Notre Dame de France
Just off Leicester Square, not somewhere you’d normally associate with peace and quiet, you can find a hidden Catholic Church.
This is Notre Dame de France, a Catholic Church for the French Community in London that was established in 1861.
Above the entrance of the church is sculpture of the Virgin Mary, one of a number of extraordinary artworks associated with the church that were commissioned after extensive bomb damage during the Second World War.
As you step inside, the circular interior comes as such a pleasant surprise and when I last popped in I had it all to myself, only church music playing, so it was wonderfully atmospheric.
The circular shape is a leftover from the previous use, a great rotunda used for exhibiting panoramas.
In the 1790s Robert Baker bought a plot of land here with the specific plan to showcase his panoramic views and the building (designed by Robert Mitchell) opened on 25 May 1793.
Barker and his son exhibited their painted views from around the world, depicting landscapes and battles which drew large crowds and made for a successful tourist attraction (the M&M world of its day!)
By the mid 1800s John and Robert Burford was managing the business and some of the last exhibitions included views of Bombay, New York, Jerusalem and Delhi.
The British Museum have a drawing of the exterior of the Panorama (as it was known) in 1858 by George Shepherd, however by 1865 the lease for the land had been bought by a French priest; Charles Faure.
Reimagining the space into a church fell to French architect Louis-Auguste Boileau who incorporated the circular space into the middle and added four equal arms. It was the first church in London to be built using cast iron.
Following two direct hits in 1940 the church building needed substantial repairs. This was completed by architect Hector Corfiato but there were further plans, an aim to showcase the best contemporary French art.
Supported by the UK Prime Minister, French Ambassador and Cultural Attaché; René Varin the church commissioned eminent French artists including George Saupique and Jean Cocteau.
Outside the main entrance on Leicester Place is the The Lady of Mercy by George Saupique. He worked on this piece in situ in 1953 and the virgin’s open arms and comforting shroud over the kneeling parishioners act as a lovely welcome into the space.
Inside, above the high alter, is a large tapestry designed by Dom Robert, a former Benedictine monk, and woven in Aubusson (a region of France famed for its tapestries and carpets). It depicts a scene from paradise, the young girl surrounded by flora and fauna which is though to represent the French Church in England.
To the right, in the upper galleries, is a painting by Timur D’Vatz called The Flight into Egypt, a nod to the church’s aim to welcome expatriates and refugees.
But the most famous artworks associated with Notre Dame de France are the paintings by Jean Cocteau, his only murals outside France.
Decorating the walls of the Lady Chapel, Cocteau worked on the paintings between 3-11 November in 1959. People who worked at the church said he would arrive early each day and talked to his creations as they appeared on the walls.
There are three panels, the Annunciation (left), Assumption (right) and Crucifixion (middle). They were restored in 2012 and so look gloriously bright and striking when visited today.
I particularly like the depiction of the Virgin and figures by the crucifixion. Although it’s a tragic scene I couldn’t help but smile at the figure looking up at the back.
View the church opening times here.
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