One of the great buildings from 17th century Reims is no longer freely accessible to the general public, although its doors have been open to hundreds of students since 2010, when it was inaugurated as one of the provincial campuses of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris.
Sciences Po, as it is commonly known, is one of the most selective institutions in French academia - a grande école - that specializes in social science and international studies.
As I spend a few hours each week at this historic site, I like looking at the traces of its previous lives, still visible beyond the glossy finish and sleek surfaces that mark the transformation of a weathered and worn vestige of centuries past into an illustrious academic setting for the 21st century.
The site used to accommodate the Planetarium, until this was rehoused in another part of town in 2013.
I can barely remember how it was then, beyond the rich wooden panelling, mullion windows and majestic architecture that was in need of restoration.
Although many of these key features have been conserved, albeit in a highly-renovated form, there is no mistaking that today this is, above all, a modern school that meets requirements.
A new glass-covered concourse runs parallel to the former chapel - itself transformed into a modern entrance hall and reception area - and leads to the vast, modern library.
An example of the desire to align the old with the new is the structure of the library building, constructed around an open-air, central island with a growing tree.
Behind the noisy throng of students’ talk in their pan-American accents, the bright lights, bay windows, smooth flooring and fully operational central heating, resides a contemplative, calm mood.
This strange atmosphere pervades the place as does a very slight mustiness released from the old walls, not unlike that of museums or champagne house cellars, several of which are in the vicinity.
In fact, the buildings that make up the complex of Sciences Po today have always been devoted to learning and were part of the Ancien Collège des Jésuites. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Lord Chancellor of France, a certain Nicolas de Brülart de Sillery, requested of Henry IV the permission for the foundation of a Jesuit college in Reims.
The Society of Jesus was a male Catholic order created in 1540 by the Basque soldier-turned mystic, Ignatius of Loyola. The society was involved in the Catholic resurgence against the Protestant Reformation – the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Revival and was devoted to the care of souls in life through teaching, and preaching the faith.
After the foundation of the first colleges in Sicily and Rome in the mid 16th century, others were set up in France – firstly in the centre of the country in the Puy-de-Dôme region and then Paris, Caen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon.
The request for a rémois college was granted and a large private house was bought in 1608. Several thousand books were provided to create a place of learning in line with the Jesuit belief that intellectual development was part of spiritual growth.
The college was further extended over the site of the Place Museaux from 1617 to 1678 to result in the chapel and central court surrounded by buildings, still visible some four hundred years on.
The grounds favoured and reflected the teaching practices of the Jesuit faith ; study, prayer and the work of the land. The order was known for its commitment to practicality and discipline, to the extent that its members were often called ‘God's soldiers’.
The extensive court area was devoted to the cultivation of vines and the maintenance of vegetable plots. Whilst the latter appear to have fallen away, in favour of lawns and seating areas, vines still thrive in the chalky soil.
Indeed, these very plants, date back to a centuries-old grape variety from Palestine and have even been classified as part of the historical monument.
One of the jewels of the ancien collège was, and still is, the old library. Set under the mansard roof, this French baroque work of art, built between 1670-80 housed the precious book collection.
The expanse is punctuated by the dormer window recesses, that provide small study areas that look out over the court area.
It should come as no surprise that the library has already been used as an historical backcloth in the film industry – with Isabelle Adjani in the role of La Reine Margot (1994).
Leading up to this magnificent library is the imposing stone stairway that is usually eerily empty, so that you are free to let your mind travel in time, even more so when one of the students is practising the flute or piano – and music drifts along the corridors and winds its way up the steps.
On the ground floor the wooden panelled refectory now serves as an auditorium, where students rehearse their presentations or film themselves putting the world to rights, largely unaware or indifferent to Ignatius of Loyala and François Xavier – key figures of the Jesuit society – above them.
Indeed, the former devotion rooms are now fully converted for purely academic purposes in a secular setting, offering students areas in which they can busy themselves with numerous co-curricular or extra-curricular activities.
