12 February 2021, The Tablet

Parisian art lovers turn to churches as museums stay shut

Parisian art lovers turn to churches as museums stay shut

The church of Saint Merry in Paris is among many that are popular with lovers of art and culture.
Jan Schmidt-Whitley/PA

Since the famous museums of Paris are closed to art lovers because of the pandemic, those in the know have begun seeking out churches to see other art treasures the capital houses. 

Apart from services for a limited congregation, houses of worship remain open daily for individual prayer visits. That means they are also open for small groups of properly masked and distanced art fans to visit and see jewels of sculpture or painting as if they were in a museum. 

An annual guide to religious art mentions more than 100 churches in the city that offer everything from paintings by Delacroix, Tintoretto or Rubens, unique sculptures in stone or wood, as well as famous organs, ornate stained-glass windows and original architecture. 

Almost all are Catholic, but the guide also includes three prominent Protestant churches and a small onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel hidden in a courtyard.

The late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger began promoting art visits to Paris churches in 1989 with the Church-backed association named Art, Culture and Faith. It arranges guided tours of churches throughout the year, organises lectures about religious art and publishes an annual guide and brochures about individual churches in French and English.

It also has an online directory describing participating churches in French and English and provides audio guides (only in French) that can be downloaded and used during private visits. 

Many parishes have their own local section that regularly arranges visits to discover the beauties of other churches in the city.

Once mostly for insiders, the association has become wider known during the pandemic as normal magnets like the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay are closed.

Its free annual publication The religious heritage of Paris was released this year in St Eustache, now the most visited church in the French capital since Notre Dame cathedral is closed for repairs. Its best-known painting is "The Disciples of Emmaus" by Rubens. 

A positive write-up in the daily Le Monde was a sure sign it will now reach a wider audience. 

François Drouin, head of the association, said he had already seen an uptick in digital visits during the pandemic. The website went from 10,000 clicks in 2019 to 13,000 last year. Some 62 per cent of digital visitors were under 35 years old.

“You can even click from home and make a visit to a church while staying in your bed,” he told Le Monde. 



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