Sunday, 22 February 2009

Saints and Sinners (Part 1)

In every city there are corners masking history we would like to overlook and buildings suppressing stories we would like to forget. At the Faubourg St Denis near Gare de l'Est, it is easy to walk past the rather sad looking Square Alban Satragne without giving it a second thought, until you look at the wall in front of you and notice a large pair of eyes. You may choose to cross the road or walk towards the Square, but each time you glance back, the eyes are still following you. Now you cannot help but ask questions - who is this man, and what does he want to tell me?

Placed on this wall in 1987 by the artist Jean-Pierre Yvaral, this work of art is a portrait of St Vincent de Paul. It is a fantastically clever installation, not painted or stencilled but in fact a very careful arrangement of blades of metal. Yvaral was fascinated by the possibilities offered to artists by the digital age, and he used computers to experiment with form and structure. In this example, machines could define the necessary form to make the installation work, then ensure that the blades were cut to exactly the right shape. It is only when you get very close to the installation that you see how it was constructed and the eyes stop following you! (Try looking at this point on Google Street View - roughly 105 Rue du Faubourg St Denis).

(Photos taken from La Panse de l'Ours)

Who though was Saint Vincent de Paul, and why was this wall chosen? The name Vincent de Paul is one that pops up regularly in the city; a chapel in the 6th arrondissement, a hospital in the 14th, but here he overlooks what was his home. This spot was previously a marshland, a boggy wasteland alongside an old stretch of the Seine, and had since the early middle ages provided a refuge for lepers. Comfortably for the residents of Paris, it was situated just the other side of the city walls, but slowly it fell into abandon. Vincent de Paul was therefore able to purchase the land and remaining buildings in 1632 for a good price and create his own mission, known as the Lazaristes, looking after the sick and needy.

Vincent de Paul was involved in the creation of many charitible bodies, and he quickly grew in renown, so much so that the king Louis XIII requested his presence on his death bed and was to die in his arms. With so many good deeds to his name, he was made a Saint 70 years after his death, in 1737. His creation at this spot remained a hospital after his death until the French revolution when it was requisitioned and turned into a prison. Later, and until 1999, it was turned back into a hospital, but today, it is simply a ramshackle collection of buildings waiting to be renovated or pulled down. That history though is another story or collection of stories!

Next: Prisons, prayers and prostitutes.

Note: Google Street View gives a very good idea of this interesting area. If it does not display below, search for 105 Rue du Faubourg St Denis.


View Larger Map

11 comments:

David said...

That's my old street (lived there 3 years, just moved four months ago)...
Awesome.

CarolineLD said...

An amazing image - and fascinating background, thank you!

Cergie said...

Tu me fais rire ! Ton annonce pour ton prochain message me fait rire !
Des procédés il y en a toujours eu qu'on apprenait en atelier. Tu as vu le portrait de ma grand'mère dans l'escalier : elle nous suit des yeux partout où on est, à droite à gauche en haut en bas. Chez mon frère il y a un autre portrait d'elle, plus jeune, qu'elle a peint celui là. De même, elle a le regard suiveur comme certaines poupées (j'en ai eu une poupée de cette sorte avec des yeux en verre comme des billes. Je ne l'ai jamais aimée)

Tim said...

Are you sure it's St Vincent de Paul? Looks more like Paddy Maloney from The Chieftains to me...

Peter said...

Yes, St. Vincent de Paul is linked to a number of churches and places in Paris and elsewhere. Must have been a remarkable personality.

I walked around this area during my lunch hours, for five years, when I worked close to "his" church. There is a Baltard looking covered market (St. Quentin) which is not by Baltard, there is a Baltard chapel (made by the father of the market maker)... I can have a guess about the contents of your future post which I will read only later. Will be off for a week.

Anonymous said...

St V de P is everywhere but especially in Paris! What an amazing thing to build this portrait into a structure. amazing. This squirrel has to get back to Paris to walk past this--I imagine it has a real presence!'

--S in Nyack

yui said...

Hi! I'm behind you.
Good luck!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

i wandered over here from artspark as I had to see who was the person who mentioned oakley's church mice series in a comment on a post.....

you have a wonderful blog here....I love paris....and I totally subscribe to wise jonathan's observation about seeing.

no mention of church mice, but should you ever run across a copy of the church mice take a break.... send up a flare!

I wrote about my love of the church mice books a while ago, if interested check this out

look forward to future nibbles....

Starman said...

Saint Vincent de Paul is also well-known in other countries. In the US, there are many "thrift shops" where those with little money can buy a variety of things that would be too expensive in regular stores. Thank you for the Google map reference. That gave it a presence it might not have had.

Adam said...

Mouse: Hello, and welcome! It's true that there is something about those Church Mice books - I remember them vividly from my childhood, and bizarrely my Mum still has a poster on the wall of a toilet in her house!

Starman: That's what I enjoy most about doing this blog - you all teach me so much. I never knew that Saint Vincent de Paul was so global and that there was a thrift shop connection in the States. It has to be said that the area in which his image has been placed is rather a thrift shop one, so I hope he feels at home again!

Ken Mac said...

an excellent insiders view of Paris. So glad I found it!

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