The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur summons up a mixture of emotions. Its stark whiteness gleams over the city as the sun is reflected off the huge dome. It’s a fairly modern construction by church standards, and construction began in 1875. Forty years later, the Roman-Byzantine edifice was completed and Parisians continue to dislike its imposing presence on the hilltop of Montmartre. Despite their alleged abhorrence of the structure, we tourists love it, and I’d have to recommend a visit not only for an inspection of the building, but also to enjoy the spectacular views from the summit.
It’s a strange old story that accompanies the building of the basilique, as it seems the site merited a church in the mid-1600s when a nun reported seeing Jesus on the mound. Several requests were made to the church authorities, but it was not until the end of the Franc-Prussian war that the state agreed to fund the building to "do penance for the sins of the people of France."
Building started with a vengeance following a highly spirited design competition in which the most outrageous entry (according to critics at the time) was successful. The basilica’s many cupolas are overseen by the 260-foot-high dome, and in the square bell tower is La Savoyarde at over 20 tons, one of the world’s heaviest bells.
This is what can best be described as a pilgrimage church, and inside are countless reminders of the many miracles that are purported to have occurred here. The dome sports a spectacular, colourful image of Jesus, arms outstretched surrounded by saints, blessing the faithful. Indeed there are several brightly designed mosaics throughout the church. And yet, this is a place of contrast, because, despite its ostentatious exterior, vibrant mosaics, and stunning stained glass, much of the internal architecture is plain and unadorned. The chapels of Saint-Pierre and Sainte Famille mimic the exterior design with arches and simple pillars, but here the walls retain the simple form of neatly assembled brickwork with uncomplicated altars and straightforward representations of Jesus with his outstretched arms.
The internal architecture of the Coupole is again simple and uncluttered, with two rows of pillared arches and a spiritual flooding of bright pure white light from the upper row. Sometimes less is truly more. The church order is tres magnifique, and if you’re lucky, you may hear its superb tones as the organist practices for one of the many services. The carving around the organ pipes is mirrored in the choir stalls, and it’s hard not to be distracted by the complexity of the floor’s mosaics. Like all churches, it has a vast array of superb sculptures and religious icons.
Make sure that you visit the crypt and admire the labyrinth of arches that seem to support the very structure of the massive structure. The artistry of this exposed fine building’s substructure work is divinely complex in a simple way!