Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Its Bits and Pieces of Saints - Atlas Obscura
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Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Its Bits and Pieces of Saints

Elizabeth Harper writes about saint relics at All the Saints You Should Know. Recently she gave a talk on Parisian relics at the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, and here continues her exploration of the holy dead in Paris.

For many visitors, Paris is the City of Light — more hearts and flowers than skulls and graveyards. However, there’s a darker side to the city, one that makes Paris one of my favorite cities for saints’ relics.

The understated, unadvertised nature of these places is part of what makes them fun. Paris isn’t like Naples or Prague where skeletons practically hang out at the sidewalk cafés and you can appreciate them by merely passing by. Here there’s a sense of discovery in seeking out relics and learning their history. Relics allow you to glimpse into Paris the Roman city, Paris the medieval city, and Paris the revolutionary city. Sometimes they even show you why Paris is the way it is today. Here’s a short guide to Paris as a reliquary. 

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The bones of Ursula and her friends (photograph by Ricardo Zappala)

One of my favorite relics is at the Church of Saint-Severin, where there’s a dusty glass case of bones in one corner. These are the bones of St. Ursula and her companions. There’s no historical evidence to support Ursula’s existence (and her feast day was removed from the Catholic calendar in 1969), but according to legend, the Huns martyred her and her ladies-in-waiting around 383 while they were touring European holy sites.

How many ladies-in-waiting depends on who you ask. It used to top out at eleven. However in 922, the Bishop of Cologne translated a Latin abbreviation differently and “11 virgin-martyrs” became “11,000 virgins,” which made for a much better story. It stuck and now, according to church records, there are 30 tons of bones displayed all over the world that purport to belong these women. The majority of them rest in St. Ursula’s Basilica in Cologne.

article-imageCourtyard at Saint-Severin (photograph by Groume/Flickr user)

If you want to switch gears and see a little piece of medical history, you’re in the right neighborhood — the Museum of the History of Medicine and the Musée Dupuytren are just down the block. But you can start by taking a trip out to the courtyard of Saint-Severin. This is where the first gallstone operation took place in 1474. The story becomes a little creepier when you know that the courtyard used to be a mass grave and the arcaded gallery was a charnier (a place to store bones when the mass grave was full). The unlucky patient was a prisoner condemned to death, but since the operation was successful, he gained his freedom (although he probably doubted his odds when he saw the macabre “operating room”).

article-imageRelics of St. Helena in the Church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

Another one of my favorite relics manages to go even farther back in history. At the Church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, you can see the remains of the Roman Empress St. Helena. The custodian who let me into the tiny basement crypt in Les Halles told me that very few of the church’s parishioners know the story behind this relic, let alone tourists.

In 840, A monk named Theogisus stole a portion of Helena’s body from her tomb in Rome and brought it back to his monastery in Hautvillers. Interestingly, when the theft was discovered, the pope didn’t order the return of Helena to Rome. The belief at the time was if a saint’s relic was stolen, the saint was consenting to the relocation, otherwise it would have miraculously stopped the theft. So Helena stayed in Hautvillers until the French Revolution when secular revolutionaries took to destroying monasteries and burning the relics. The monastery in Hautvillers was destroyed but the cellarer — Dom Grossard — hid the relics until they could be safely relocated to Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in the mid 1800s. They’ve been there ever since.

article-imageStatue of Mary Magdalene in La Madeleine (photograph by Miles Berry)

These days, as the custodian pointed out to me, Helena’s shrine is largely forgotten. It’s actually kept up by a group from the Russian Orthodox church even though Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles is Roman Catholic. These days the Russian immigrant community has become one of the biggest proponents for saints’ relics in Paris. The Russian Orthodox also have the rib of St. Alexander Nevsky at the cathedral named for him near the Arc de Triomphe. It was in fact a Russian priest who pointed out to me that there were relics of St. Mary Magdalene at La Madeline, a well-known church I had visited on several occasions without noticing these relics.

article-imageSacre Couer crypt (photograph by David Riley)

Next we’ll head to Montmarte all the way up the hill to Sacre Coeur, or the “basilica of the ridiculous,” as Émile Zola called it. Feel free to skip the bland interior and head straight down to the crypt. (Although I must tell you that contrary to what some guidebooks say, the “sacred heart of Jesus Christ” is NOT down there.) However, this is where you can learn about the patron saint of Paris — St. Denis — who was beheaded by druids on this very hilltop. That alone is enough to make him a martyr, but ever the over-achiever, St. Denis picked up his severed head and gave a sermon as he walked all the way to the site of the royal necropolis that now bears his name. If you take a trip up to St. Denis’ Basilica, you can see all kinds of different images of the decapitated saint as well as the remainder of his relics and his tomb.

