Paris abounds with interesting buildings and monuments. Out of many iconic monuments, Sacre Coeur basilica, located due north on the hill of Montmartre (the mountain of the martyr), always stands out. One reason is its specific location overlooking the city, making it clearly visible from all points. Second, it is made of gypsum, a type of stone which is self washing, always giving it a white, bright appearance.

This monument is a symbol of Paris. However, most people have little or no idea of what it represents, despite its considerable importance among the city’s highlights.

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Central facade of Sacre Coeur seen from the main staircase of Montmartre

To understand the origin of this monument, we need to step back in time. In 1870, the armies of Emperor Napoleon III were defeated by the Prussian army, whose cavalry made its way to the Champs Elysees. During the short Franco-Prussian War, Paris was besieged by the Prussian army for several months and the population starved. Despite the dramatic situation and the early domination of Germany, a form of revolutionary patriotism grew in Paris, a fervor that could not stand the idea of defeat, at a time when the rest of the country was on its knees. To top it off, the provisional French government hoped that its surrender to the German presence would contain the serious threat of Parisian socialism.

These events gave birth to a revolution named the Commune: Parisians, mostly from the northern and eastern working class neighborhoods, rebelled and built barricades. Despite enduring siege for more than three months, many Parisians refused to accept surrender, and expressed with violence their political rupture with the rest of the country, which had accepted the return of the monarchy. The rebels mostly were laborers whose numbers had expanded throughout the 19th century. They represented a third of the population of Paris by 1870.

Their insurrection took and held neighborhoods as long as it could, in a context of hunger, intense cold and national defeat. It was repressed with heavy bloodshed. Out of many battle sites, located almost exclusively in the popular northern and eastern neighborhoods, Montmartre was one of the most intense and longer lasting fighting zones.

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The barricade of the rue d’Allemagne and rue Sebastopol, 1871

With France’s defeat in December of 1870, and after the traumatic events which took place during the Commune civil war episode, many figures of French Catholicism stated that all of the problems that beset the country were linked to the decline of spirituality, and the forsaking of faith. Altogether, there was a perception of moral decline which many believed had started with the French Revolution of 1789.

With the events of the Commune, the Sacred Heart project became a message to the rest of the country and to the world: repent and commemorate the bleeding heart of the city, cry tears for Parisian blood. Montmartre is also, historically speaking, linked to the death of the city’s earlier martyrs, including its first bishop, St. Denis, in the 3rd century. Moreover, it was in Montmartre that the Commune revolt began, with the killing of two army Generals by Parisians. It is where the first barricades were built. The choice of the location is a symbol in itself. And the message is contrition.

The originality of this project is both architectural and social: the building is one of the only neo Roman-Byzantine churches in Paris, and certainly the most famous. But the project was also built with the full support and contribution of Parisians, as an act of repentance and faith. It was debated in parliament, and the allocation of land on which the basilica was to be built was swiftly granted.

Out of many architectural propositions, the one of Paul Abadie stood out and was chosen in 1874; work began in 1875, ending in 1912. The church was equipped with one of France’s biggest bells, the “Savoyarde”, weighing 19 tons, and it was offered in 1895 by the Savoie collectivity in the Alps. The consecration of the church had to wait until 1919, after the events of World War I.

Sacre Coeur is today the second most visited church of Paris, after Notre Dame, and it is in the heart of one of Paris’ most attractive and frequented neighborhoods, Montmartre. The mosaic in the choir is worth seeing, as are the side and back facades which are less known, but still unique in their originality. Last but not he least, visiting the Sacre Coeur of Montmartre is also the perfect way for visitors to get one of the most beautiful panoramic views of the city.

D. A

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The choir of the Basilica