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Beyond the Da Vinci Code - the real secrets of Paris' Saint-Sulpice

Overlooked by tourists, the Saint-Sulpice church is getting a complete makeover. Here the restored front tower and the unrestored rear-end of the church
Overlooked by tourists, the Saint-Sulpice church is getting a complete makeover. Here the restored front tower and the unrestored rear-end of the church RFI / Arnab Béranger

As Notre-Dame remains closed for reconstruction after the fire this year, RFI explores some of the lesser-known secrets of Saint-Sulpice, Paris' second-largest church.

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Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, Saint-Sulpice church gained mass popularity in 2003 through Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

Tour operators were soon to cash in, and even today, fifteen years after the bestseller was published, 'Da Vinci Code' tours stop by the Saint-Sulpice church.

[Scroll down right to the bottom of the article to see RFI's exclusive photos of Saint Sulpice's hidden treasures.]

The Saint-Sulpice church has been gaining in popularity following the fire that caused the Notre-Dame to close to the public
The Saint-Sulpice church has been gaining in popularity following the fire that caused the Notre-Dame to close to the public RFI / Arnab Béranger

The biggest ecclesiatical hoax of the 21st century?

Da Vinci Code is an archaeological thriller which takes the reader on a cryptic treasure-hunt through Paris. A series of historical codes leads to the Holy Grail, claiming it to the tomb of Mary Magdalene, Jesus Christ's follower according to the gospels. 

Preaching the gospel - sculpture outside the Saint Sulpice church
Preaching the gospel - sculpture outside the Saint Sulpice church RFI / Arnab Béranger

But the problem arose when author Dan Brown insisted that everything in his novel was fact, and not fiction.

Prominent historians and theologists have painstakingly pointed out that the book is historically inaccurate, that all of Dan Brown's 'theories' are scandalous approximations and re-interpretations of history, art and Christianity.

'Fake news' as the current American president would say.

But that did not stop the Da Vinci Code tours passing through.

The Saint-Sulpice trail

RFI spoke to Clément Savary, a student of art history and one of Saint Sulpice's official guides.

"These Da Vinci Code tours are like Jack the Ripper tours of London", he said.

"More people go on these commercial tours than on our official church tours. Sometimes it's so frustrating to reply to the same questions. And to such absurd theories."

Clément Savary, a student of Art History, is an official volunteer guide at the Saint-Sulpice church
Clément Savary, a student of Art History, is an official volunteer guide at the Saint-Sulpice church RFI / Arnab Béranger

So what do the Da Vinci Code fans want to see at Saint-Sulpice?

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"The Gnomon is the main element linked to the Da Vinci Code.", Savary explains. "It's an ancient sundial that indicates midday when the sun is at its highest point."

On the floor in front, a line leads from the Gnomon to the other side of the church.

This, Savary explains, is the Saint Sulpice meridian.

"They [the Da Vinci Code trail-seekers] call this the Rose Line - a term invented by the author."

Savary points above to monogram a few metres away from the Gnomon.

The intertwined 'SP' stands for Saint Peter, Saint Sulpice's patron saint. Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists believe the letters stand for 'Priory of Sion', a bogus secret society that is central to the novel's plot.
The intertwined 'SP' stands for Saint Peter, Saint Sulpice's patron saint. Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists believe the letters stand for 'Priory of Sion', a bogus secret society that is central to the novel's plot. Creative Commons

"See that? The letters 'SP' represent Saint Pierre, one of the two patron saints of the church."

Savary grimaces.

"In Da Vinci Code, the letters are supposed to refer to the Priory of Sion, a secret organisation."

These ideas, Savary says, date back to the 1920's and 30's, where people started speculating about a priest in the French village Rennes-le-Chateau.

"In the 19th century, a priest reconstructed the church in Rennes-le-Chateau like a majestic villa. We do not know how he got the money." Savary says.

"But to talk of a secret treasure, a secret organisation..."

He shakes his head in disbelief.

Delacroix and the Templars curse

Savary takes us to the Delacroix chapel, on the right after entering the church.

He shows us Delacroix's 'Saint Michel killing the dragon'.

"Those who want to see a conspiracy everywhere say that the iron crown of the dragon represents the crown of the French king, and that Saint Michel killing the dragon is actually the last Templars knight bringing down the French monarchy, according to an ancient curse."

Eugène Delacroix's 'Saint Michael slaying the dragon', a common Christian symbol, is interpreted by conspiracy theorists to be the last Templar Knight killing off French monarchy, according to an ancient curse
Eugène Delacroix's 'Saint Michael slaying the dragon', a common Christian symbol, is interpreted by conspiracy theorists to be the last Templar Knight killing off French monarchy, according to an ancient curse RFI / Arnab Béranger

"How imaginative these people are!", Savary says, round-eyed with disbelief.

"To think that Delacroix had all this in mind when he painted this common Christian symbol!"

Real treasures, beyond the Da Vinci code

Besides its majestic vaults, tall arches and magnificient chapels, Saint-Sulpice has been a landmark in French society.

Robespierre frequented this church, Victor Hugo was married here.

RFI was taken on an exclusive tour of two closed chapels in the Saint Sulpice, only accessible by special request.

The Assumption Chapel was built in the 18th century for the parish's poorest. Mass used be held here early in the mornings.

An angel of grace looks over baptism ceremonies
An angel of grace looks over baptism ceremonies RFI / Arnab Béranger

The neo-classic Baptism chapel, located just after the entrance, symbolises entry to the church. Four sculptures - Innocence, Wisdom, Grace and Force watch over the simple baptism altar.

Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were baptised here.

Visitors and worshippers can contact the Saint-Sulpice church directly to visit these and more hidden secrets of the church.

No conspiracy theories or secret societies - guaranteed...

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