Saint Julien-le-Pauvre

A scorching hot summer’s day is the right time to push open the slightly rickety door that shuts off a treasure trove of coolness. I enter and stand motionless. In here the great shout of Paris is reduced to a murmur, overpowered by the greater silence of this little church.

Julian Green, Paris

The church of Saint Julien-le-Pauvre (St Julian the Poor) is located on the Left Bank of the Seine in the Latin Quarter, and is just across the river from the cathedral of Notre Dame. It is considered one of the oldest in the city, built at the start of the twelfth century, on the foundations of a sixth-century church. In the René Viviani square next to the church, can be found the oldest tree in Paris.

On the morning of my last trip, I have time for one more walk before I take the Eurostar home. I walk along the Boulevard St Michel, and then head down the Rue St Jacques which will take me straight to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. I wanted to locate the church, as another point on my map, another place to find and take a photograph without anticipating much from the visit. Writing this piece, I am happy to be looking through my photographs again which are snapshots mainly, glimpses taken on the move to record a location or as a visual aid to memory.

On my visit, I entered the church and found myself alone. I wasn’t expecting to feel the depth of emotion I felt on closing the door and standing in the interior of the church. Once inside I felt a surge of what I might describe as reverence, that made me pause and stand still. The atmosphere was dark, quiet, hushed, the sense of time standing by. Something hard to describe, a moment of breathlessness that I wanted to hold onto. Perhaps it is the smell of old wood and the cool and must of old stone, or the darkness and sense of enclosure that instills a kind of quiet, a solitude in ancient places. Or is it the candles burning in memory, the suggestion of a tiny perpetual flame?

In Quartet, the church is where Marya meets Heidler during their affair, a place he wants to show her and that means something to him, a hidden gem, that he wants her to be impressed by. It is an interlude within the book, where Marya watches Heidler closely. Rhys describes the church, and creates her portrait of Heidler as slightly absurd, slightly pompous in his attitudes and mannerisms. Marya finds an affinity with the statue of Mary, and I find the statue near to the little chapel, underneath a window, and look at her too.

The church was very cool and dark-shadowed, when they came in out of the sun. It smelled of candles and incense and ancient prayers. Marya stood for a long time staring at the tall Virgin and wondered why she suggested not holiness but rather a large and peaceful tolerance of sin. We are all miserable sinners and the dust of the earth. A little more or a little less, a dirty glass or a very dirty glass, as Heidler would say . . .

‘And you don’t suppose that it matters to me,’ said the tall Virgin smiling so calmly above her candles and flowers.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

In his meditation on Paris, Julian Green describes a similar feeling about this particular church. It is a place that he keeps returning to, having found it by accident one day while walking, and in the book he describes the feeling of entering the church with its pillars, ‘so strong, so still, as if waiting for the Last Judgement, lost in a kind of contemplation that cuts them off from our century.’

St Julian was the one I found hardest to leave: having crossed the threshold on my way out, I re-crossed it a moment later, touched by a misgiving too vague to find expression in words, and took one last look at those columns, which the setting sun had invested with a melancholy glow.

Julian Green, Paris

Who remembers that place, so attuned to day-dreaming? In the distance the towers of Notre-Dame, white in stormy weather, looked black against the July sky, and the occasional tugboat on the Seine would utter a long-drawn-out melancholy cry, the misty note lingering and fading into the blue beyond. Yet the hubbub of Paris seemed to die at the edges of that small solitude where I loved to come and think. The silence around me was like a dwelling in which the past had sought refuge; that inner peace seemed to me to hold a real feeling of Romanesque France, of which St Julian’s ancient stones offer a tangible image.

Julian Green, Paris

While writing this short piece, I found a story written by Flaubert about the life of St Julian as well as a website on the church, with a collection of photographs, postcards and maps.

Marya turned to watch Heidler go down on one knee and cross himself as he passed the altar. He glanced quickly sideways at her as he did it, and she thought: ‘I’ll never be able to pray again now that I’ve seen him do that. Never! However sad I am.’ And she felt very desolate.

‘What were you praying about just now?’ she asked him suddenly.

‘You!’ he said.

‘God’s quite a pal of yours?’

‘Yes,’ said Heidler.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

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