The Basilica of the Sacré Coeur On Montmartre is a Parisian landmark that has long inspired debate and divided opinion – both on superficial grounds (is it hideous or comely?) to more profound discussions about its meaning.
The site of the Basilica draws linkages to pre-Christian religious practice, later Christian martyrs and modern France trying to grapple with church/state relations.
The Basilica itself dates back to the late 19th Century. It emerged out of yet another interesting period in Parisian and French history.
The early 1870s were a moment of more soul searching for the city and France: A third republic had been declared on the back of discontent with the finer details of democracy at the time. The performance of France against the Prussians on the battle field was lackluster and seen as divine punishment for France’s sins by Paris’s leading cleric at the time. According to the archbishop, France had committed too many sins against the church and as such, had lost in battle as divine retribution. He also added that the rise anti-clerical sentiment in France since 1789 required repentance.
These fault lines had led to eruption during the commune of Paris in early 1871. (This is that event when Parisians, once again, challenged the political elites of their time and took power into their own hands. The commune was distinctively working class).
Some writers link the decision to construct Sacre-Couer directly to the Paris commune, although the initial decision to build it was a bit earlier as a votive national act. At the least, the commune certainly fed into the context and subsequent resolve to execute its construction.
Needless to say, the Paris Commune was a complex thing. It was intricately tied to struggles for a ‘right to the city’ among the working classes who expressed disgruntlement with a political system that had not yet translated democracy into bread and butter. It was basically a struggle between labour and capital. There was also the complex relationship between tax paying working class Parisians and the military apparatus of the state. There was a decisive discontent with the channeling state funds into an ill planned war against Prussia while the city’s poor suffered.
Parisians decided to force democracy out of a ‘republic’ that seemed to reserve its benefits for a few. They decided to force the benefits of state trickle down. Paris of the commune sounds like a perpetually electric atmosphere: People were voting for their own community based committees , working class and middle class city based meetings discussed the politics of the day and came up with solutions to problems.. A social protection system, compensating widows and families that had lost fathers and breadwinners to war. It was leftwing political heaven.
‘Marx’ speaks on the Paris Commune
For the church, the commune was disastrous. There was a sense among the disgruntled Parisians, that the church was compromised for its links to the status quo and ruling classes. The church was seen as intricately tied to the inflexible and oppressive hierarchies of city and state. Heads had to roll (quite literally). The archbishop was taken hostage, many other clerics killed.
Beyond these acts, the commune also revisited laws from the early 19th century that protected Catholicism as the majority religion of the French. Calls for ‘laïcite’ – an untranslatable notion that roughly equals to ‘secularism’ – became more pronounced.
A strict separation of church and state was called for – which at the time meant cutting out some of the special budgetary allocations to the church, and a revision of the church’s status in state life. It was a call to take power from the church and government and give it to the people.
The basilica was erected in the aftermath of the commune. By then, it had certainly become a dialectical symbol, a response to secularism. Interestingly, the façade of the basilica is dominated by two figures noted for their devotion to both church and state: Saint Louis, the great French King known equally for his piety and devotion and his dedication to socially just public policy and Joan of Arc, that powerful figure whose mysticism fed into French military strategy and international relations.
These statues offer an imposing visual to the basilica while also adding to an overall formidable piece of architecture. In the context within which it emerged it certainly evoked debate. Today, as we take in this sight, its imposing architecture it is imperative to approach the basilica as a response in a dialectical process.
Sacré Coeur is a reminder to ask whether such historical ‘visuals’ in the city are actually comments, responses, architectural ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ buttons. Sacré Coeur is a reminder to ask what does this sight respond to? Who was it speaking (back) too? What was it a sign of?
Whatever one makes of Sacre Coeur, and however divided opinion has been on the basilica it goes without say that Sacré Coeur offers a fabulous view of the city.
Information on Directions and Access to the Basilica here