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Landmarks of Paris: La Madeleine

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The Church of Saint-Marie-Madeleine (or simply La Madeleine) is a famous Catholic church in central Paris. It’s located on Place de la Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

This church has been inspired by the classical Roman architecture, such as the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.

La Madeleine has 52 Corinthian columns, each 20 meters tall. The building does not have any crosses or bell-towers, which one would expect in a Catholic church.

The inscription on the frieze reads as follows: “To the God all-powerful and very great, under the invocation of Saint Mary Magdalene.” On the facade, you can see a number of sculptures. Jesus Christ is depicted in the center, presiding over the Last Judgement. Around him, there are two angels, Archangel Michael, Mary Magdalene, figures representing vices (greed, anger, lust etc.) who will be denied entry to heaven, as well as virtues, who will be admitted to heaven.

It took almost a century to construct this beautiful landmark, and many rulers and architects took part in the process.

History of La Madeleine

Early days

An earlier Madeleine church was built back in the XIII century. It was considered too small, and the construction of a new, larger church was authorized by King Louis XV. He laid a first stone in 1763. The original design by the first architect Pierre Contant d’Ivry envisioned a large dome on top of the church. After d’Ivry’s death, the new architect Guillaume Martin Couture selected a more classical design which would resemble a Greek or Roman temple.

The construction of the new church was paused in 1789 due to French Revolution. When Louis XVI was executed, his body was transported to the old Madeleine Church which remained standing till about 1801.

La Madeleine post Revolution

The Revolutionary Government debated on the use of the new church building; some of the possible ideas were a public library or a stock exchange.

When Napoleon came to power, he declared that this would become “The Temple to the Glory of the French Army.” The intention was to add marble tablets to the interior of the temple, which would feature the names of warriors who bravely fought during the battles of Ulm, Austerlitz and Iena. The fallen warriors would be given a special distinction: their names would be inscribed on gold tablets.

A competition was held in order to select the best artist for the job. 80 contestants submitted their designs. Interestingly, it was Etienne de Beaumont who won the competition, but Napoleon selected a different artist, Vignon, for the job because he liked his design better.

Due to the shortage of funds, the project proceeded slower than expected. After Napoleon’s Russian campaign failed, this whole idea of the temple of glory died on its own.

After the fall of Napoleon, works continued under King Louis XVIII. The construction of the church finally concluded during the reign of King Louis-Philippe. Its official inauguration took place on July 24, 1842, the day of Mary Magdalene.

The Interior of La Madeleine

Inside, La Madeleine is dimply lit and its walls are covered by many decorative elements, often gilded.

One of the important parts of the interior is the half-dome over the choir of the church which depicts history of Christianity. Below is a wide ceramic mosaic which shows Christ and a group of saints with connections to France. In the foreground one can also see the figures of Napoleon Bonaparte in coronation robes and Pope Pius VII.

Below the mosaic is a row of Corinthian columns, an altar and a large sculpture “The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene”. The sculpture depicts Mary Magdalene, kneeling in prayer while three angels are transporting her to heaven. Mary Magdalene was one of Christ’s followers who traveled with him and was also a witness to his crucifixion and resurrection.

La Madeleine has a strong association with music, artists and musicians. Its pipe organ is considered one of the most celebrated in Paris. There is a long list of musicians who held the title of church organist at La Madeleine at one point, some of quite famous, such as Camille Saint-Saens and Gabriel Faure. Funerals of many famous people took place at La Madeleine, among them of Josephine Baker, Frederic Chopin, Coco Chanel, and others.

Visitor information

La Madeleine is open from 9:30 am till 7:00 pm each day. Entrance to the church is free for visitors. Also, throughout the year, you can attend classical music concerts at La Madeleine. Admission is also free of charge.

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