Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Gaslights and Dark Shadows

Although it is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, the chapel in the Hôpital Saint Louis goes very quietly about its business. It is tucked away in a corner of the hospital site, with piles of bricks and stones at its feet, visible signs of renovations that seem never-ending.

Inside it is no more glorious. The walls are exposed stonework and crumbling plaster, and a net is suspended from the ceiling to protect parishioners from falling masonry. It is sparse and primitive, somehow matching the astonishing level of honesty and candidness in the messages that have been written in the call for prayers book. A mother searching for strength from above to help her deal with two teenage daughters who have become more and more difficult since the death of their father. Another promising eternal devotion if a loved one can be saved. There is a strong sensation of dampness, and an earthy rawness to the interior. It would be like being shut in a cave if it wasn't also so extremely light and airy.

Somewhere at my feet there is a brick laid by a king. The chapel was an integral part of the original hospital structure which was built in 1607. Henri IV ordered the construction of a church that could at once be shared by those living inside the hospital and those on the outside, and he personally placed the first brick of the chapel down himself. However it was not to be a lucky omen. Three years to the day later, the first service was held in the hospital chapel. It was Henri IV's memorial service, a funeral following his assassination by Ravillac.

As with many religious structures, the chapel suffered immensely during the revolution in 1789. Its stained-glass windows and statues were destroyed, and the bells were taken away to be melted down. In many ways it has never recovered from this plundering. Today the windows are still colourless, and there are no bells to ring. The site was though to become the scene of an important moment in history during the midnight mass of 1816.

In a building alongside the chapel there is a clue to what this event was. A plaque commemorates the fact that this was once the site of the first gas-works in France. Two years before the factory was built, the chapel was one of the first buildings in Paris to be lit up by gas powered lighting, a revolution that changed radically how the hospital functioned. A journalist writing at the time noted that "la lumière produite par le gaz est pure, brillante et sans odeur" (the light produced by the gas is pure, bright and without odour) and how the lighting made it much easier for nurses to work than when they had to carry around oil lamps.

The plaque also commemorates one man, Philippe Le Bon, credited with the invention of gas lighting and heating, but like Henri IV, he was not around to share in the glory of his construction. Legend has it that he was stabbed to death on the streets of Paris in 1804, exactly the same fate suffered by Henri IV.

Walls tell many stories. Here they remind us that bright lights necessarily bring long shadows.

5 comments:

Peter said...

Paris is full of treasures. I try to find as many as possible. You are always a master when it comes to finding what has not been found by others! I have a feeling that you could look at any building and be able to find a full story behind it! Your information is always so deep, not only based on Wikipedia. Once again, thanks for this interesting post!

Cergie said...

Je ne sais si tu connais l'expression "usine à gaz" qui est péjorative (wikipékia)
Tu connais la chapelle près de la gare de Lyon place Henry Fresny dans un coin d'immeuble, je l'ai découverte hier. C'est curieux comme on ressent le besoin de prier lorsqu'on a des ennuis de santé, soi ou un proche. Ou qu'on a un peu de temps devant soi.

Cergie said...

HenrI FrenAy (sorry)

Adam said...

Cergie: Oui, je voulais mentionner cette expression dans le poste, mais finalement je n'ai pas trouvé un endroit où je pourrais la placer. En plus, ça veut rien dire en anglais. Une usine à gaz - qu'est ce qu'il y a de compliqué là dedans?

Starman said...

How sad those people really believe they will receive help. Of course, when one is desperate, any scrap of hope is good, I suppose.

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