Wednesday, January 28, 2009

La Chapelle Expiatoire



On January 21, 1815, under a tent on the Rue d'Anjou, eventual site of the expiatory chapel, the coffins of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette reposed in state. After twenty-two years the former sovereigns were finally to receive Christian burial. As is told in the novel Madame Royale, the remains of the King and the Queen were carried by the Scottish company of the bodyguards, followed by rank upon rank of soldiers. Some members of the royal family were present, although the grieving Duchess of Angoulême remained closeted in her private oratory at the Tuileries. The funeral procession wound across Paris to the Basilica of Saint Denis, where the requiem Mass was offered. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were then interred in the royal crypt; the Office of the Dead was recited. It was the same crypt which had been hideously rifled in 1793.

Between 1816 and 1826, at the expense of Louis XVIII and the Duchess of Angoulême, the Chapelle Expiatoire was built on the place where the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had been buried after their murders. According to one traveler:
While wandering one day though the Rue d’Anjou St. Honore, I came unexpectedlyupon one of the most beautiful chapels my eyes ever beheld—­the Chapelle Expiatore. It was originally a burial-ground in connection with the Madeleine church, but was afterward set apart to commemorate the sad fate of the elder Bourbons. When Louis XVI. and his queen were executed, in 1793, they were obscurely buried on this spot. A friend, M. Descloseaux, at once cared for their remains, else they would have been lost amid other victims of the bloody revolution. It is a singular fact, that Danton, Herbert, and Robespierre were also buried in this same place, together with the Swiss Guard.

An early entry in the parish records of the Madeleine, still shows to any one who has the curiosity to see, the plainness with which the queen was buried. It is as follows: “Paid seven francs for a coffin for the Widow Capet.”

M. Descloseaux watched carefully over the graves of the king and queen, purchased the place containing their bodies, and converted it into an orchard, with the view of shielding them from the fury of the populace. His plan was successful, and it is said that he sent every year a beautiful bouquet of flowers to the Duchess d’Angouleme, which were gathered from the ground beneath which her royal parents were sleeping.

Although the bodies of the King and Queen were identified and reburied in Saint Denis, as has been described, the Chapelle Expiatoire marked the spot where they had lain for so long. The chapel is considered a "perfect example of the late Neoclassicism." The statues of the monarchs are particularly unique. Marie-Antoinette is shown "supported by religion" while Louis XVI is portrayed as being "called to immortality." When my husband and I visited the chapel in 1999 we went there on a Wednesday and were quite disappointed to find it was closed. However, we rested in the serene little garden which surrounds the building. The chapel is open three days a week, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 1 and 5 pm, and is certainly worth seeing.

Please see Madame Delors' post as well. Fascinating!


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10 comments:

Gareth Russell said...

It is a lovely place. When I was doing my thesis in Paris, I discovered a document that suggested the face of "religion" in the sculpture is modelled on Princess Elisabeth.

elena maria vidal said...

That is very interesting, Gareth, and makes a great deal of sense, since Madame Elisabeth helped the queen through her ordeals.

Charles-Antoine said...

the chapelle expiatoire is one of my favourite spots in paris. sober, discrete, dignified, it is a fitting memorial and architecturally of great interest. it's interesting to think how, given its politically-charged symbolism, it was almost razed several times.

elena maria vidal said...

I wonder if the discretion of it's location has preserved it from destruction....

Charles-Antoine said...

i wonder, too. i know the parc surrounding the chapelle dates to the early-1860s, when the desclozeaux-era cypresses were cut down and a new landscape created that in effect isolated from the surrounding urban hubbub of the boulevard haussmann, grands magasins, etc. in light of the destruction of other major parisian landmarks in the 1870s during the commune, such as the tuileries, it's all the more amazing this little chapelle survived.

it's still a quiet, open green space today, which is surprising given its location in paris.

elena maria vidal said...

We had a little difficulty finding it, but once we did, the garden was quite a place of shelter and repose. I thank God it has survived; I only hope that next time I visit I am able to see the interior!

Between Europe and China said...

Thanks, Elena! I study in France and I think I will try to visit there the next time I go to Paris. It's so wonderful to have old memorials and monuments preserved.

Catherine Delors said...

Another great post, Elena! I must link to it, all the more so that I have long wanted to write one on the topic.

elena maria vidal said...

Be my guest, Catherine, and I know you will add some additional insights!

Matterhorn said...

Marie-Amélie, Duchesse d'Orléans, who was present at the reburial of the royal remains in Saint Denis, described the ceremonies with great detail and emotion in her Journal. (I have considered translating and posting the excerpt on my blog, but there are some references I don't quite understand). She also mentioned it was a piercingly cold day, the coldest she had ever experienced! Everyone was trembling and shivering. It almost seems symbolic...