Saint Sulpice - A Church That Tells Time

Certain times of the year there are Parisians in Paris.

Early spring, before hoards of tourists flock to the city for keychain Eiffel Towers and overpriced croque monsieurs, is one of them. The Boulevard Saint Michel flows barely at trickle save for those huddled under colorful awnings sipping steaming coffee to warm themselves from unexpected downpours.

Ducking from café, to bar, to restaurant, I attempted to time the breaks in the rain as I hop-scotched from Boulevard Saint Germain up through the winding corridors of the Latin Quarter and finally to the perfectly manicured greeneries of Les Jardin du Luxembourg. In this weather there certainly weren't any other American tourists milling about and just as few Parisians. The city was deserted; just me and the cold for company. Drain-pipes gurgled a backbeat as raindrops played their melody onto slanted rooftops.

Full of food and drink, my excuses to find a café to avoid the chill were at an end. Luckily, through the hedges of the Luxembourg Gardens, I spied a towering cathedral. Backpack tucked under my jacket to keep it dry from the heavy downpour, I looked very much like a modern day Hunchback of Notre Dame banging on the thick iron doors for sanctuary. I prayed, in the atheist-sense, that the church would be unlocked.

To my surprise, the doors swung open.

Once inside, I was met by an alarming sound: a single note from an unseen organ blaring reverently throughout the stone church's grand interior. The air was filled with a dense, haunting tone. After what felt like an ear-rattling eternity, the next note up the scale was played and then the next, this progression continuing for over an hour. Whether for tuning, scaring away the pigeons or instilling the fear of God in me I never learned for the church was completely empty save for the booming French pipe organ.

Saint Sulpice stands as the second largest church in Paris after Notre Dame and required over one-hundred and fifty years of construction. Most know l'eglise, or church in French, for its two mis-matched towers and elegantly carved columns, but inside it houses two historic marvels: one scientific and the other musical. Saint Sulpice's Great Organ, one of the most lauded symphonic instruments of all time, was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and rises nearly fifty-feet high with over seven-thousand perfectly-pitched pipes. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful organ in all of the world, both in sight and sound. Tuned to exacting measurements, the organ contains five manuals, or keyboards, and has two 32-foot stops offering organists an incredibly wide array of sounds. Upon its completion in 1781, The Great Organ was the most complex man-made device in existence until the advent of the telephone exchange over one hundred years later. 

Though church and science often contend with one another, Saint Sulpice strongly embraced the importance of astronomical measurements and their relation to time. A gnomon, the triangular portion of a sundial which casts a shadow, was commissioned by an 18th century priest to better determine the exact time of equinoxes and, therefore, Easter.

When the sun passes directly overhead at noon during the Summer Solstice, a hole in the ceiling allows light to shine onto a copper oval plate. As the sun rises during the Winter Solstice, its illuminated path traces a brass meridian line inlaid along the floor before climbing a white marble obelisk and settling onto a golden sphere right at noon. In essence, these astronomical markers turned Saint Sulpice into one big clock and calendar.

The church's importance scientifically, astronomically and musically, aside from being a spiritual center of the Rive Gauche, Paris's Left Bank, may have been one of the reasons why it was spared destruction during the French Revolution.

If you'd like to read further about Saint Sulpice, here's a short story I wrote called Wake the Devil about a mischievous altarboy, watched like a hawk by the sin-seeing eyes of an old priest, who schemes ways to play the church organ.