Tuesday, August 1


The Burial Crypt of the Pasteur Institute, Paris

A common bit of modern hagiographic folkore, the exact circumstances of which I have been unable to trace, reports that on one day about a hundred years ago, a young brash scientist on his way to a conference shared a train compartment with a quiet old man who looked to be an example of that type once so common in France, that of the wealthy peasant. He noticed the old gentleman was telling the beads of a rosary, and proceeded to hector him, asking him why he bothered with such outdated things in an age of scientific progress.

The old man asked, "What is this science? Perhaps you can explain it to me." He was clearly moved, and had tears in his eyes. The young student, slightly embarassed by the reaction he'd brought about, said he would send him some pamphlets to explain the subject to him, if he'd just give him his address. The old man's stop had come up, and he was about to step out. The old man rummaged around in his coat and pulled out a business card, and just as he left the compartment, the young man realized it read, "Louis Pasteur, Director of the Institute of Scientific Research, Paris."

Whether or not this story is true--and it certainly could be, given Louis Pasteur's very genuine faith--it's a matter of historic record that the great man died with a rosary in his hand, after having had the life of St. Vincent de Paul read aloud to him. The saint was one of his heroes, and an inspiration for his own scientific work, that it might benefit the lives of children as the saint's own charity had.

Burial Crypt of Louis Pasteur, Paris

The scientist's burial site is of great interest to both to those seeking a place of pilgrimage and a forgotten gem of Catholic architecture. I have never been there myself but was greatly struck by a number of photographs I recently came across. The French state had almost immediately set out to take the old man's body to Paris's sterile, secularized Valhalla at the Panthéon, to lie alongside such unlikely bedfellows as Voltaire and the original of all yuppie self-actualization gurus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mrs. Pasteur thought otherwise, and had a marvelous Byzantine crypt build in the basement of the Pasteur Institute, a stunning, darkly glowing jewel-box of black-veined marble and low, looming mosaic'd vaults filled with allegorical angels holding placards for SCIENCE and CHARITE amid a profusion of neo-paleo-Christian vine leaves and odder touches such as bunny rabits and pack of slavering, chained-up dogs representing respectively the first test audience for his vaccine, and the diseases Pasteur sought to vanquish. (Incidentally, The Catholic Encyclopedia makes the odd and rather unfortunate comparison of the shape of a streptoccocus with that of a rosary.) Under the main vault is a mirror-polished black sarcophagus, quite simple, and in the apse, under the Alpha and the Omega, is an umistakably Catholic altar with tabernacle, crucifix and six candlesticks. It took only a year to build.

(Rather alarmingly, the concierge of the Institute is reported to have committed suicide in 1940, rather than open up the great man's burial vault to the German army--Gallic theatircal stoicism trumping Catholic good sense. His name was Joseph Meister, and, in extremis, had been, as a boy of 9, the first to receive Pasteur's rabies shots more than half-a-century earlier. Pasteur had suffered great moral worry during his treatment of the boy, and had gotten little sleep during the interminable ten-day process.)

The crypt is a stunning example of a tragically dead end of architectural modernity that must take its place next to such sadly discontinued experiments such as those of Gaudí, Lutyens, Sullivan and Goodhue, the mingled Symbolist and neo-Byzantine tendencies that inspired Frenchmen such as the crypt's architect Charles-Louis Girault, as well as the builders of Sacre Coeur, in England Westminster Cathedral and the mosaic decoration of St. Paul's, and in America, much Tiffany work and the later designs of Ralph Adams Cram. The iconography here is unmistakable--the angels are not nubile winged virtues in the bourgeois train-station manner, but beautiful strong creatures with long trailing stoles, and the Holy Ghost over the altar is even harder to miss. It is a fitting tribute in its golden, complex simplicity to the man who once said, "The more I know, the more nearly is my faith that of the Breton peasant. Could I but know all I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman."

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