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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris

What is Saint-Étienne-du-Mont?

Saint-Étienne-du-Mont picturesque Gothic church with Renaissance features, which contains the shrine of Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris.


Saint-Étienne-du-Mont History

The rood screen, or jubé, was both a physical and symbolic barrier used to separate the chancel, where the clergy stood, from the nave, the central corridor of a church where the laypeople came to worship. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church faced pressure in response to the rise of Protestantism to make mass more accessible to the common man, and so the rood screen fell out of favour, slowly disappearing from churches across Europe. In Saint-Étienne-du-Mont you can see the last remaining jubé in all of Paris, an elegantly carved piece of fretted stonework, a truly beautiful example of Renaissance design.

The grounds around the church date back to the early 6th century, and once held a structure called the Church of Apostles Peter and Paul. This was the burial place of King Clovis, the first king of the united Franks who died in AD 511, his wife Clotilde, and the final resting place of Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The church, rededicated as an abbey in the saint’s name, would use her relics for solemn processions through the streets of Paris when it was believed that danger threatened the city.

In the 13th century, the abbey church that hosted the local parish became too small for the ever-expanding congregation, so work began on a second sanctuary, the building that would become the current Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. The new church was dedicated to Saint Stephen, or Saint Étienne in French, the first martyr of Christianity. In 1492, the neighbouring Génovéfain monks donated a portion of their land that lay next to the abbey and the church was rebuilt, taking an astonishing 134 years to finish construction. As a result, the building demonstrates a range of architectural styles, from the Flamboyant Gothic pointed arches to the glorious Renaissance stained glass windows.

In the mid-17th century a new wooden pulpit (the raised stand from which to address the congregation) was designed in the Baroque style and can still be seen today. At its base you’ll find an elegant carving of Samson, a Biblical figure possessed of extraordinary physical strength, who holds up the pulpit on his shoulders. Around it you’ll also see carvings of seven women who symbolise the theological and cardinal virtues of faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence.

The abbey of St Geneviève was destroyed during the French Revolution and the relics of the saint were burnt. However, a copper-gilt shrine can still be found at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, containing a fragment of Saint Geneviève’s tomb.

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