The Sacred Heart of Architecture: Lessons from the Paris Commune

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, called the Sacré-Cœur, is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A popular landmark in Paris, the basilica is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city. Sacré-Cœur is a double monument, political and cultural: a national penance for both the defeat of France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the socialist Paris Commune of 1871 that followed. Crowning the city’s most rebellious neighbourhood, and embodying the restoration of conservative moral order, the basilica is publicly dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which became an increasingly popular vision of a loving and sympathetic Christ.

The inspiration for Sacré Cœur’s design originated on 4 September 1870, the day of the proclamation of the Third Republic, with a speech by Bishop Fournier attributing the defeat of the French army during the Franco-Prussian War to a divine punishment after what he called ‘a century of moral decline’ since the French Revolution. According to the Catholic Church, this arose in the wake of the division in French society, in the decades following that revolution, between devout Catholics and legitimist royalists on one side, and democrats, secularists, socialists and revolutionaries on the other. This schism in the French social order became particularly pronounced after Napoleon III withdrew the French military garrison protecting the Vatican in Rome to the front of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, the subsequent defeat of the French army in that war, and the secular uprising of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Though today the basilica is said to be dedicated in honour of the 58,000 who lost their lives during the Franco-Prussian war, the decree of the Assemblée nationale of 24 July 1873, responding to a request by the archbishop of Paris and voting its construction, specified that it was built to ‘expiate the crimes of the Commune’. Nothing was said about the crimes of Adolphe Thiers, Chief Executive of the Versailles Government and the future President of the Third Republic, who ordered the execution by firing squad of up to 20,000 Communards in retaliation for their defiance.

Montmartre had been the site of the Commune’s first insurrection, and the Communards had executed Georges Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, who became a martyr for the resurgent Catholic Church. And like all good Catholics, his successor, Joseph-Hippolyte Guibert, wanted revenge. Climbing the Butte Montmartre in October 1872, Guibert was reported to have had a vision as clouds dispersed over the panorama, ecstatically declaring: ‘It is here! It is here where the martyrs are! It is here that the Sacred Heart must reign so that it can beckon all to come!’

In the moment of inertia that followed the resignation of the government of Adolphe Thiers on 24 May 1873, François Pie, the Bishop of Poitiers, expressed the national yearning for spiritual renewal – ‘the hour of the Church has come!’ – that would be expressed through the so-called ‘Government of Moral Order’. This would re-establish the link between Catholic institutions and secular institutions in a project of religious and national renewal, the main features of which were the restoration of monarchy and the defence of Rome within a cultural framework of official piety. Sacré-Cœur is the primary and lasting triumphalist monument of this project. The 24 July decree voting its construction as a ‘matter of public utility’ followed close on Thiers’ resignation as President. The project was expressed by the Church as a National Vow, and financial support came from parishes throughout France, just as the billionaires of France have rallied today to the French President’s call to rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.

A law of public utility was passed to seize land from Parisians living and working at the summit of Montmartre for the construction of the basilica. Architect Paul Abadie designed the basilica after winning a competition over 77 other architects. With delays in assembling the property, the foundation stone was finally laid on 16 June 1875. Construction costs, estimated at 7 million French francs and drawn entirely from private donations, were expended before any above ground, visible structure was to be seen. A provisional chapel was consecrated on 3 March 1876, and pilgrimage donations quickly became the mainstay of funding. Donations were encouraged by the expedient of permitting donors to ‘purchase’ individual columns or other features as small as a brick. It was declared by the National Assembly that the state had the ultimate responsibility for funding.

Debates about the basilica were raised in the Conseil Municipal in 1880, when the basilica was called ‘an incessant provocation to civil war’; and it was debated whether to rescind the law of 1873 granting property rights. In the summer of 1882 the matter reached the Chamber of Deputies, where the basilica was defended by Archbishop Guibert, while Georges Clemenceau, the leader of the far left and representative of the 18th arrondissement and Montmartre, argued that it sought to stigmatise the Revolution. The law was rescinded, but the basilica was saved by a technicality, and the bill was not reintroduced in the next session. A further attempt to halt the construction was defeated in 1897, by which time the interior was substantially complete and had been open for religious services for six years.

Abadie died not long after the foundation had been laid in 1884, and five architects continued with the work: Honoré Daumet (1884–1886), Jean-Charles Laisné (1886–1891), Henri-Pierre-Marie Rauline (1891–1904), Lucien Magne (1904–1916), and Jean-Louis Hulot (1916–1924). The basilica was not completed until 1914, when war intervened; and it was not formally dedicated until 1919, after the Great War, by which time its national symbolism had shifted.

Muted echoes of the basilica’s history are still heard, however. In February 1971 demonstrators pursued by the police took refuge in the basilica and called upon their comrades to join them in occupying the church – as their leaflets declared – ‘built upon the bodies of communards in order to efface that red flag that had for too long floated over Paris’.

So next time you’re in Paris and like everyone else you climb the steps up to the butte Montmartre to where, on 18 March 1871, General Claude Lecomte three times ordered soldiers of the 88th French Regiment to fire on the people of Paris – who rose up, persuaded the soldiers to join them, and executed the general by firing squad – remember what this pretty monstrosity stands for, and relieve your wine-bloated bladder on its walls.

And when applying the lessons of the Commune to our own times – to, for example, the Grenfell Tower fire or the burning of Notre Dame de Paris – remember that when the people rise up the government first sends in the police. When the police fail to control them they send in the priests. And when the priests fail to deceive them it’s the army. Finally, when the people have been subjugated, the rebels shot or imprisoned, and law and order has been restored, they send in the architects.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing


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