Val-de-Grâce and Musée du Service de Santé des Armées (SSA) This church in a former abbey is one of the lesser-known sights of Paris, but one well worth tracking down. The massive church dome is a landmark on the Paris skyline, and its history is fascinating. The whole complex was built as a thank-you gift. Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, commissioned it after the birth of her son in 1638 (he became Louis XIV, the Sun King). The birth seemed like a gift from God, after 23 barren years. The queen had had several miscarriages; and her relationship with her husband had never been good (to say the least).
The queen prayed to her namesake, Saint Anne, and finally, at age 37 when she was close to giving up hope, she gave birth to a son. She wanted to show her gratitude, so she summoned the best architects in France and commissioned a Benedictine monastery, including a domed church. Construction began in 1645. By this point, Louis XIII had died, Louis XIV was only seven, and Anne became Regent. She was thus able to use her power to get the huge complex built. The original design was by the famous François Mansart. He was later removed from the job for going over budget but the building was completed following his plans and opened in 1650
In 1793, during the Revolution, the Benedictines were evicted and the place became a military hospital. It was probably a good place to recover from war wounds in the late 18th century, considering its spaciousness and feeling of calm. The Val-de-Grâce complex today includes a modern military hospital on the east side of the property (Val-de-Grâce Hôpital), separated from the original buildings by a large garden. The older restored buildings, with their long and interesting history, consist of a church, a museum, and a library, all open to the public. There is also a medical school for the military in one wing and, on the upper floors, apartments for senior military personnel. After the huge cobbled entrance courtyard, the first section you get to is a museum devoted to the history of military medicine, the Musée du Service de Santé des Armées (SSA). We found it fascinating. Downstairs is a wonderful collection of apothecary jars and surgical instruments, mortars, microscopes, apparently from a surgeon’s collection (perhaps Debat).
Upstairs is the main part of the museum, built around the cloister garden. We just breezed through, as it’s quite a large museum, extensively documenting the history of French military medicine and health, with uniforms, early surgery, field operating units, stretchers etc. The museum’s focus is largely from the point of view of the wounded, which is a very educational way to approach such a topic. We took note of a plaque to Alphonse Laveran who discovered the protozoal (single cell parasite) cause of malaria and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1907. There’s a unit on hygiene, sterilization, and water treatment—all things we tend to take for granted today. Note that most of the information is in French—only the introduction boards at the beginning had an English translation.
We then headed into the gorgeous baroque church with its massive dome. It’s bigger and more beautiful than we had realized, and everything inside has significance and symbolism—from the painted dome, to the sculptures, to the patterned ceiling and floor. We see the initials ‘A’ and ‘L’, for Anne and Louis, entwined throughout the church and complex—on the entrance gate, on stained glass windows, on the marble floor. At the front of the church, below the elaborately painted/frescoed dome, is a baldaquin similar to the one in St. Paul’s, Rome—a canopy over the altar with four distinctive twisted marble columns, representing the stable in which Jesus was born. Large white marble statues represent the Nativity scene, with an obviously delighted Mary and Joseph admiring their baby boy. These were
all meant to symbolize the birth of Louis XIV as being as momentous as the birth of Jesus. Overhead is an elaborate painting in which we see Anne of Austria and her patron, Saint Anne. The queen is carrying a small replica of the Val-de-Grâce. She was so fond of this place that when her son was firmly established on the throne, she retired here to live. The patterned marble floor, with many fleur-de-lys and the ‘A’ and ‘L’ initials, has a special story, as it was saved in the French Revolution by a sacristan who covered it with plaster and straw. There is also a lovely organ; organ recitals are held once a month to showcase the instrument.
There were very few people when we were there, so we could really absorb the impressiveness and beauty at our own pace.
15, rue Val de Grâce/277 rue Saint-Jacques, Paris 5th
Open: 12-6pm daily except Mon, Fri. **But check times, as they do seem to change
5 euros per adult
Transport: RER B Port-Royal or Luxembourg; Bus 38, 83, 91