The Church of St. Sulpice, Paris
Built between 1646 and 1678 (with additional construction, and re-building lasting through 1780), the Church of St. Sulpice is huge, coming a close second to Notre Dame for the title of “Largest Church in Paris.” Although filled with elaborate and beautiful works of art and a long history of skilled musicians tending to the Great Organ, the Church of St. Sulpice is – of course – better, and more widely, known these day for it’s gnomon, featured in Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. During a recent trip to France, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit this incredible building.
St. Sulpice has a rich tradition of organists, and – lucky me – I was able to be there during a program featuring several incredible musicians taking turns playing, it was a very special treat. It’s hard to capture the sheer scale of the building, but this organ is enormous, and it’s sitting about 30 feet up on the second level of the church. The elaborate carvings around the clock and the sculptures, the level of detail is staggering. And the acoustics inside are insane, the deep and rich tones of the organ resonate throughout the building.
Once the program ended and the crowd cleared, I was able to snap some photos. Of course, we cannot forget the Gnomon of St. Sulpice. Quickly, the gnomon is an ancient calendar which uses the same principle as a sundial – have a straight line running north-south (meridian), and the sun will case a shadow at different points on the line, which will tell you what date it is. In this case, the sun casts light on the gnomons brass meridian you can see running through the middle of the obelisk. On the winter solstice, at noon, the low-hanging sun will cast light on the northern most point on the meridian near the top of the obelisk.
The meridian continues from the base of the obelisk along the floor of the church. On the Summer solstice, again at noon, the sun will shine directly on the southernmost point of the brass meridian. It’s a remarkable use of some very old tech.
At the base of the obelisk, inscriptions describe the gnomon and its mission, “To determine precisely the Paschal Equinox” – so the church could accurately compute the date for Easter Sunday. Like almost everywhere in Paris, and pretty much all of France, any references to the king or the church were removed after the French Revolution. Here you can see a big chuck has been cut out from the plaque.
St. Sulpice Church is a fascinating place to visit, and if you are in Paris you should strongly consider putting it on your To-Do list.