Paris, France: Church of Saint-Sulpice

The base of the obelisk that is used as part of the Saint-Sulpice sundial, with the meridian line moving up the middle.  Various inscriptions are written on the base in Latin and French.  Look carefully and you’ll find where the text honoring the monarchy was removed during the French Revolution

This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.

With its beauty, romance, and history, Paris is one of those cities that was made for the Silver Screen.  Hundreds of movies have been set in the City of Lights, including some of our favorites—Midnight in Paris, Before Sunset, and Julie and Julia just to name a few, and all of these evoke the ephemeral magic that only Paris possesses.  And it’s because of a movie—The DaVinci Code—that we recognized the Church of Saint-Sulpice when we happened upon it during our trip to Paris.

Dan Brown set his tale of the search for the Holy Grail in several Paris locations, and Saint-Sulpice, a huge 17th-century church in the 6th arrondissement, is one of them.  The plot rests on several assumptions about the church–that it was built on the site of a former pagan temple, and that the Paris Meridian, or Rose Line, runs through the church and just may lead to the hiding place of the Holy Grail.  And it’s here that Silas the deranged monk defaces the church floor and murders a nun.

Both the book and the movie were immensely popular and led to an increased number of people visiting Saint-Sulpice–so much so that the church felt the need to remind visitors that, when it comes to Saint-Sulpice at least, The DaVinci Code is pure fiction.  An official statement from the church asserts that, “contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel,” there was no pagan temple, the meridian line in Saint-Sulpice has nothing to do with the Paris Meridian, and a “Rose-Line” never existed.  The church wanted to set things straight (and maybe prevent people from bashing in the chapel floor in search of hidden clues).  The Archdiocese of Paris also refused director Ron Howard’s request to film inside the church, and so the interior scenes were recreated in a movie studio.

So the Church of Saint-Sulpice may not in reality be part of an exciting scavenger hunt for an ancient, controversial artifact, but we still found the church to be fascinating and well worth a visit.  Here are some of the true facts about Saint-Sulpice:

  • It is the second largest church in Paris, only slightly smaller than Notre-Dame.  It was built on the site of a 13th-century church that was torn down in the 1630’s to make room for a much grander building.
  • Only one of Saint-Sulpice’s two towers is complete. Construction began in 1646 and continued for well over a century.  The north tower was completed in its entirety; however, the start of the French Revolution in 1789 interrupted the construction of the south tower, and it remains in an unfinished state today.
The two towers of Saint-Sulpice. The south tower (on the right in this picture) is incomplete
  • Like many other churches, Saint-Sulpice suffered damage from the iconoclasm that swept through Paris during the Revolution.  As Catholicism experienced a revival in the 19th century, the church was repaired and restored, and artwork from several important French artists was added.  La chapelle de la Vierge (the “Chapel of Our Lady”), designed by Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, contains a statue of the Virgin and Child by sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle.  And Eugène Delacroix, an artist who influenced the likes of Renoir, van Gogh, and Picasso, painted several famous murals in the lateral chapels.
Chapel of Our Lady, with the statue of the Virgin and Child by sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle
The Chapel of Our Lady. The statue of the Virgin and Child can be seen between the columns at the front of the chapel
Saint-Sulpice lateral chapels and artwork
Delacroix's Jacob Wrestling the Angel
Jacob Wrestling the Angel, one of Delacroix’s famous pieces at Saint-Sulpice Church (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Saint-Sulpice has one of the largest and finest pipe organs in Europe (if not the world).  Called the Grand Organ, this massive musical instrument has over 6500 pipes, and people come from all over the world to hear it played.  Unfortunately, we missed one of the free organ recitals that are offered regularly by the church.
Saint-Sulpice’s Grand Organ
  • Saint-Sulpice has a meridian line, but unlike in The DaVinci Code, it has nothing to do with the Paris Meridian, which was once a line of zero longitude and actually passes through the nearby Paris Observatory.  The meridian line in Saint-Sulpice is part of a gnomon, or sundial, an astronomical measurement device.  It was installed in the 18th century for the purpose of determining the timing of the spring and autumn equinoxes and the exact date on which Easter fell each year.  It also enabled church staff to ring the church bells at more precise times, as the ringing of the bells informed the townspeople of the time as well.
The meridian (a brass line inserted in the church floor) starts at this plaque and runs across the floor to an obelisk, which can be seen at the far end of the church

The gnomon works like this: at noon of each day, when sunlight passes through a small hole in one of the stained-glass windows and hits a particular target on the meridian line, a specific point in time can be determined.  Unlike in The DaVinci Code, no pagan rituals are associated with the gnomon, and it does not reveal the secret location of the Grail.  Case closed!

Here’s a simplified diagram of the gnomon:

(Source: PHGCOM, Wikimedia Commons)

(Note: Wikipedia does a much better job than I do of explaining how a gnomon works and what a meridian is.)

The meridian line
The marble plaque at the southern end of the meridian line; this corresponds with the timing of the summer solstice
The upper portion of the obelisk.  The sun hitting near the top indicates the winter solstice

As you can see, the Church of Saint-Sulpice has a lot to offer, and I can’t blame Dan Brown for setting a part of his book here.  Saint-Sulpice, with its soaring ceilings, its beautiful works of art, and its nifty sundial invite the imagination to wander.  But the truths about the church are every bit as wonderful as fiction!


Sacred Destinations has an engaging description of Saint-Sulpice’s history and its role in The DaVinci Code.