The Abbey of Saint-German-des-Prés – the abbey in the meadow

The Abbey of Saint-German-des-Prés – the abbey in the meadow.

The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is one of the oldest churches in Paris. It was constructed in the 6th century.

Located on the Left Bank in the 6th arrondissement, the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church is opposite the Les Deux Magots café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. 

In 542, after waging war in Spain, Childebert I, son of Clovis I, returned to Paris and commissioned the building of the abbey, dedicated to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent as the Abbaye Sainte-Croix-Saint-Vincent – St. Vincent’s Abbey. He wanted it to be placed where he could see it across the fields from the royal palace on the Ile de a Cité. 

At the time, the Left Bank was prone to flooding, so the church was built in the middle of a meadow (prés). There is no meadow now, as it in the bustling café area of Paris. 

In 558, St. Vincent’s Abbey was completed and dedicated to Germanus, the Bishop of Paris, on 23 December, the very day that Childebert died. Germanus was later canonized and made a saint. Close by the church a monastery was erected. Its abbots had both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction over the suburbs of Saint-Germain (lasting until about the year 1670).

By the middle of the 8th century, the abbey was renamed after Saint Germanus (Germain in French) and included the location – the meadow. Hence, it is now known as the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés – the Abbey of Saint Germanus Meadows. 

The abbey was frequently plundered and set on fire by Vikings in the ninth century. The oldest part of the current abbey is the prominent western tower (partly restored and modified), which Abbot Morard built around the year 1000.

It was rebuilt in 1014 and Pope Alexander III re-dedicated it in 1163 to Saint Germain of Paris. The great wall of Paris built during the reign of Philip II of France did not encompass the abbey, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. This also had the effect of splitting the abbey’s holdings into two. Peter of Montereau built a new refectory in around 1239 – he was later the architect of the Sainte Chapelle.  

The abbey church’s west end tower was pierced by a portal, completed in the 12th century, which collapsed in 1604 and was replaced in 1606 by the present classic portal built by Marcel Le Roy. An explosion damaged its cloisters, but the church was spared. The statues in the portal were removed and some were destroyed, and in a fire in 1794 the library vanished in smoke. The abbey church remains as the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés – a church and not an abbey. 

Louis-César de Bourbon, son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, was an abbot in the abbey. In the 17th century the district of Saint-Germain was among the most desirable on the Left Bank. Therefore, it was a rich Catholic church due to its royal patronage until it was disbanded during the French Revolution.

Philosopher René Descartes is buried in one of the side chapels of the church.

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