In the early years of the 16 century, the emergence of Protestantism followed by the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, of the Catholic monarchy against the Protestant Reformation, put most of the countries involved in devastation. However, that critical time also marked the birth of a Baroque-style church with its special destiny.
The church of Val de Grâce was built in 1621 by the talented architect François Mansart (1598-1666), at the request of Queen Anne, the wife of Louis XIII as a prayer to the Lord for the bestowing of an heir. The church was completed in 1667 and considered to be the standard for religious architectural style of the 17th century.
History of construction full of ups and downs
The Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther at that time in Europe posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. Later, the conflict between the two became increasingly serious, eventually plunging Europe into religious strife, lasting from 1618 to 1648, called “Thirty-Year War.”
As a devout Roman Catholic, Queen Anne objected to the Protestant Revolution. She regularly visited monasteries in Paris and neighboring areas. In 1621, she began her plan to build the church at Val de Grâce.
By March 7, 1624, the monastery was officially under construction and located on land provided by the royalty, the former Hôtel du Petit-Bourbon.
The “Thirty-Year War,” marked the triumph of the Habsburg monarchy, pushing France into a very difficult situation. Catholic France was allied with the Protestant forces against the Catholic Habsburg monarchy, which placed Queen Anne in a dilemma because she was both a Catholic and a member of the Habsburg family.
Therefore, she often went to the monastery, under construction then, to pray to the Virgin Mary to give her a child.
Not before long, the 37-year-old Queen Anne became pregnant with Louis’ heir, and on Sept. 5, 1638, she gave birth to the Dauphin Louis Dieudonné, the future Louis XI, after 23 years of marriage and four miscarriages. He was deemed a gift from the Lord.
After that, two sudden events changed the queen’s life and her unfinished monastery. First, on December 4, 1642, Cardinal Richelieu died, Mazarin (1602-1661, an Italian) was appointed to become the new prime minister and cardinal. And second, after the death of King Louis XIII on May 14, 1643, Anne became Queen-Regent to her 5-year-old son, then Louis XIV.
Therefore, Queen Anne was able to continue her unfinished vow, building the church at Val de Grâce to “offer it to the Lord.”
A jewel of French classical architecture
Featuring a unique structure with the dome of Baroque accents, the church stands out as a jewel of French classical architecture.
The two-story facade, with its double stages of twin columns supporting a pediment and flanking consoles, recalls church elevations from the first part of the 17th century.
The dedication on the porch pediment reads, “IESU NASCENTI VIRGINIQ MATRI,” translates to, “This building is dedicated to the Lord and Our Lady,” expressing Queen Anne’s gratitude to the Lord for giving her a son.
Above the altar there are 18 exquisite sculptures created by Michel Anguier (1612-1686) from 1665-1667, with the highlight being three sculptures in front of the altar presenting the story of the Nativity, which was designed by his brother François Anguier (1604-1669).
The inner dome is decorated with a giant painting by Pierre Mignard in 1663, titled “The glory of the blessed” along with an extremely beautiful baldachin inspired by the one in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The painting portrayed the detailed images of 200 characters in the Old Testament and the New Testament, with everyone gathering around Jesus and the angels, signifying a strong faith in God, and the victory of good over evil.
The cathedral, like other cultural and religious relics, has undergone many ups and downs in history, especially during the French Revolution, when it was forced to close. Yet, it still withstands the test of time and continues to serve as the testament to the pure belief in God and the boundless mercy of God on humans.