One of the more famous churches in London can be found just off Leicester Square, and was also once home to an even more famous entertainment venue.
What is officially the Church of Notre Dame de France, is more commonly known as the French church — for that’s it’s main calling, to serve the French congregation of London.
It has a particular claim to fame in the artwork that sits inside, especially the work by Jean Coctaeu, and for its curious round shape.
The round shape though is a legacy of a period of Georgian entertainments, known as the Panorama. Huge round buildings were constructed, and within a massive painting of a suitable location was erected, so that people standing in the centre could see the view as the painter once had.
At a time before photography or even mass-produced publications, and long before old buildings started letting people climb their towers to see the vistas, the Panorama buildings were the only way most people would ever see their city from anything higher than a ladder. Part of the appeal was also that the panoramas painted inside the buildings changed regularly, so you could see cities that you could never have otherwise visited.
One of the more famous of these panorama buildings was in Leicester Square, known simply as The Panorama, later Burford’s Panorama after a later owner. Built by the successful panorama artist, Robert Barker in the mid-1790s it contained two viewing chambers and a huge metal-supported glass roof to let light into the viewing area.
Unlike the church today, which has its entrance on a side street, the Panorama’s entrance was on Leicester Square itself in a small gap between two larger buildings, roughly where Bella Italia is today.
The building and its panoramas were a huge hit at the time, and even at the time of its closure, was still pulling in the visitors, but the lease was expiring, and the site was bought by the French Marist priest, Père Charles Faure in 1865, who also bought a building at 5 Leicester Place, which is today the church’s entrance.
The decision to build a French church here was deliberate as long before Chinatown existed, this was more Frenchtown, with a lot of French émigrés living around the area.
The panorama evicted, the church started a conversion of the building from worshipping grand vistas of earthly locations to worshipping an invisible man in the sky. The church we see today though is a post-ww2 rebuild, which is faithful to the original design but reflects the tastes of the 1950s for simpler spaces.
The entrance was flipped around to the side street, and while no longer facing the main area, it’s also now a much grander entrance, with an almost modernist frontage but with a huge sculpture of the Mater Misericordiae (Virgin Mary) above the doors. Detailed reliefs on the doorways show scenes from the Bible.
Going up the steps, inside is one of the more famous church interiors around – with the giant circular space flooding with clear light from above rather than from stained glass in the walls. That clear plain light gives the space a much larger impression than it really is, and helps the artwork really stand out proudly.
Probably the most famous in here is the mural in the Lady’s Chapel by Jean Cocteau, which gained a certain notoriety following the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in which the painting was cited as part of the proof for a hidden Jesus bloodline. Sadly for the writers, it later turned out that much of their evidence for a secret society was based on a deliberate fraud – then not at all borrowed by the renowned Dan Brown for his books
The murals were painted by Cocteau over a couple of weeks in November 1959 and are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, being made up of 3 panels: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. They also recently found another panel by Cocteau which is now in a side room.
Elsewhere, the altar tapestry was done by a Benedictine monk, Dom Robert and shows Paradise on earth with a reference to the Creation and to Wisdom.
Although the church is undeniably circular, it’s also laid out as a cross with side rooms and spaces filling in to create a cross-like floorplan.
Being a Roman Catholic church, its doors are open most of the time, which can lead to the traditional mix of homeless people sleeping in the pews while people pray or debate Christianity.
The light airy feel and that it’s open routinely makes it a relaxing breather from the noise and hassle of the west end outside.