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Madeleine Church, Paris, France - Famous Churches
1231    Dibyendu Banerjee    20/07/2021

The Madeleine Church, locally known as Eglise de la Madeleine or simply la Madeleine, occupying a commanding position in Paris, resembles a Greek temple without any crosses or bell towers, which is atypical of that of a church. Centred at the end of rue Royale, which is part of a great perspective crossing the Place de la Concorde, it strangely resembles the ancient Maison Carrée in Nimes, Sothern France. The basic idea behind the construction of the church was to replace an old church located on the current Boulevard Malesherbes in central Paris, which was overloaded with the growing population in the area. Unfortunately, the construction of the new church had two false starts.

madeleine church paris france

The first design of the new church, created by Pierre Contant d’lvry, complete with a dome surmounting a Latin cross, was commissioned in 1757, and construction began with the ceremonial placing of the cornerstone by King Louis XV on 3 April 1763. But the work was suspended, and after the death of Pierre Contant d’lvry in 1777, his disciple and successor Guillaume-Martin Couture decided to raze the incomplete construction, shortening the nave, and construct a fresh building, designed on the Roman Pantheon. But after the completion of the foundation and the grand portico, the project became completely paralyzed as the French Revolution broke out in 1789. During the period of the First Republic, following the French Revolution, the foundation of the proposed church building was removed, and discussions simmered as to what purpose the eventual building would serve in post-Revolutionary France. As the country had been de-Christianized following the Revolution, various suggestions came up to use it for some suitable civic purpose like a library, a marketplace, a public ballroom, even a new site for the Bank of France.

madeleine church paris france
Front view of the Madeleine Church
madeleine church paris france
The pediment, adorned with the Last Judgment

However, all the considerations were brought to a halt, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, who had no intention to build a church for Mary Magdalene, rather intended it to be a temple of glory of his imperial army. However, all the considerations were brought to a halt, when in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. He had no intention to build a church for Mary Magdalene, rather intended it to be a temple of the glory of his imperial army. He razed the existing foundations, except the tall columns, and commissioned Pierre-Alexandre Vignon to build his envisioned temple of glory. But the progress of the work became slow as priority was given to the construction of the Arc de Triomphe (Arc De Triomphe, Paris), and the Place du Carrousel. However, the idea of creating a temple of glory was completely abandoned by Napoleon after his disastrous Russian Campaign.

madeleine church paris france
Inside La Madeleine

Although, after the final fall of Napoleon, the existing building for the originally proposed church was completed in 1816, except the interior, by the restored Bourbon regime, it was not consecrated as a church, and the interior remained empty for a prolonged period. After that, the July Monarchy, a liberal constitutional monarchy in France, which started on 26 July 1830, under Lois Philippe I, marking the end of the Bourbon Restoration, reversed the earlier decision to name it a monument of national reconciliation, instead of the monument of repentance for Revolution. Accordingly, the nave was vaulted in 1831, but no appropriate action was taken regarding the use of the building. Strangely, it was briefly suggested in 1837 that the building might best be utilized as a railway station. Finally, after much debates and discussions, and completion of the interior, it was consecrated and dedicated to Mary Magdalene in 1845.

madeleine church paris france
The altar with the statue of Mary Magdalene

The Madeleine Church, built in neoclassical style and adorned with 66 feet (20 m) tall 52 fluted Roman Corinthian columns, resembles a Roman temple. The pediment containing the relief sculpture of the Last Judgment, created by Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire, depicts Christ the Judge at the centre of the composition, with the Archangel Gabriel on His right, announcing the Day of Judgment with his horn, Archangel Michael on His left, wielding the sword of justice, while Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of Christ.

madeleine church paris france
The nave with Jules-Claude Ziegler’s fresco

The magnificent bronze doors of the church, measuring 354 by 141 feet (108 by 43 m), contain the meticulously crafted reliefs representing the Ten Commandments. The church has a single navewith three domes over wide arched bays, and each dome is coffered and has a glazed oculus for allowing light. The high altar, located at the north end, under the semi-dome of the apse, has a wonderfully dramatic statue by Carlo Marochetti behind it, depicting Magdalene being lifted up by angels.

madeleine church paris france
The Great Organ

Above the altar, the cupola of the choir is decorated with a mural by Jules-Claude Ziegler named The History of Christianity, featuring Magdalene ascends into heaven carried by three angels, supported by clouds. It also shows eminent figures of Christianity of the East and the West around Christ, along with Napoleon in his coronation robes in the centre, his figure directly aligned with the figure of Christ, and his back toward the viewer. Facing him is Pope Pius VII, with whom he signed the Concordat of 1801, signifying the reestablishment of the authority of the Catholic church in France after the Revolution. Interestingly, this is the only instance, where the figure of Napoleon appears in a Parisian church.

madeleine church paris france
From Place de la Concorde

The drum oak entrance stands the celebrated pipe organ, built by Aristide Cavallé- Coll in 1845, which makes Madelene one of the great music venues in Paris. The old organ was subsequently restored and extended the manuals to 56 notes by Charles Mutin in 1927. Throughout the year, both day and night, the church programmes quality classical music concerts.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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