Built by King Childebert in the mid-6th century, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the oldest church in Paris. Childebert was engaged in a war in Spain in the city of Saragossa when he heard that the citizens had placed themselves under the protection of the martyr St. Vincent. Childebert acquired St. Vincent's robe and took the relic back to France to be housed in the church which he named after the saint. The church was completed in 558 and dedicated by Germain, the Bishop of Paris whose name it eventually adopted. Soon a monastery was built on the grounds which were at the time fields ("prés" in French) outside the city limits of ancient Paris.
Like so many other landmarks in France, Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés has a colorful past which includes being plundered and burned by the Vikings in the 9th century and later surrounded by a moat with water from the Seine during the Hundreds' Year War with England in the 14th century. During the French Revolution the church was closed, used briefly as a prison, then used as a storehouse for gunpowder which exploded in 1794 causing a major fire.
Today this beautiful church sits smack in the middle of the touristy 6th arrondissement on the busy Boulevard St.-Germain.
In 2012 the City of Paris began a major multi-million Euro restoration project of the church. Although the City of Paris owns the church and the its grounds, it contributed only about 15% to the fundraising, 85% coming from private donors and various fundraising projects. The work was was completed at the end of 2021.
This is a "before" photo from the site, preservingsaintgermain.org.
And now...what a difference!
I find the pillars with their subtle shades stunning.
Part of the fundraising efforts included an "Adopt a Star" program where individuals could adopt any of the 3,000 stars on the ceiling for a modest $100 donation.
The statuary and artwork in the church tells many varied and interesting stories.
John II Casimir Vasa was king of Poland from 1648 until his abdication in 1668 at which time he moved to France. A devout catholic, he became Abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés church. This sculpture represents his renouncing his crown and scepter. The tomb contains John's heart.
This statue of the Virgin Mary was found during an archeological dig on the rue de Furstemberg in the 6th arrondissement, not far from the church. It's hard to see from this angle, but she's referred to as the Virgin of the Smile as she is smiling faintly in this statue.
Guillaume Douglas, Prince of Scotland in the late 16th century, renounced his protestant faith to become catholic and was exiled to France where he died in 1611.
St. Francis Xavier was a 16th century Jesuit missionary who traveled extensively in Asia, primarily in India, but also in the far East, preaching the teachings of Jesus. Notice the saint's foot on a head to represent the end of paganism.
More lovely carvings and statuary inside the church.
If you visit at the right hour on a sunny day and get lucky as I did, you'll be treated to this beautiful sight.
More of the stunning interior.
There are two small squares on either side of the church. Dating from 1872, the Square Félix Desruelles is located just to the south of the church, along the busy Boulevard St.-Germain. It's a quiet oasis in a very busy area.
The park celebrates the art of ceramics. This ceramic wall located at the eastern end of the park is a beautiful nod to Sèvres, the ceramics industry. The wall was created for the Exposition Universelle, also known as the Paris Exposition of 1900 and was relocated to its present location after the exposition. The statue in the center of the square is Bernard Palissy, a 16th-century ceramics artist. Like the pillars inside the church, the colors on this wall are soft and subtle.
The Parc Laurent-Prache occupies the land at the northwest corner of the church. Its main attraction is the large bust of Dora Maar, Picasso's lover. Picasso dedicated the bust to his good friend, Guillaume Apollinaire soon after Apollinaire's death.
Today the church occupies a trendy location, directly across from Les Deux Magots and a few steps to the west, the Café de Flore. Both were popular hangouts of artists and writers of the early 20th century such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and many others. Today you can enjoy a very expensive cup of coffee while watching the world go by.
The next time you're in Paris, be sure to set aside some time to visit this beautiful and historical gem.
➜ Top Tips
The closest métro is St -Germain-des-Prés, Line 4.
There are organ concerts in the church from time to time. I haven't had the good fortune to attend one, but it would be a magical setting.
Take some time to sit in the Square Félix Desruelles while you're there.
If you're there around Noon on a sunny day, look for the flood of color from the stained glass windows.