Last Updated on 21st October 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Situated somewhere between République and the Seine, today the Arts et Métiers museum is easily one of the best cultural institutions in the city and boasts a collection that dates all the way back to the 18th-century. But what many visitors to the musée don’t know is that the now-museum is set against the backdrop of Saint-Martin-des-Champs Priory (Prieure Saint-Martin-des-Champs), a former ecclesiastical complex.
Wander through the lively and bustling Le Marais district of Paris today and you’ll soon discover a maze of medieval-esque streets, independent boutiques, and the joie de vivre spirit that’s so synonymous with Paris. Literally translated as ‘the swamp,’ once upon a time what are now the 3rd and 4th arrondissements of the city would have been muddy marshland outside of the city walls.
However, as Paris’s population grew, the city needed to expand outside of the Île de la Cité area and that of the Latin Quarter (Paris was once known as Lutetia during Roman times and the Roman ruins to be seen today are largely found in the 5th arrondissement) and so members of the church began the Herculean task of making Le Marais habitable.
As such, the first buildings to spring up in the area were those of churches, during the middle ages. It wasn’t until centuries later where wealthy Parisians who wished to escape the cramped confines of the city centre moved just across the River Bank and constructed the great mansions (hôtels) of Le Marais that still stand to this day.
A history of Saint-Martin-des-Champs Priory
There’s an attestation of a church dedicated to St. Martin of Tours existing on the site since at least the 8th-century when this part of the world belonged to the Merovingian Dynasty. The place of worship soon grew and an abbey was built on the site but was destroyed just a few centuries later by the Normans.
It wasn’t until 1060 when Henry I decreed that the Abbey be rebuilt once more in the order of Saint Augustine. Just like the ‘Champs Élysées’ (the iconic shopping street of the 8th arrondissement), the Priory (Prieure) of Saint Martin would have been surrounded by fields, hence the name ‘des Champs’.
In 1079, the monastical complex was given to the Abbey of Cluny, one of the most important seats of power in Medieval France. The Abbey you see today was constructed during the 12th-century (around the same time as Notre Dame Cathedral) and is typical of French Gothic architecture.
19th-century etching of the Priory via Wikimedia
For those who are particularly interested in both ecclesiastical and architectural art history, the French Gothic was a style that emerged from the mid-twelfth century onwards and is characterised by high vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, high ceilings, and more.
For the following centuries, the Priory thrived. Additions were added to the complex and so now very little remains of the original ecclesiastical buildings. However, s you may well imagine after the Priory’s lands were confiscated during the French Revolution following new laws of 1790, the buildings fell into great disrepair and many of the original ecclesiastical complex buildings were demolished entirely.
How to visit the Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs (Musée des Arts et Métiers)
Nevertheless, what’s left of the Priory, is widely regarded to be one of the best examples of Parisian architecture. What was once the main church of the priory now houses the transportation exhibition part of the museum, which in turn is dedicated to the history of transportation, technical developments, and important inventions.
The museum is vast, spanning the space of several blocks and has been housed within the former priory since the late 18th-century, and eventually opened its doors to the public in 1802. And although this is one of the most underrated of Parisian museums, the collection boasts over 80,000 objects and is never as busy as say, the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay.
Entrance to the Arts et Métiers museum is paid, though is included in the incredibly well-reviewed Paris Museum Pass (see the full details for buying the pass here). Nowadays treasures of the cultural hub include the original Foucault pendulum (a replica of which can be found in the Paris Panthéon), some incredibly stunning interior architecture, and exhibits on everything from communication to energy.
If you haven’t got the chance to visit the museum, then there are still plenty of French Gothic and medieval architecture elements to be enjoyed for free from the roadside. For example, aside from the former Abbey’s distinct Middle Ages look, there’s a tower of which a part dates back to the original 1140 abbey. The only other feature to have survived the ages is the refectory, which is now the library.
Today, you’ll know you’re on the right place (323-325 Rue Saint-Martin) when you spy the 1712 La Fontaine du Vertbois. Both the fountain and the tower were restored in 1882. If you get the chance to check out the nearby area, then it’s worth noting that there’s certainly no shortage of fun, quirky, and unusual things to do.
For example, if you’re planning to arrive at the nearby Arts et Métiers metro station, the be sure to correspond via line 11. After all, this part of the station is decorated in a steampunk-inspired, copper-plated, Jules Verne inspired style. The other metro station closest to Musée des Arts et Métiers is that of Reaumur-Sebastopol, which is served by line 4 of the metro.