Leicester Square is notoriously jammed with tourists cramming into the bright, commercial stretch. But dip inside this chuch, and you’ll find not only a peaceful respite from the crowds, but also a rare work of art.
The Church de Notre Dame has an unusually round shape, thanks to the building’s original purpose of displaying panoramas. Viewing these 360-degree paintings was a popular pastime in the late 18th century. In 1865, the old panorama building was converted into a church. The new building, which was London’s first cast iron church, maintained its original roundness.
Unfortunately, much of the structure was destroyed during World War II. After the church was rebuilt in the years following the war, French attaché René Varin asked French artists to help transform the space into one that would celebrate France, as the church was originally intended to serve the neighborhood’s French population.
Poet, artist, writer, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau agreed to contribute to the cause. He made his way to London, where he spent a week huddled behind a protective barrier (erected to separate him from prying media and curious crowds) and got to work, reportedly chatting with the figures he created. The end result is three colorful murals showing the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Assumption. Turn your eye to the Crucifixion scene, and you’ll see Cocteau gave himself a cameo in the scene.
Know Before You Go
The murals are preserved behind a protective glass barrier. It's best not to visit the church during mass, and to instead go during quieter hours. You can see the mass schedule on the church's website.