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A Brief History of La Madeleine Church in Paris

Updated: Nov 8

What is La Madeleine in Paris?


La Madeleine is a Catholic church in Paris that was built in the style of a classical Greek temple and was originally dedicated to Napoleon's Army.


La Madeleine

La Madeleine History


The story of this striking church has a strange and unfortunate beginning. 850 years ago, a synagogue stood in its place. Around this time, in 1165, Queen Adela gave birth to a long-awaited male heir to the throne. As bells rang out to announce the good news, citizens marched through the narrow streets of Paris with their torches illuminating the night, singing hymns and drinking merrily. Paris’s Jewish community played an enthusiastic part in the patriotic celebrations; they thronged to their place of worship, on this very spot, and chanted prayers by candlelight.


Medieval Paris, unlike most of France and wider Europe, had been a relatively safe space for Jews up to this point. Members of the Paris Synagogue were hopeful that the future king would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were markedly more tolerant than their neighbours, having given religious and economic freedoms to French Jews for many years.


But when this new heir came to power in 1180, he implemented a cynical and discriminatory campaign, which would set a devastating precedent for the next 800 years. Needing to raise money for the royal coffers, King Philip II confiscated all property belonging to French Jews, and banished them from the royal demesne – the sphere of his sovereignty. In the following centuries, there would be many more expulsions of Jews from France. The Paris Synagogue, once the heart of a community, was seized, converted into a church and dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Its original identity was all but forgotten.


In the 18th century, a new church building was commissioned in order to accommodate the growing local population. Pierre Contant d’Ivry, one of the most gifted architects of his generation, was given the commission to design the new structure. Taking inspiration from the Panthéon, his Madeleine would be built in the shape of a Latin cross and topped with an enormous dome. However, Contant, died during its construction, and was replaced by Guillaume-Martin Couture, who wasted a great deal of time modifying his predecessor’s plans, although remaining faithful to Contant’s initial idea of a domed basilica. When the Revolution broke out, the building work was halted, with only the basic foundations laid and a handful of columns erected: not much to show for 30 years of activity.


There was much debate in the fiercely secular post-Revolution state as to the fate of the unfinished church; suggestions were made for a financial exchange, assembly building or national library. But in 1806, Napoleon confirmed its future, razing the existing foundations and commissioning a third architect, Pierre-Alexandre Vignon, to build a quasi-temple on the site devoted to the soldiers of the Grande Armée of France.


With this in mind, La Madeleine was built in the form of a Greek temple with majestic Corinthian columns. Vignon took inspiration from the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, creating the structure as we know it today.


After the fall of Napoleon, with the structure still unfinished, Louis XVIII, the first monarch of the Restoration, issued instructions that the building was to be completed and become a church, as originally planned by his grandfather. In 1842, nearly 80 years since the project first began, La Madeleine was finished and consecrated into a church in honour of Saint Mary Magdalene.


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