There’s a Catholic Church in Paris dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Built in the Faubourg Saint Honoré and the Grand Boulevards, this church has dramatic statues, a bronze gate, a grand organ, and a pediment declaring: “To God the Almighty, under the invocation of St. Mary Magdalen.” The artwork of Philippe-Henri Lemaire shines bright as if it were painted by angels. With opulence, the Church immerses visitors with three metallic colours: gold, silver, and bronze, all part of the grandeur. This is La Madeleine, or better known as The Church of Saint-Marie-Madeleine. It’s a spectacular Catholic church located in the 8th arrondissement.

Whilst overshadowed by Notre Dame de-Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, the Madeleine has a unique historical dynamism to it, as seen in both the exterior and interior. Various stages of European thought and history are emphasised here, from Hellenisation to Napoleon, and the style is neoclassical. The marble-white statues inside and the dramatic columns outside resemble the famed Greek Partheon in Athens. La Madeleine challenges our presumptions of what it means to live in modernity – an era unafraid to unmoor itself from traditional religion and philosophy. 

On the ceiling, one finds the French Emperor, Pope Pius VII, the Concordat of 1801 – and a crown adorned in jewels, a reference to Napoleon’s notorious crowning in the Notre Dame de-Paris. 

A painting by Jules-Claude Ziegler in the cupola of the choir inside l’église de la Madeleine, features Mary Magdalene, supported by clouds carried by three angels.

Here, Napoleon Bonaparte is contextualised into a wider Christian history. Mary Magdalene is spotted ascending to heaven with angels. Being a Catholic Church, there are numerous references to biblical scenes, Jerusalem, and French saints, all made splendid under torchlight. With its neoclassical features and military references, it is easy to conclude the Madeleine Church has Roman, almost pagan, characteristics. Unlike other neoclassical Christian churches, such as the San Bartolome Church in Malabon, there are limited indications of Christianity outside. The Madeleine Church lacks any large cross on top, or around, the building. Yet upon reaching the large bronze doors – one discovers reliefs depicting the Ten Commandments. On the side, there are statues of many French saints: Saint Denis, Saint Genevieve, Saint Luke, and Saint Joan of Arc, among others, glisten under the sun like treasured jewels. The neoclassical style of statues are reminiscent of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre, where Octavian, Cupid, and Napoleon are transformed into white rock. They are dramatic and rage with emotion, and for a brief moment, I imagine them moving. The Madeleine Church is thoroughly Roman, as well as being Catholic and French.

Napoleon initially intended for a temple fit to glorify his army. Ultimately, the designs from Pierre-Alexandre Vignon were chosen in creating the Madeleine. I walk through the Church in May, 2023. Next to the gift shop, there are posters and signs promoting certain things: fundraising for Ukraine and selling tickets for a music concert. La Madeleine is not only Christian and Roman – but also French, with the Church expressing their many interests, whether they are cultural or social. This fusion – of France, Christianity, and Ancient Rome – may appear peculiar to a modern visitor, who is typically accustomed to secularism and liberalism.

Secularism, as per the French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State in 1905, forbade soldiers from visiting Catholic social clubs and partaking in religious processions. Gone were the references to Catholicism in the judicial oath. French secularism, unique in its approach, has an aggressive characteristic not found in other Western examples. The United States – whilst prohibitive towards a state-based religion – treats Christianity as a tool for political campaigning and swearing before a testimony in court. It’s not uncommon for an American politician or journalist to cite Christ; in France, this was and still is, a suspicious act and suggestive of the deposed Ancien Régime. Associating France with Catholicism – or any religion, whether Islam or atheism – may meet a negative reception from a Frenchman today. Eric Zemmour, however, once gave a stern warning for those eager to disassociate France from Catholicism: “without the Catholic religion and the Church, there would be no France. I am not Catholic, so I can say it all the more freely.” It is prudent to not view France as a purely secular country where religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, matters little. Contemporary French politics is the battleground between secularists, traditional Catholics, Islamists, and various factions in the left. There is no victor – yet. 

