The church of the Val-de-Grâce was built by order of Queen Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII. After the birth of her son Louis XIV, Anne (previously childless after 23 years of marriage) showed her gratitude to the Virgin Mary by building a church on the land of a Benedictine convent. Louis XIV himself is said to have laid the cornerstone for the Val-de-Grâce in a ceremony that took place April 1, 1645, when he was seven years old.
The church of the Val-de-Grâce, designed by François Mansart and Jacques Lemercier, is considered by some as Paris's best example of baroque architecture (curving lines, elaborate ornamentation, and harmony of different elements). Construction began in 1645, and was completed in 1667.
The Benedictine nuns provided medical care for injured revolutionaries during the French Revolution, and thus the church at Val-de-Grâce was spared much of the desecration and vandalism that plagued other, more famous Paris churches (for example, Notre-Dame was looted and turned into a warehouse, and Saint-Eustache was used as a barn). As a result, the church's exquisite interior is one of the few unspoiled remnants of Paris's pre-Revolution grandeur. Following the Revolution, the buildings were converted into a military hospital.
Currently, the original buildings only serve for offices and teaching facilities (École d'application du Service de santé des armées); the actual medical facilities are inside a large modern building to the east on the same grounds.
The present-day hospital was built in the 1970s and completed in 1979. It has a capacity of 350 beds, in various specialties. The hospital is accessible to military personnel in need of medical aid as well as to any person with health coverage under the French social security system. It is famous for being the place where the top officials of the French Republic generally get treated for ailment.
The old abbey alongside the church is now a museum of French army medicine. Tours of the museum and church are available for a small fee (being a military facility, the grounds are under military guard and tourists are escorted). Cameras are not permitted except for inside the church itself.
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During World War I, Louis Aragon and André Breton, surrealist artists, were enlisted as physicians-in-training at the hospital. As a part of the French government's efforts to keep morale up during the war, a museum of reconstructive surgery was built in the hospital. The exhibits consisted of wax sculptures of deformed human faces and the results of reconstructive surgery. A look at the museum reveals that there is almost no doubt that the exhibits influenced the two artists and eventually the surrealist movement, which frequently deals with themes of dismemberment and disfigurement.
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