The site of Sacré Coeur has long been an attraction for religious figures and groups. Though dedicated to peace and brotherhood, the building owes its birth on the site to the misfortunes of war and violence.
In the 3rd century, the first bishop of Paris, St Denys, was beheaded here. A Benedictine Abbey occupied the entire hill until rioters of the French Revolution burned it down.
During the Prussian War of 1870, the two Catholic businessmen who initiated the Sacré Coeur project wanted to build an offering should France survive the conflict.
The construction was approved and the site selected in 1872 by the then-archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Guibert. Financed predominantly by modest donations, work began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. Due to the outbreak of WWI, the consecration was delayed to 1919.
Despite its late-19th century origins, the architecture is a much older style. A mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine, the white, Oriental-style domes house a 19-ton bell (Savoyarde) and elaborate reliefs. Note: ‘Oriental’ does not mean ‘Asian’. The architecture of the Middle East is commonly known as ‘Oriental’.
Apart from its unusual (for the time and place) architectural style, the building has another unusual feature. The walls themselves actually get whiter with age. Made of travertine, a type of stone which leeches calcite, any accumulated soot and weathering gradually erode leaving the exterior a dazzling white.
The art work accompanying the building is alone worth the trip. The sculptures atop the entrance are bronze equestrian statues of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) and King Louis. There are numerous mosaics and paintings covering the interior, including a large figure of the Virgin and Child. And, the ‘Christ in Majesty’ mosaic in the apse is one of the largest in the world.
The church is located in the north of Paris and rises 129 meters above-sea level. It is the second highest location after the Eiffel Tower. Sited next to the basilica is the still-standing 6th century St. Pierre de Montmartre church.
The building is a series of stepped-back rectangular walls pierced by several arches and capped by domes of varying sizes. Around the structure are complementary gardens and fountains, providing a peaceful site. That is, during those times when the grounds and building aren’t overcrowded, such as during the off-seasons or early in the morning.
From every angle without and many within the basilica is much more impressive than it generally receives credit for. Though a traditional style, the carvings and additions all form a harmonious whole. The golden mosaics give a glow to the interior that supports the site’s purpose as an area for contemplation.
From the grounds, high atop Paris, one can look out over the entire city and from within the dome there are equally impressive views. In the distance is the Eiffel Tower, and at dusk the combination of the onset of lights and the setting sun is spectacular.
Access to the site is challenging. There’s a metro (subway) station nearby at Abbesses. But, there are a great many steps leading up the hill to the basilica. The walk is eased somewhat by the funiculaire.