In fact, apart from the insignia IHS, representing the first three letters of the Greek spelling of Jesus, which are traced on wooden beams and stonework, there are few functional marks of the Jesuit origins.
The old chapel has become the main entrance hall with a central wooden seat (‘la péniche’) that echoes the one in Paris, whilst the altar has been rehoused in a museum.
The wooden pulpit still stands, set between two stained-glass panels, but is now just part of the academic decor, largely overlooked after an initial appreciative glance.
Now our eyes are caught by the shiny ‘Sciences-Po-red’ panels of the lift, transporting us up to higher levels, albeit literally rather than spiritually. Such audacious changes have met with praise and criticism in equal measure.
Meanwhile other aspects of the present establishment have brought to the fore resentment and rivalry not unlike those that emerged when the Jesuit college was first founded.
The rigourous yet open-minded nature of Jesuit education was demonstrated by its application of Classical teachings of Renaissance humanism within the structure of Catholic thought. Jesuit pupils were grounded in grammar, rhetoric, philosophy but also encouraged to appreciate the arts – music, dance and drama - and fencing.
The Jesuit saying « Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man » was based on several core values. The first of these was cura personalis - the educational objective of caring for the whole person ; secondly there was the concept of magis from the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God), driven by spiritual exercises, and finally the notion of being ‘men for others’.
The scope of education offered by the ancien collège thus appeared to outshine the efforts of the university, set up in 1548. Spats occured, as Jesuit students were refused the means to obtain their diplomas, and this competitive note did not subside.
I am not sure how much the present students know of the Jesuit past of the Sciences Po site, or if they are aware that the present Pope Francis is of the Society of Jesus, but the history of this faith is worth observing.
In the film we see the full beauty of Man’s spirit and its very opposite. We watch the tragedy unfold when goodness unwittingly leads the good into the vice-like grip of the worst traits of human nature. I won’t talk about religion here because I have never felt any affiliation whatsoever to any spiritual form or faith.
Fast forward several decades and the indigenous populations of the land of ‘ice and fire’ had largely been decimated by forces similar to those that wiped out North and South American indian tribes alike, along with Australian Aboriginal groups. Ultimately the only place of sanctuary was offered by the missionaries. The Jesuit station (or ‘reduction’) in The Mission offers the only form of protection left to the converted Guarani in the Paraguayan jungle against Spanish and Portuguese slave-drivers and mercenaries.
In the mid 18th century, the Jesuit order was suppressed. It had faced criticism from its own side - the Vatican - for having attempted to adapt Christian doctrine to the patterns of other civilizations, rather than imposing the less flexible Roman Catholic line. Likewise, it drew hatred from governments who resented papal control and therefore its faithful supporter – the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit success in trade also brought them the envy and ire of rivals.
Pope Clement XIV, finally gave in to the demands of the monarchies of Spain, France and Portugal to suppress the order. It was first banned in Portugal in 1759, but by 1773 the ban was extended to all Catholic countries.
The Jesuit college in Reims was duly dismantled in 1762 and its library books given to the city collection. The library itself was used as a hospice until 1972. The Magneuses foundation occupied part of the former college from 1791 in order to house and educate impoverished girls and finally it was used to accommodate law students until 1967. Amazingly, the grounds do not appear to have suffered during the First World War, which had proved so fatal to most the architectural heritage of the city. The Church of Saint-Maurice was, however, burnt in 1942.
Pius VII restored the Jesuit order in 1814 – the age of republicanism – but the ancien collège in Reims never recovered its initial function. As for Jesuit teaching in Reims today, this is now offered by the private school Lycée Saint-Joseph.
Since taking the majority of my photos, the weather has transformed everything on the grounds of Sciences Po! I was shivering outside just a few weeks ago, and now the vines are even developing tiny grapes in the warmth of the sun against the ancient walls of the Ancien Collège, just as they have every year over the centuries. Meanwhile, I am off to watch La Reine Margot again…