La Madeleine, Paris

I’ve long wanted to visit this important Parisian church and I recently had my chance. As luck would have it, the exterior is undergoing some much-needed restoration, and the facade was completely hidden under full scaffolding. But at least it was still possible to see the other 3 sides of the building from the outside and to pay a visit to the vast interior. This church didn’t disappoint!

L’église de la Madeleine or, more formally, L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine occupies a commanding position in the 8th arrondissement. It is also known as just La Madeleine and it is an important Catholic church in the city.

It was designed in its present form as a temple to the glory of Napoleon’s army, and later named for Jesus’ companion, Mary Magdalene. To its south lies the Place de la Concorde, to the east is the Place Vendôme, and to the west Saint-Augustin.

There were two false starts made in building a church on this site. The first design, commissioned in 1757, began whe the King’s laid the cornerstone in 1763.

In 1777, the architect died and was replaced by his pupil Guillaume-Martin Couture, who decided to start anew, razing the incomplete construction, shortening the nave and basing his new, more centralized design on the Pantheon in Rome.

At the start of the Revolution in 1789, however, only the foundations and the grand portico had been finished, but work was discontinued while debate simmered as to what purpose the eventual building might serve in Revolutionary France: a library, a public ballroom, and a marketplace were all suggested.

This photograph was taken from the north end, which isn’t currently under scaffolding. While I couldn’t see the actual facade of the church, this view gives an idea of how it appears.

In 1806 Napoleon decided to erect a memorial, a Temple de la Gloire de la Grande Armée and an elaborate competition was held with numerous entries and a jury. A design by the architect Claude Étienne de Beaumont (1757–1811) was selected butMai the Emperor trumped all, instead commissioning Pierre-Alexandre Vignon (1763–1828) to build his design on an antique temple (compare the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes).

Maison Carree, Nimes

The then-existing foundations were razed, preserving the standing columns, and work begun anew.

The apse end of the church from the exterior.

After the fall of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII determined that the structure would be used as a church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Vignon died in 1828 before completing the project and was replaced by Jacques-Marie Huvé. A new competition was set up in 1828-29, to determine the design for sculptures for the pediment which was to represent the Last Judgment. It was planned that Mary Magdalene would kneel to intercede for the damned.

The winner was Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire. The July Monarchy rededicated the monument of repentance for Revolution as a monument of national reconciliation, and the nave was vaulted in 1831. In 1837 it was briefly suggested that the building might best be utilised as a railway station, but the building was finally consecrated as a church in 1842.

Major funeral ceremonies are held in this church and the first notable one was for Chopin. The musician had requested that Mozart’s Requiem be sung. The Requiem had major parts for female voices, but the Church of the Madeleine had never permitted female singers in its choir. The Church finally relented, on condition that the female singers remain behind a black velvet curtain.

Apse end exterior detail.
Above is an historic photo of La Madeleine from the Library of Congress.

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The facade of La Madeleine today.
By allowing advertisements like this one, restoration projects achieve significant funding.

The Madeleine is built in the Neo-Classical style and was inspired by the much smaller Maison Carrée in Nîmes, as mentioned above, which is one of the best-preserved of all Roman temples. La Madeleine is one of the earliest large neo-classical buildings to imitate the whole external form of a Roman temple, rather than just the portico front. Its 52 Corinthian columns, 66 feet high, are carried around the entire building.

Inside, the church has a single nave with three domes over wide arched bays, lavishly gilded in a decor inspired as much by Roman baths as by Renaissance artists. Above the high altar, stands a statue by Carlo Marochetti depicting St Mary Magdalene being lifted up by angels which evokes the tradition concerning ecstasy which she entered in her daily prayer while in seclusion.

The half-dome above the altar is frescoed by Jules-Claude Ziegler, entitled The History of Christianity, showing the key figures in the Christian religion with – a sign of its Second Empire date – Napoleon occupying centre stage.

I highly recommend looking at these sources if you want more information about the church and its context:

The church has a celebrated pipe organ, built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1845. It was restored by Cavaillé-Coll’s successor Charles Mutin in 1927, who also extended the manuals to 56 notes. Tonal modifications were carried out by Roethinger, Danion-Gonzalez, and Dargassies in 1957, 1971 and 1988 respectively.

You can distinctively hear this famous organ in my two videos posted here.

Since we’re discussing Paris, after all, and the city has been so celebrated in art, I love to look at a few representations of various buildings in history.

La Madeleine on the right in this poster advertising the Exposition Universelle (1878)
Antoine Blanchard painting of La Madeleine

The next 3 pictures show one long side of the rectangular building.

As a footnote to the great organ within La Madeleine, today the church hosts a series of important concerts. Below are some flyers for upcoming programs.

2 thoughts on “La Madeleine, Paris

  1. There’s a song I love called ‘Boulevard de la Madeleine’, but I didn’t know about the church. I enjoyed your pictures and description. It’s beautiful on the inside. I liked hearing the organ. What a huge sound.

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