St. Denis’ Cathedral was actually begun by the patroness of Paris, St. Genevieve, who purchased the land and had a shrine built over Denis’ tomb. However, her relics weren’t half as lucky as St. Helena’s were when the torch-happy revolutionaries paid her a visit. The majority of her relics were burnt at the Place de Grève, (now the Hôtel de Ville). But you can still see a tiny fragment of her bone and the rock her coffin rested on at St. Étienne-du-Mont.

article-imageThe rock where St. Genevieve’s tomb once rested preserved as its own relic (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

In a strange twist of history, the Archbishop of Paris was stabbed to death at St. Étienne-du-Mont — where the remaining relics of St. Genevieve are held — while leading a novena for St. Genevieve in 1857. Eliphas Lévi — the infamous occultist, as well as former seminarian at St. Sulpice — claimed he witnessed the whole thing, and that the murderer had previously approached him for a book of spells to conjure the devil with.

article-imageThe gnomon in St. Sulpice (photograph by Allison Meier)

You can still visit St. Sulpice for yourself of course. It’s truly a church fit for an occultist — Dan Brown set parts of The Da Vinci Code here and gave its gnomon a conspiratorial backstory. (The church has posted a somewhat aggravated sign in English letting fans of the book know that the gnomon’s portrayal in the book is not accurate, it’s honestly just an early time-measurement device.)

article-imageMemorial to the Martyrs of September (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

You can also find a memorial to the Martyrs of September in St. Sulpice. These were the 191 Catholic clergy members who were were hacked to pieces by a mob of revolutionaries on September 2 and 3 in 1792. If you take a five-minute walk over St. Joseph des Carmes on a Saturday at 3 pm, you can see a shrine that houses some of the bones of the monks who were killed over those two days.

article-imageSt. Germain l’Auxerrois (photograph by gnperdue/Flickr user)

But of course, if you change your perspective a bit you can see how the revolutionaries thought the Catholic establishment had it coming. Over the centuries Catholicism shaped French culture; they certainly committed their share of atrocities. Consider the bells of St. Germain l’Auxerrois — they were rung in 1572 to signal the beginning of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, an event that left an estimated 30,000 Protestants dead throughout France. And then there’s the case of the Cloître des Billettes, or the place “where God was boiled.”

article-imageStained glass window of Jonathas boiling the communion wafer in Saint-Etienne du Mont in Paris (via Wikimedia)

In 1290, a Jewish man named Jonathas was accused of desecrating a communion wafer where this medieval cloister now stands. He allegedly stabbed the consecrated host and it bled, so he tried to boil it and it turned into an image of Christ. As a consequence of this rumor, Jonathas was burned alive and the legend went on to plague Jewish communities all over Europe, where it frequently ended in execution or forced conversion.

article-imageSt. Médard in snow (photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Not all the history behind these sites is so bleak of course. The story of St. Medard, a parish church near the natural history museum, looks charmingly kooky by comparison. If you go there, you might notice that the cemetery is locked. That’s because back in 1731 a group of people called the convolutionaries took to eating the dirt from the grave of a popular deacon. They did it to bring on miraculous seizures that made them sing, dance, speak in tongues, and bark like dogs. For a while you could even rent a chair in the cemetery to watch the show. Sadly, in 1732 dirt-eating was banned and the cemetery was locked up. The convolutionaries took their meetings underground and basically devolved into a sadomasochistic cult.

article-imageThe incorrupt  St. Catherine Labouré (photograph by André Leroux)

Last but not least on our tour are the four seemingly incorrupt bodies of Paris. I say seemingly because only one is truly “incorrupt” in the eyes of the church and that’s St. Catherine Labouré at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal. To the left of her glass casket is a wax effigy that contains the relics of St. Louise de Marillac (sometimes mistaken for an incorrupt corpse). To the right is the incorrupt heart of St. Vincent de Paul. It looks quite corrupt, not fresh and red as one might expect, but it’s considered incorrupt because it’s managed to remain in one piece while the rest of his organs decomposed.

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Relics of St. Vincent de Paul (via Wikimedia)

The rest of St. Vincent de Paul’s relics are located just down the block from the Miraculous Medal. At the Chapel of the Maison-Mère you can climb a staircase on the side of the altar to get a closer look at the wax effigy that St. Vincent’s relics are housed in. It’s remarkably realistic. Although St. Vincent is best known for his work with the poor and with children, he was also dedicated to ransoming galley slaves, as he spent several years enslaved by pirates. (If only that part of his hagiography was depicted in more stained glass panels around the city.)

There’s also one more corpse, far less well known than those three, but just as interesting: St. Julian Eymard. He rests in the tiny Chapelle du Corpus-Christi on an unassuming little side-street. St. Julian was actually found to be incorrupt when he was exhumed in 1876, but the priest in charge of the exhumation thought he could assist his incorruptibility a little and applied carbolic acid to the corpse. Of course, this caused the corpse to immediately decompose, so a wax effigy was built for him. Why they decided to portray him with his eyes open, staring into the void, is a mystery to me.

When you finish going to all of these places, there are plenty more to explore on this map and on Atlas Obscura with even more strange and macabre histories behind them. Skip the Eiffel Tower and spend a day with the saints.

Map of the relics and hidden wonders of Paris.


Read more about the wandering body parts of the holy dead at Elizabeth Harper’s All the Saints You Should Know.