Last weekend I followed one of the guided walks from Walks Through Lost Paris. It was really interesting despite the fact that I felt like a dork sticking my nose in the book on every street corner. There are four walks all together in this book and I intend to do them all at some point. As fascinating as theses walks are, they are not the point of this post.
I began with the Church of St-Germain des Près, which means St Germain of the fields. While today this church is near the centre of Paris, the name invokes it’s origins as an abbey outside of Paris once surrounded by fields. Only the church and a few walls remain of what was once a sprawling complex but visiting the church was a remarkable experience for me. The church has a long history. It was originally established my the Merovingian kings in the 6th century and let me tell you, you can feel it in the church.
In my first week in Paris I visited Notre Dame. I was so underwhelmed by this famous structure. Part of this can be attributed to the crowds, which is no fault of the site, however much was due to the awful conditions in the building itself. For such an eminent church, it was crowded with stored furniture and had peeling paint and water damage in many of the side chapels. I could see how this church was struggling to maintain itself as a living church. New confessionals had been built of steel and glass but even one of these had been reduced to storage. For all the people who crowd to visit everyday, there was little to see that was truly moving and impressive.
St Germain de Près provided all that I was looking for at Notre Dame. Deeply coloured frescoes cover most of the walls and every side chapel had a note of explanation. The church was clearly well tended to with fresh flowers and candles. While this church was clearly a living church with parishioners in attendance, there was still an overwhelming sense of age about the place. The medieval origins of the church were clearly in evidence right next to a display of modern photography.
The church serves as a very interesting example of the lives of objects. This is a subject that comes up time and time again in my studies as a conservator. This church was clearly able to evoke some many different phases of it’s history without erasing those that came before or cluttering up the visitor experience with wordy explanations. I was impressed with such a sense of age as I wandered down the aisle but at the same time there was so much evidence for the current life of the church in the modern altar and sound system. I could also see how all these impressions could be easily lost by conservation efforts. The church was very dark and much of this is due to hundred years old candle smoke on the frescoes. One of the first things to go when conservation is undertaken is this soiling. But to clean this church would be to wipe away all the organic growth that allows for such a clear display of time built upon time. So much would be lost at the hands of a conservator here. While this is a lesson that was introduced to me so often in the last two semesters, I never really felt the truth in it until my visit to St Germain des Près.