Your Paris Church of the Day

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As part of our pre-PBP Paris sightseeing mini-frenzy, I found myself standing in front of a few churches again today; not just churches: structures that were centuries and centuries old, that were built to fulfill some promise or other to God, that were built as an expression of this king's or that cardinal's clout and deep pockets. But most of all, structures that, whatever the secular goings on that raised them, took shape at the hands of some inspired artists.

I took note of the church above and below when I started studying the sculptural elements above the main entrance and wondered whether the lower scene — a man who looks like he's about to be stoned by an angry crowd — depicted the death of St. Stephen (first martyr and, since I like my dad before me share the name, a subject of personal interest). I noticed that the initials SG and SE were carved on either side of the entrance: SG for St. Genevieve, some of whose remains turn out to be interred here, and SE for St. Etienne, the French for St. Stephen). The church is St.-Etienne-du-Mont, after its setting atop a hill above the Latin Quarter; it was completed close to 400 years ago.

Back to the sculpture above the entrance. The resurrected Jesus holds pride of place just below a rose window. He's got a spiky-looking halo and looks irresistible and a little pissed off.

Immediately above the doorway, a supine St. Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone.

I don't mean to sound irreligious. I was brought up with some version of these scenes, and I find them stirring and moving on a deep level (I even went into the church, dipped my fingers into the holy water font and crossed myself). Part of what's moving to me, though, is the idea of the generations and generations of mostly anonymous artists, artisans, and laborers who erected this city of churches. What a legacy they left.

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