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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Chapelle de la Sorbonne in Paris

What is the Chapelle de la Sorbonne?

Chapelle de la Sorbonne, full name The Chapel of Sainte Ursule de la Sorbonne, or Sorbonne Chapel in English, is an elegant Roman Catholic chapel rebuilt by Cardinal Richelieu that now houses his tomb.

Chapelle de la Sorbonne

Chapelle de la Sorbonne History

An integral part of the courtyard known as the Sorbonne Square, this beautiful chapel, also known as Sainte Ursula de la Sorbonne, stands guard over the hallowed grounds of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The original 13th-century structure was demolished in the 17th century to make way for a more fitting and beautiful Roman Catholic chapel. The plan of the former medieval chapel in the historic Sorbonne precinct is marked out in the main courtyard.

The impressive structure was built as part of a restoration project initiated by Cardinal Richelieu, a prominent clergyman and statesman who was proviseur or principal of the College of Sorbonne. Originally the chapel was used exclusively by the Sorbonne, but by the 19th century, other university faculties in Paris were permitted to use the chapel.

Admission to the chapel is strictly limited to guided tours. Before you join a tour and step inside you should take a moment to admire the exterior of the building, which is widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece of French Classical architecture. Notice the dramatic scale of the structure, the symmetry of the Corinthian columns and the drama of the elegant dome. The chapel was designed by the French architect and engineer Jacques Lemercier, and is believed to be the first French building to feature an extravagant dome set on a high drum.

Inside, the main space is flanked by four lateral side chapels which frame the chancel and the elaborate tomb of Richelieu at its centre. Although the building was severely damaged during the French Revolution, the eight windows of the cupola survived intact and continue to illuminate the sculptures and friezes which embellish the chapel’s plain stone walls. You can still observe the Richelieu coat of arms on the original stained glass windows. With many relatives joining him in the crypt, Richelieu himself was embalmed and buried inside the mausoleum. However, they were not destined to be left to rest in peace.

During the tumultuous days of the French Revolution the chapel was looted: almost all its statues and paintings were stolen and the enormous mausoleum was broken. The graves of Richelieu and his relatives were desecrated; their bones were removed and thrown into a communal grave. The chapel was so badly damaged that it was under consideration for demolition but thankfully, reason prevailed and the building was spared. Its safety was guaranteed when it was declared a historical monument in 1887.

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