Walking With Angels in the City of Lights
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Los Angeles may be the best-known City of Angels, but Paris – where statues of angels adorn nearly every building – is surely a close second. Cherubim and seraphim stare down at the walking crowds below from their perches, looking beneficent, tragically beautiful or, well, angelic. ERIC PASQUIER walks through the streets of his home town, his eyes scanning the parapets of baroque architecture to catch the angels of Paris.
Cherubim, seraphim, heavenly creatures, archangels, guardian angels, whatever their form and whatever their name, whether you are religious or not, these enigmatic and mysterious heavenly entities have always captured the imagination and inspired artists through the ages.A walk around Paris quickly shows that angels don’t only reside in heaven. The number of angelic figures that decorate France’s capital means that the City of Lights is also a City of Angels. Los Angeles may have the name, but Paris has the statues.
If you pay attention, you’ll be surprised to see how many Parisian street corners, fountains, columns, public gardens and buildings are home to God’s celestial sentinels. From the most prominent gilt statues in the main squares to small weathered stone figurines hidden in quiet corners, the angels of Paris keep a constant watch over the city and its inhabitants.
The variety is staggering: there are sculptures and bas-reliefs in stone, marble, plaster, bronze and wood, not to mention the frescos, drawings and paintings inside churches and museums. The St. Nicolas du Chardonnet Church in the 6th district has several fine specimens.
Apart from the variation in the materials used, each individual figure also has a distinct character. Some look defiant and warrior-like, wielding swords and riding chariots, others are childlike and dreamy, while yet others are voluptuous and feminine. The angels also have different occupations: there are musicians playing the lyre, harp or flute, dancers leaping and flying and philosophers, sitting quietly, lost in thought.
The 18th century Church of Madeleine and the magnificent St. Roche Church in central Paris are good places to embark on a tour of the City of Angels. Looking at the numerous paintings and sculptures inside the St. Roche Church is like taking a mini-tour of religious art of the 18th and 19th century, and of course in religious art there are always plenty of angels. Central Paris has several famous angels that no doubt form the focal point of many tourist photos. There’s the Archangel Michael in the St. Michel fountain of the Latin Quarter, the angel crowning the St-Germain-l'Auxerrois Church opposite the Louvre and the golden angel atop of the Bastille. Literally unmissable by their spectacular and brazen presence are the angels on the roof of the Garnier Opera and the golden angels adorning the massive granite pillars of the Alexander III Bridge, which many consider to be the most beautiful bridge in Paris.
In the fashionable Marais district, numerous façades display subtle stone sculptures depicting angels and cherubs. At the Hôtel Salé which nowadays is home to the Picasso museum, a small cherub smiles down at visitors while two angels survey the inside of a lion’s mouth. The Carnavalet museum of Parisian history, housed in a superb palace dating from the 16th century has a particularly beautiful statue of an angel holding a wreath in each hand.
Meanwhile, at the Gare de Lyon railway station, chubby cheeked cherubs observe people hurrying to their trains with wry grins. Cherubs also adorn the ceiling of the Ladurée tea room, which was founded in 1862. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, Jules Cheret, the famous fin-de-siècle painter and poster artist, decorated the ceiling of the tea room with frescos depicting angelic pastry chefs and voluptuous ladies. The tea room has been a favourite for both Parisians and visitors ever since.
For some peace and quiet head for the Jardin du Luxembourg. Spread out over approximately 2,500 acres, these gardens showcase a variety of classical statues, and fountains. Likewise, the city’s cemeteries are also a tranquil setting for angel-gazing. In the Montparnasse cemetery, Baudelaire’s headstone is guarded by a tremendous statue of an angel about to take wing. At Père Lachaise (where Balzac is buried), Passy, and Batignolles, the angels keep a silent vigil over the graves. Symbols of purity, they exude an air of childlike innocence and their placid faces have a calming effect.
Not all of Paris’ angels are as angelic and innocent as you might think. The angels of the rue Lafitte 1-3, in the 9th district are almost erotic. Languishing on the stone façades with provocative breasts and shapely hips, these pretty creatures taunt passers by with an angelic smile bordering on devilish. While looking at these stone sirens the thought suddenly springs to mind that Lucifer himself was originally an angel.
The Notre Dame is where angels and devils come together. This famous gothic cathedral is studded with statues of delicate angels and monstrous gargoyles, although angels are in the majority on the three front gates. Standing on top of one of the towers, the city below certainly looks magical. A fitting home for a legion of angels.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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