Secularism is also modern. Whilst religious diversity may have existed through various empires in premodern history, this is not the same as secularism: the radical, and postmedieval argument, that religion does not have any place in state matters. Secularism relies heavily on the Middle Ages for its legitimacy. By painting this as a suspicious time, secularism becomes an enticing alternative. The ideology of secularism gained ascendancy alongside neoclassicism. Both are bewitched by Greece and Rome – the core of any classical education, and pillars of our civilisation. Edward Gibbons agreed. Born in 1737, his magnum opus The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire positioned Christianity as responsible for Rome’s collapse. The Enlightenment, whilst underpinned by a particular worldview and philosophy, is also shaped with a critical eye for history, particularly the Middle Ages and Romanticism. 

Neoclassical churches display a complicated irony, as on one hand, they are dedicated to Christ. Yet on the other, neoclassical architecture grew in a time increasingly sceptical of religion, particularly when connected with the State. Alongside antiquity and modernity, the Middle Ages are one of three eras defining the West. The Madeleine Church embodies all three.

Paris, France – August 09, 2014: La Madeleine church exterior with walking tourists on the street

This medievalism doesn’t come from any aesthetic choice. The 19th century produced terrific examples of medievalism in Catholic architecture, from the neo-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre to Sainte-Clotilde in the seventh arrondissement. These churches offered stained glass and vaulted ceilings – the Madeleine Church does not. Rather, medievalism is discovered through Napoleon’s decision to make the temple Catholic as opposed to a mere neoclassical building. The Emperor’s motives are ripe for research; there is little information about Napoleon’s reasoning regarding the Madeleine Church, and thus, we can only speculate. Yet Catholicism is also a religion prizing the Middle Ages, an epoch for Catholic power and culture. Such was the case in France, where the cathedrals of Chartres and Strasbourg dominated their respective towns. Napoleon’s decision is best viewed as a declaration for France’s medieval and Catholic legacy. His eventual excommunication and invasion of Papal lands ultimately add an ironic twist to the Madeleine Church.

In the past years, there have been notable examples of journalists building stark barriers between Christianity and Ancient Rome: Helen Dale, an Australian lawyer, as well as Tom Holland, responsible for many brilliant books about antiquity and the Middle Ages. Both are well-versed in Roman law, Latin, and culture. Among the sprawling narratives of The Kingdom of the Wicked and Dominion, Christianity and the Roman Empire are opposing forces with differing morality. This depiction is not without merit. The early Christians, prior to Constantine’s conversion, were viewed with severe negativity from leading intellectuals at the time. Pliny the Younger, ever suspicious, wrote to Emperor Trajan on advice about dealing with Christians, whose refusal to submit to Roman gods was interpreted as a refusal of imperial rule. This history partially explains the distinctiveness between the Roman Empire and Christianity. 

Roman Catholicism had blurred the boundaries between both throughout time; the Holy Roman Empire, particularly around the time of Charlemagne, saw the fusion of Christianity with the kingship and imperial ideas found in Rome. The late medieval historian Craig Taylor from the University of York has also connected Christian chivalry with the values expressed by Roman soldiers in his scholarship on French armies during the Hundred Years War. Various Doctors of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas and Isidore of Seville, synthesised Greco-Roman scholarship with Christianity. Boethius’ Wheel of Fortune built on Fortuna, a goddess of fortune and luck in Roman religion. Neoplatonic thought also suggested an interest, and perhaps devotion, to Classical Greek philosophy. The term ‘Roman Catholicism’ refers to not only Catholicism, but also the image of Rome.  

Today, notable writers such as Catherine Nixey portray early Christians as destructive forces against the classical world. This feeds into a long-standing misconception: that Christianity is distinct from Ancient Greece and Rome, or the ‘classics.’ Likewise, Christianity’s long standing dynamic with Judaism and Judea has at times, overshadowed the Greco-Roman aspects of Christianity. Yet Christianity came from the Roman Empire. Rome, being the garden where imperial ideas blossomed into reality, also witnessed the ascendency of Christianity, which went from a small and distrusted cult to the official religion in the Roman Empire. It is impossible to fully divorce Christianity from Ancient Rome.

