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The setting: Paris—opposite the Pompidou Centre (Beaubourg), a ‘flamboyant’ late-Gothic church and its adjoining 17th century presbytery with a small restaurant on the ground floor and bedrooms on four floors, each with their closely spaced, old ceiling beams. Magnificent early 19th-century furniture abounds—dark, decorative and highly polished—pure neo-Gothic: vignettes of the past: a polychrome of French sandstone, crimson and walnut brown. Hotel Saint-Merry a truly historic hotel for those with a yen for sheer romanticism.
Hotel Saint-Merry, the former presbytery is adjoined to the left of its church of the same name.
Very little is known about the life of Saint-Merry. However, it is more than probable that on his arrival in Paris, he established a small monastic community (as can be seen in this painting by Simon Vouet, where he is portrayed wearing a monk’s cowl).
At the end of the 7th century, Saint Méderic, the abbot of Autun, withdrew from public life to end his days near the ancient church of Saint-Pierre des Bois on the right bank of Paris. After a succession of miracles that were attributed to him, he became the object of public devotion, and a chapel was built; but as the district of Les Halles became more and more populated, it was soon followed by the construction of a collegiate church. In about 1500, the populace wanting something more appropriate to the memory of their Saint—whose name had by then been shortened to Merri or Merry—built another church in the ‘flamboyant’ style of the late Gothic period. With the choir the same length as the nave, the church of Saint-Merry follows the same architectural plan of the Notre-Dame cathedral. The tower that backs up against the west portal of the church was built in 1612.
The adjoining edifice that now houses the Saint-Merry hotel, is a bit younger than the church, which appears to be confirmed by the extraordinary bedroom on the third floor whose decor is dominated by two flying buttresses that support the thrust of the church’s vaulting behind the tower.
Some ceilings on different floors show traces of alterations, as if spiral staircases, or old chimneys have been dismantled.
The building’s many rooms no doubt served to accommodate the cathedral’s seven canons. It was little altered in the centuries that followed, unlike the church itself, which was ‘modernized’ in imitation of the Baroque style of the Notre-Dame cathedral. When the church was deconsecrated after the Revolution—transformed first into a saltpetre factory and then, in 1801, a ‘temple of commerce’—the presbytery was bought by a private individual; and tradition has it that it then was used as a brothel. It is uncertain if, at the time of the Restoration, it ever resumed its ecclesiastical function. The district is known to have suffered a period of great poverty and popular uprisings, as described in Victor Hugo’s work, Les Misérables. Suffice it to say that at the end of the 20th century, the building was converted into a hotel.
The hotel’s new owners with intuitive insight bought an important lot of neo-Gothic furniture at auction, which stylistically, is entirely in keeping with the bare stone walls and the heavily beamed ceilings of the old presbytery. The sculpted tables, rib-backed chairs, linen-fold panelling, and other carved ornamentation of grimacing figures, evoke the world of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the coordinating architect for the restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral. The dark wood tones, with their walnut patina are at one with the cast iron chandeliers and other metalwork. One can easily understand why the hotel is so attractive to photographers who want a Gothic setting for their portrait sessions!
The heraldic blazon of three fleurs-de-lys—the old coat-of-arms of France—can be seen carved into many pieces of furniture, which suggests they date back to the beginning of the 19th century, at the time of the Restoration, or the July Monarchy.
You should certainly start your discovery of the area with the Church of Saint-Merry. In spite of the later, yet congruent Baroque integration, the building is a fine example of the last flowering of Gothic art. You will find many works of art here, both ancient and modern—the latter is, perhaps, the influence the Centre Pompidou opposite the church. The little bell tower is home to the oldest bell in Paris, which dates back to the 14th century.
Beautiful late-Gothic crossing of Saint-Merry Church.
Dedicated history buffs will notice a strangely carved keystone above the west entrance, which represents a winged devil—half-man, half-woman. This esoteric figure was sculpted in the first half of the 19th century, and is a rather unusual feature to be found in a church porch. Fans of the occult will interpret it as an effigy of Baphomet, an idol which the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping.
This strange carving with its demonic characteristics, is described by Umberto Eco in his famous novel, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ and its significance is still a subject of great interest to historians.
In close proximity is the Saint-Jacques tower which is all that remains of a church with the same name, which was demolished during the Revolution. Its slender, soaring proportions and its rich ornamentation, bear witness to the showiness of the late Gothic period. It is a moment of sheer happiness to walk in its park while taking in the proud elegance of each façade.
The pinnacle ornamentation and sculpture, mostly original, form a splendid contrast against an evening sky.
A painting by impressionist artist Paul Vogler, which hangs in one of the hotel’s bedrooms, was inspired by the south rose window as seen from the triforium.
Just a few minutes away, on the other side of the bridge is the magnificent spread of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This symbolic monument, still a consecrated Catholic Church, is so beautiful that it is easy to understand why millions of tourists will queue to visit it. If you get a chance to look round it at a time when there are fewer people, give yourself up to the spirit of the place and spend a few minutes sitting in the pews as if you were the only person in the world.
There are many other monuments in Paris that evoke the Gothic and neo-Gothic periods. The Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie both situated in the Île de la Cité are particularly beautiful examples. Between Saint-Merry and the Louvre, you will find the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, which is typical of the medieval momentum, revisited in the 19th century.
The sumptuous Gothic cellars, with their forest of ribbed vaulting, in the Conciergerie.
In the Marais district, the Place des Vosges will enchant you with its harmonious proportions, and the warm colours of its (original) false brick plaster. In one corner of the square Victor Hugo’s apartment will plunge you into the heart of romanticism with its décor, its furniture and the book collections. Finally, a little detour will take you to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, where there are many particularly poignant neo-Gothic funerary statues.
A beautiful face carved in stone—between neo-Gothic and Symbolism © Adrian Tombu
Enrich your stay, with some instructive or romantic reading while listening to music typical of the two periods. Or watch (re-watch) the films listed below for some colourful background to the places you visit.
Learn and understand
Books to savor during your stay
Films to be watched before arriving
The perfect setting for a little music
L’Hôtel Saint-Merry est idéalement situé au centre ville, à deux pas d’un grand nombre de points d’intérêt touristique. Le quartier est aussi constellé de petits cafés, restaurants et boutiques en tout genre : immersion dans le bouillonnement de la vie parisienne assurée. Comme c’est souvent le cas dans la capitale française, ne cherchez pas de salon, de salle à manger ou de lobby-bar dans l’hôtel… C’est dans les chambres que cela se passe.
Le caractère historique des lieux complique un peu son aménagement touristique. L’absence d’ascenseur, d’air conditionné ou de faux-plafonds isolants, par exemple, ne doit pas vous surprendre. De petits à-côtés nettement compensés par le soin accordé à l’accueil, les vastes salles de bains, les boissons chaudes en chambre et bien sûr la richesse du décor !
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Hôtel Saint-Merry ***
78 rue de la Verrerie
75004 PARIS (Marais)
+33 1 42 78 14 15
+33 1 40 29 06 82 (fax)
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