On Thursday October 16, 1919, the church of the Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre is consecrated by Cardinal Vico in the presence of Paris archbishop and raised as a basilica. Started in 1875, the construction of the religious building – built on the heights of the butte Montmartre – ends in 1923 only.
Historically, the butte Montmartre has been considered by the people as a place of worship from the so-called first Gallic rituals to the construction of the Church of Saint-Pierre in the 12th century – core part of the royal abbey of Montmartre – to the beheading of Saint-Denis in the 3rd century and the Gallo-Roman temples erected to the glory of Mercury and Mars. For the record, the name of the “Montmartre” hill comes from Mons Martis (“Mount of Mars”) reinterpreted over time into Mons Martyrum (“Mount of Martyrs”), then Mont de Martre (“martre” meaning “martyr” in old French).
On September 4, 1870, when the 3rd Republic is announced, as France is invaded by the Prussian armies and Paris is to be besieged at any time, several churchmen submit the idea to raising in the heart of the capital city a sanctuary devoted to the cult of Jesus Christ to atone for Frace’s sins and put an end to what they consider is a divine retribution as a response to a century of degradation started in 1789 during the French Revolution.
Carried out by philanthropist Alexandre Legentil, the idea echoes on a national level and alongside his step-brother – Parisian painter and notable – Hubert de Fleury, Legentil starts the process to create this building to the glory of the Crist. Together, the two gentlemen call in the National Assembly at the end of 1872 so the church can be acknowledged as public interest so they can purchase the required plots – owned by the city and many private people.
Mostly royalist, conservative and catholic, the National Assembly – elected in February 1871 – majority votes for the public interest law on July 24, 1873. For many people, this decision is made to atone the crimes perpetrated during the Paris Commune and instate the new “moral order” of a clerical France promoted by the conservatives.
As a matter of fact, the butte Montmartre is seen as the starting point of the popular insurrection of the Commune from March to May 1871, with the famous “canon case”. Today still, many Parisians consider the Sacred-Heart has been “built on the blood of the Communards”. Hubert de Fleury himself claimed when laying the first stone of the building: “This is where the Commune started, where have been assassinated the generals Clément-Thomas and Lecomte, that the church of the Sacred-Heart rises! We remind this butte filled with canons, traversed by drunk maniacs, inhabited by a population that seemed hostile to any religious idea and the hatred for the Church was the trigger point”.
The 24 July 1873 law gives the possibility to monsignor Guibert – Paris archbishop – to put himself forward as the buyer of plots on the hill of Montmartre by way of expropriation if need be. So far, plots set behind the church of Saint-Pierre were used by guinguettes, small gardens and a fair field. This same year, a contest is held by the Comité de l’Oeuvre du Voeu National and Paris archbishop to choose the project’s architect.
Several elements are required from candidates: the location, the butte Montmartre, the budget – limited to 7 million francs – the construction of a crypt, as well as the presence of a monumental statue of the Sacred Heart – visible from the distance and set outside the building. Architect Paul Abadie wins the contest against 77 more projects including some led by major architecture names and Grand Prix de Rome winners. Abadie comes up with a Romano-Byzantine Basilica with all the traditional decoration elements, dome, pinnacles, and bell tower, to stand out from the trendy neo-baroque style.
Honoré Daumet takes over in 1884, when Abadie dies and is replaced by Charles Laisné who surrounds himself with painter-glass-maker Emile Hirsch to create the stained-glass windows. Several architects will take over afterwards such as Henri-Pierre Rauline, Lucien Magne and Jean-Louis Hulot.
The construction of the building is made possible by the financing of many believers, especially thanks to the Souscription des Pierres encouraging families to give the necessary money to buy a stone, a column or a chapel on which the entire name, initials or coats of arms from the sponsors are engraved. In all about 46 million francs are collected in half a century thanks to donations from about 10 million believers.
The first travertine stone – a white stone made of extremely thin grain that can turn white when it rains – is laid on June 16, 1875 by Cardinal Guibert, Paris archbishop, a stone’s throw from the former Moulin de la Galette. 83 wells – 33-meter deep – are filled with concrete to consolidate the foundations, while 35,000 cubic meters of loose soil are replaced by stone and cement. Less than a year after, a provisional chapel is inaugurated by the worksite.
The construction of the crypt starts in 1878 and the basilica in 1881. The inside of the nave is inaugurated on June 5, 1891, as the 3rd Republic – deeply anti-clergy – wishes to turn the religious building into a house for the people or into a theater. Leaving the initial plans of Paul Abadie behind, architects Rauline and Magne add neo-Renaissance elements to the whole, such as extended cupolas and slender domes.
As the consecration of the church was planned on October 17, 1914, France goes to war and the event is postponed. Furthermore, works are far from being over. In 1912 the campanile – measuring 91 meters in height – is over and the façade is completed in 1914.
It is finally on Thursday October 16, 1919 that the church of the Sacred Heart is consecrated by the cardinal Vico in the presence of cardinal Amette, Paris archbishop and many bishops, ecclesiastic dignitaries, members of the clergy, civil celebrities and simple believers; and raised as a basilica.
Officially over in 1923, the edification of the Sacred-Heart continues until the 1930’s with the construction of annexes, offices, dormitories, and the sacristy. Put up between 1903 and 1920 and destroyed during WWII, the stained-glass windows are replaced by contemporary stained-glass windows.
Outside the Sacred-Heart, tourists and Parisians can still enjoy a Romano-Byzantine-inspired architectural style, a central dome measuring 83 meters high that was – until the construction of the Eiffel Tower – the highest point in Paris, the campanile that holds the biggest bell in France, as well as several statues including one of Joan of Arc, the Christ with a Sacred Heart on the chest, and of Saint Louis brandishing his sword in one hand and the Christ’s crown in the other hand.
Inside the basilica, the choir vault is interesting as it is decorated by the biggest mosaic in France representing Jesus’s Sacred Heart surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Saint Michel, and on their knees, Pope Leon XIII and Joan of Arc, made of enamels from Brie by Parisian mosaic artists from the Atelier Guilbert-Martin between 1918 and 1922. Over a dozen chapels surround the nave, while the great organs – set in 1919 – are still in place. In the basement, the crypt holds tombs, several chapels as well as statues of saints and the virgin.
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En-tête : Louis-Emile Durandelle, 1882
Square Saint-Pierre, Louis-Emile Durandelle, 1877
Louis-Emile Durandelle, 1882
Construction du Sacré-Coeur, vers 1884, Anonyme, Musée Carnavalet
Les échafaudages du Sacré-Cœur depuis la place Saint Pierre, Hippolyte Blancard, Musée Carnavalet
La construction de la basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, vue prise de la rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre, Eugène Atget, Musée Carnavalet
Consécration de la basilique du Sacré-Coeur
Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre. Vue prise du 53, rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre, Eugène Atget, Musée Carnavalet