Nothing spectacular to show in photos, but there is a lot to tell about the place. This is from the interior of what is referred to as the “Martyrium”. You can enter by a very discrete door, close to Place des Abbesses at Montmartre, and descend some stairs… and you can do it only on Friday afternoons.
But, as said, the story, the history, about the place is worth to know.
This is where the first bishop of Paris, Saint Denis, is supposed to have been beheaded – and buried - around A.D 250. Christians were those days not so welcomed and he was martyred during a Roman persecution. The soldiers should have brought him to the top of Montmartre, but obviously finding the road too steep decided to shorten the walk and executed Saint Denis half way up the hill. There is of course the legend that Saint Denis walked, with the head in his hands, the six kilometers (4 miles) to the north to where now the Saint Denis Basilica (see previous post) stands, but…
Later, in 475, when the Christianity had become an official religion, Sainte Geneviève, the saint patron of Paris, decided to build a chapel over what could be his tomb and it became a place of pilgrimage … partly destroyed by the Vikings during the 9th century.
In 1133, the French King Louis VI decided to create a Benedictine Abbey - for women - and a Church on the top of Montmartre, where hundreds of years earlier there had been a Roman temple (Templum Martis). The chapel in honour of Saint Denis, lower on the hill was part of the property and remained a place of pilgrimage with visitors like Saint Bernard, Saint Thomas (Becket)… and thousands and thousands of pilgrims.
The church on the top of the hill, Saint Pierre de Montmartre, is still there (see previous post for further details about this “other” church, neighbor to the much more recent Sacré Coeur, and its small cemetery), perhaps the oldest church in Paris and with some pillars which may have been part of the Roman temple….
In 1534, Ignatius de Loyola, who studied in Paris, attended the mass at the Saint Pierre church with a few colleagues and then went downhill to the Saint Denis chapel and it’s there that they decided to create what was to become the “Society of Jesus”, confirmed by the Pope a few years later.
In the beginning of the 17th century some restoration works took place around the downhill Saint Denis chapel, the cave under the chapel was explored, a priory was built and a few decades later the nuns abandoned the “upper abbey” for the newly constructed “lower abbey”. The Saint Pierre church became a local parish church, which it still is.
On the 1790 map, compared with today’s Google Earth “map”, we can see the what the top of Montmartre looked like, just two or three years before - during the Revolutionary years - everything was demolished (except the Saint Pierre church, which became a warehouse, a telegraphic station… before again becoming a parish church) and the old abbess was beheaded.
In 1854, the place of the “Martyrium” was rediscovered and a small oratory became again a place of pilgrimage. In the 1880’s a female monastery and the present crypt were built. The nuns are now gone, the buildings are occupied by a college… but the crypt is still there, of course celebrated and brought in honour, especially by the Jesuits.
King Henri IV should perhaps also be mentioned here. He stayed a last night at the abbey before conquering the crown against giving up the Protestantism against the Catholicism. It was said said that the young abbess contributed to this decision, the prize for accepting Henri in her bed.