Catholicism, whilst not a reconciliation between Christianity and Greco-Roman religion, is the best example of a Christian church emphasising the connection between both. This doesn’t make Catholicism ‘pagan’ or ‘not really Christian’ – but rather, a form of Christianity in sync with tradition and antiquity. Modernity has also provided curious examples of Christianity fusing with older civilisations and philosophies. 

The audacious Julius Evola once referred to himself as a ‘Catholic pagan.’ Whilst delivering a lecture on the fascist Savitri Devi, the late Jonathan Bowden stated: “when Evola talked about being a Catholic pagan, he basically meant that if you look into my face, you see ancient Rome. The name of his religion is Roman Catholicism, and to him he sees antiquity and the pagan world peering straight out of Christianity.” In addition, Alfred Rosenberg’s writings on European religion and mythology expressed the desire to depart from a Christian-bound Europe and into something new. Alongside Evola and other National Socialists, they were myth-makers who melted down the jewels from Christendem and Rome, and then made a new crown out of the liquid gold. This reshaping of medieval and ancient history is utterly modern. One finds it in not only National Socialism, but neoclassical architecture. 

Interestingly, Tom Holland has framed Nazism as an attack on the moral worldview of Christianity. Holland comments, “Hitler saw… Saint Paul, who said there is no Jew or Greek as the embodiment of a kind of pernicious… a Jewish cosmopolitan that he saw as having destroyed Greece and Rome.” Modern European history is rife with political movements with complicated dynamics with Christianity and by extension, Pagan Europe.

Writing for First Things, Louise Perry offers her own thesis: we (the West) are repaganising. She cites the growth of Canada’s MAID program and draws parallels with infanticide in the crime-infested streets of Ancient Rome to contemporary abortion. Paganism, as per Perry, is the dark and wild forest stretching across the West, temporarily pushed back by Christianity. Citing Steven Smith, Louise Perry entertains the prospect of Christianity never fully succeeding at vanquishing paganism. 

However, Christianity and Romanness began to blend together as soon as the former took form, and this process accelerated when the Chi Rho appeared on the Milvian Bridge. Christianity wasn’t so much a disruption of Romanness – but rather, the continuation and reinterpretation of it. Holland, Dale, and Perry are excellent at connecting modernity with antiquity. Yet all underestimate Christianity’s syncretic character and ability to adapt and mould as times progress. Abortion and MAID are not Christian. But they aren’t pagan, either.

When the Spartans inspected newborns and slaughtered the ‘defective’ ones, they never appealed to values concerning equality, individual freedom, and women’s rights. A Roman encouraging suicide did not do this because of an internal belief in the right to die; rather, both the Romans and Spartans were disgusted by weakness and expressed this in unapologetic ways. Pagan societies, particularly the Norse, were obviously brutal in a way contemporary Western societies are not. Louise Perry understands the wicked barbarity in sex positivity and so-called ‘assisted dying.’ These acts are given a veil of civility and cleanliness which is distinct to our modern era. There’s a BBC article about ‘suicide pods’ in Switzerland. Called Sarco, these pods allow a patient to undergo a painless death upon request. This is clearly murder with fancy branding and marketing. At least the Persians didn’t insult their victims like this before scaphism. The lack of authenticity and honesty in MAID is hardly found in premodern brutality.

Our modern ills are neither Christian nor pagan but something new yet rotten. Christianity and paganism, meanwhile, have not quite vanished. In the 21st century, it is tempting to view religion and premodern cultures as permanently in decline, thanks to secularism. Yet, as Holland, Perry, and Dale wisely remind us, the past isn’t done with us yet. Christianity lingers in our morality, our worldview, our language, and in our symbols. Today, we cling onto Greece, Rome, and Christianity like a ladder dripping from a helicopter. Without it, we are doomed to drown in a vast ocean of monstrous horrors. The dynamic between Christianity and Roman religion is fraught with debate and potential misunderstandings. Yet the Madeleine Church is ultimately a testament to the forces shaping the West: France, Christianity, monarchism, republicanism, and the Classical World. It stands proud in the 8th arrondissement, even when scaffolding hides it away. Catholicism, Rome, and France have not abandoned us yet.

Madeleine visited Paris in May, 2023.

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