This incredible cathedral was originally consecrated as a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene in 1182, but it didn’t look anything like this then. In the 831 years since the original synagogue site was seized from the Jews of Paris, there have been many designers, architects, kings, emperors, and government with a hand in the history of La Madeleine. The building as it is today was consecrated in 1842.
Throughout the years between, construction began, stopped, was razed, restarted, restopped, rerazed, over and over and over again, each time with a different design and many different purposes: church, temple, library, train station, ballroom. In 1806, Napoleon decided to honor himself by building “A Temple to the Glory of the Great Army”, and that is pretty much the building we see today. The building that existed when Napoleon started construction was destroyed and rebuilt with his new design, but its massive columns were left standing.
La Madeleine has 52 columns surrounding her body, each approximately 65 feet high. The columns were part of the 1777 design, which was based on the Roman Pantheon. (which, of course, Rome borrowed from the original Corinthian temples!)
The main altar features the church’s namesake, Mary Magdalene, being lifted to the heavens by angels. The fresco on the half-dome above the altar is entitled The History of Christianity, and if you look closely, you might recognize the key figures of Christianity in the painting. Along with Napoleon, front and center, of course!
In addition to the altar’s half-dome, there are three Renaissance-style domes in the roof. The gilded ceilings are quite a contrast to the stone simplicity of the Paris’s more well-known cathedral, Notre Dame.
The bronze doors of La Madeleine are huge. Like, really big. Like, look at My Knight standing in front of them to give you an idea of how big. That’s huge. And above the gi-normous doors is the pipe organ, which was built in 1845 and is still used for masses and concerts today.
As with most temples and cathedrals, the sculptures and statues are breathtaking, and I find I can stand in front of them and get lost in the expressions and the lifelike qualities. Not to mention the amount of talent and work that went into making them.
I don’t think I’d like to be left alone here in the dark though. My imagination might get the best of me.
There have been several famous funerals witnessed by the statues, including King Louis XVI’s. He was brought to La Madeleine after his beheading and buried beneath her unceremoniously with just a few words spoken. (He has since been exhumed and laid to rest more formally beside Marie Antoinette.)
Chopin’s funeral was also held here, with quite the scandal it seems. Chopin’s requested Mozart’s Requiem for his final (after-death) concert. The piece required female voices, but female voices were not allowed in the church. (Ironic, considering it was a church dedicated, built for, and named for a female figure in Christian history.) Happy ending though. Church leaders finally relented and hid the female singers behind a black velvet curtain.
L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine is located in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris in the Opera Quarter. She is offiically a parish of the Archdiocese of Paris, and there are still masses, funerals, and weddings held at La Madeleine today. I highly recommend you visit her next time you’re in the City of Lights! And if you’d like to meet some interesting people, practice your French, and help the homeless, stop by Monday-Friday during lunch hours for a simple meal served by volunteers.