. On the tympanum is a relief sculpture of the Last Supper, and the tops of the columns are decorated with harpies, which are half-bird half-woman figures. These are some of the 12th-century remnants of the church’s entrance.
Along the church’s southern facade on Boulevard Saint-Germain, you can see an early example of flying buttresses in the Ile-de-France area. They help hold up the walls and vaults of the building.
The church’s interior is unusual. The nave’s Romanesque west doorway and bell tower didn’t match. Meanwhile, the nave’s pointed ogee vault was Romanesque and Gothic.
Its interior design is extravagant, and architecture and décor create motion illusions. The altar and clergy worshipped in the choir at the nave’s end. The color in Saint-Germain-des-Prés derives from the frescoes covering the walls and arches and the richness of sculpture, painting, and other adornments.
Going to Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church
Do you want to go to this historic church? We got your back. Here is some important information to get you there.
The address of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres is 3 Pl. Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris, France. You can reach St. Germain-des-Prés via the Paris Métro’s Line 4.
The church is open from 8:30am to 8:00pm on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and from 9:00am to 8:00pm on Sundays and Mondays. If you want to learn more about this church, you may visit their website.
Where to go near Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church
There are many places to go near the church of St. Germain-des-Prés. Boulevard Saint Germain will not disappoint you! It has a very rich history and the establishments are iconic, so we guarantee your enjoyment in this neighborhood.
Inside Saint Germain
Les Deux Magots
Food lovers can start their day by eating breakfast at this well-known literary café that harkens back to the intellectual past of France. Les Deux Magots is not named after a pair of maggots; the name is simply a play on words. The name of the gift shop that used to be there refers to two Chinese Wisemen (from the word “magi”). The café opened in 1812 on Rue de Buci and relocated to its current location in 1873 during the construction of the great Paris boulevards of that time.
Café de Flore
Cafe de Flore was founded in 1887 in the heart of St. Germain. It was a meeting place for underprivileged artists (like Pablo Picasso), authors, and revolutionaries who lived in cramped, unheated flats.
Cafes like Flore were their workplaces and second homes. Jean-Paul Sartre said he’d get to the Cafe de Flore in the morning to eat and work until noon, go out for lunch, then he and Simone de Beauvoir would return to work until dinner. Even if you don’t plan on staying all day, Flore’s croissant au beurre, oeuf dur, jus d’orange, or chocolat special are all excellent choices for a morning meal.
See Related: Croissants in Paris
For over 135 years, Brasserie Lipp has been one of the most popular destinations in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The Brasserie has had a stellar literary and political reputation since its founding by Léonard Lipp in 1880. Over the years, it has become a veritable “branch of the Chamber of Deputies,” hosting literary luminaries like Camus, Gide, and Sartre. Traditional dishes from Alsace and, of course, Auvergne take center stage on the menu at Brasserie LIPP, known for its straightforward preparation and consistently high quality.
Outside Saint Germain
Musée National Eugène Delacroix
Also known as Musée Eugène Delacroix or simply Musée Delacroix, this museum allows visitors to learn more about the life and career of the legendary French artist. Many of Delacroix’s early works, such as pastels, drawings, and miniature oil paintings, are currently on show. Delacroix is often considered the most influential artist of the French Romantic era.
The apartment where Delacroix last resided is now Musée Delacroix, located in St. Germain. In 1929, the Société des Amis d’Eugène Delacroix successfully battled to save the demolition of the apartment building, which was great news for art enthusiasts. Eventually, the building was given to the French government and transformed into a museum open to the public.
Jardin Du Luxembourg and Musée du Luxembourg
The Luxembourg Garden and the Musée du Luxembourg are just a few minutes walk from the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church! In 1612, the widow of King Henry IV, Marie de Medici, began building the Luxembourg Palace, which included the grounds now known as the Gardens of Luxembourg. Now, the garden belongs to the French Senate, which holds its sessions in the Palace. Gardens, tree-lined promenades, tennis courts, flowerbeds, model sailboats on the Grand Bassin, and the magnificent Medici Fountain are just some of the attractions.
The Musée du Luxembourg, housed in the east wing of the Luxembourg Palace, was founded as an art museum in 1793 and, in 1818, became the world’s first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The museum has been in its current location since 1884 when it relocated from the Palace’s previous orangery.
Théâtre de l’Odéon
The Odeon Theatre, located on the same spot as the site from which it takes its name, is one of only six national theaters in France. In 1782, the Greek-style theater was opened by Queen Marie Antoinette herself. This theater now has a regular season that runs from September through June, with monthly performances. This is an excellent place to stop and rest if you’re making your way to the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Cathedrale Notre Dame
One of the most well-known Gothic structures in the world is Notre Dame de Paris, usually known as Notre Dame Cathedral or just Notre Dame. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris draws the most tourists in Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral is found in Paris’s 4th arrondissement, on the Île de la Cité (an island in the Seine River). The Virgin Mary is honored in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Institut de France
As a French academic institution, the Institut de France is a place of high scholarship. It was set up in 1795 at the directive of the National Convention. The institute, located on the Quai de Conti in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, oversees over one thousand charitable organizations, as well as museums and châteaux that are available to the public.
It also gives out grants and subsidies worth around €27 million per year (2017). The majority of these honors are bestowed upon deserving individuals by the institute, per the académies’ suggestions.