One of the finest churches in Paris is located at the heart of the bustling tourist strip Rue Saint-Séverin. The Church of Saint-Séverin (French: Église Saint-Séverin) is a Roman Catholic church in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, also known as the Latin Quarter. Flamboyant Gothic in style, its construction began in 1230 and continued through the 15th to 17th century after a fire destroyed the original structure.
This Gothic church is one of the oldest churches remaining on the Left Bank of the Seine River and served as the parish church for students at the University of Paris. It is now considered one of the finest works of architecture in Paris, France.
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History of Saint Severin Church
The church’s name is a tribute to Saint Séverin of Paris. He was a hermit who lived there in the sixth century and died around the year 540. The Merovingian prince Clodoald, known as Saint Cloud, was one of his students. Clodoald renounced his royal lineage to live as a monk and hermit and eventually became a Saint.
Severin’s cell, considered close to the oratory of Saint Martin in the current church, is now a chapel. The Normans destroyed this chapel in the 9th century. In the 11th century, it was rebuilt in the Romanesque style. Restoration work in the 19th century uncovered several Sarcophagi from a Merovingian cemetery.
Saint Severin, Parish Church of the University of Paris
Due to its rapid expansion, the theological school had to move its students and faculty to the Left Bank around the end of the 12th century. St. Severin was designated the newly established University of Paris parish church in 1215. Students and researchers from Europe flocked to the university, so the local church had to expand to accommodate them.
Building a new structure in the High Gothic style began around 1230, about the same time as Notre Dame de Paris and Sainte-Chapelle. At some point in the early 14th century, a second aisle was added to the structure’s south side of Saint Severin.
A new design
A fire caused much damage to the church in 1448, during the Hundred Years’ War. Archpriest Guillaume d’Estouteville started to rebuild Saint Severin church in a more decorative Flamboyant Gothic style. On the north side, there was an additional aisle. In 1489, a semicircular apse and ambulatory were added to the eastern end. They had dramatic Flamboyant columns, arches, and vaults around a dramatic spiral central pillar.
Around the apse, chapels were added in a circle that spread outward. New chapels were built along the outer aisles and between the buttresses. The church grew, and the neighborhood around it pressed against it. The 13th-century bell tower, which was originally on the outside and remained the original work to the level of the railing, was enveloped by the expanded church. Now, a garden is on the site of the old graveyard.
Once construction was finished in 1520, the church took on a look that has remained largely unchanged. The Communion chapel, located in the southeast corner of the church, was constructed by royal architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1673. Decorator Charles le Brun changed the choir’s layout in 1684, removing the rood screen and adding marble facing to the apse columns.
The church was closed and used to store gunpowder, grain, and church bells. The bells were melted to produce cannons during the French Revolution. In 1803, it was given back to the Catholic Church. Like all Parisian churches, it now belongs to the French state.
Saint Séverin Church Today
The Church of Saint Séverin is still used as a place of worship today, despite its status as a historic and religious landmark. The entrance is free and rarely busy, but you should be quiet and respectful if a mass is happening.
Several tours, guided or private, are also available. Here’s what you will see in this historic church.
Details of the Interior
The existing structure of the Church of Saint Severin was built between the 15th and 17th centuries. It featured a variety of architectural styles, the most prominent of which is Gothic.
Twisted pillar and Double ambulatory
Anne Duchess of Montpensier, Louis XIV’s cousin, commissioned the finest artists and architects of the day to renovate and modernize the place. The double ambulatory, with its carved columns, is one of the most eye-catching parts of the cathedral. A twisted central pillar has a magnificent appearance of a tree. The surrounding pillars resemble palm trees with branches that stretch higher and radiate out into the complicated web of the extravagant vaults. People can see the center pillar glowing with light everywhere in the church.
The church’s nave is the westernmost section where the crowd sits. There are two quite different architectural eras and styles on display there. The first three traverses can be seen near the western entrance and are done in the 13th-century High Gothic style. They have enormous cylinder pillars with rounded arches supported by capitals decorated with floral motifs, most notably water lilies.
Thin colonettes hang from the ribs of the vaults above and are inserted into brackets called cul-des-lampes on the pillars. The final years of the 14th century are shown here. Towards the end of the 14th century, artisans in Italy created a series of richly colored stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of the Apostles that filled the top walls between the ribs.
The Flamboyant style columns that support the four traverses nearest the apse were added much later, in the 15th century. Flamboyantly, they are narrower, create pointed arches, and are spaced more closely than usual.
The choir, built in the Flamboyant style in the 15th century, is particularly impressive. It is shaped like a half-circle and is enclosed by a row of pointed arches; flashy rib vaults support its ceiling with intricately adorned cross-vaulted sections. The late 17th-century classical embellishment was added by Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1635-1700) based on plans by the royal architect Charles Le Brun (1619-1690).
Anne, Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of Louis XIV, provided funding to have the marble choir built. Jean Ferrand is the author of the organ’s inscription.
Stained Glass Windows
Three sets of bay windows, each with two lancets, are located near the apse, and they contain the church’s oldest stained glass windows, which were installed around 1378. They were commissioned to be used in the chapel of the college of Beauvais.
The stained glass windows were mostly created in the second half of the 15th century. The west-facing rose window depicts a Tree of Jesse dating back to 1482 and traces Christ’s family tree. The organ case, which was put in during the 18th century, covers up a large portion of this window.
Until the addition of the railing in the 14th century, the bell tower was independent of the church. It had been finished by 1487. The west entrance’s lower section, located adjacent to the bell tower, was once a part of another church called Saint-Pierre-aux-Boeufs, which was demolished in the 1830s to make room for the expanding Notre Dame de Paris. The oldest bell was forged in 1412, making this Paris landmark one of the city’s most historical attractions.
Going to the Church of Saint Severin
Do you want to explore this church but don’t know how? Worry not; here is some essential information for you!
The Church of Saint Severin is located at 3 Rue des Pretres St. Severin, Paris 5. You can take Saint Michel / Cluny – La Sorbonne Metro.
Entrance is free, but please respect the church and the church-goers. It is open from Monday to Saturday from 11:00 am – 9:30 pm and Sundays from 9:00 am – 8:30 pm. You can view their schedules on the Saint Severin website if you want to attend a mass.
Whatever religious persuasions you may hold, a journey to Saint Severin in Paris is certainly an enlightening experience. If you’re ever in Paris and have some free time on your hands, this makes for a wonderful side trip that doesn’t require advance planning on your part!