Thursday, July 18, 2019

Remembering the Past in Restoration France: An Expiatory Chapel for Marie-Antoinette

The recreated prison cell of the Queen
The actual prison cell of the Queen
 From Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide:
After its restoration, the Conciergerie in Paris w­­­­­as reopened to the public in 1989, the year of the "Bicentenaire" celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.[1] The new historical museum of the Conciergerie, formerly the most famous prison in France, offers visitors an almost authentic look at the conditions of living—or rather dying—during the revolutionary Terreur, the period of violence and mass executions that started in September 1793 and ended in July 1794 with the "Thermidorian Reaction." Visiting the Conciergerie today, one enters the gloomy atmosphere of 18th-century crime, grim with punishment and death, reminiscent of Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. Visitors are faced with life-sized figures of incarcerated men in small dark cells recalling some well-known and, in addition, thousands of nameless victims of the Terror. The representation of one of the most famous inmates of the Conciergerie is especially striking. Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, spent the final two months of her life in this prison, before her execution on October 16th, 1793. Her figure, which can only be seen from behind, is shown sitting in a cell at a small wooden desk, guarded by a member of the National Guard (fig. 1). Contrary to its appearance, this scene is not set in the cell in which the queen was actually imprisoned, but is only meant to be an accurate reconstruction.[2] The cell in which Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned still exists, but not as a cell. In 1816, during the French Restoration era, it was transformed into a chapelle expiatoire—expiatory chapel (fig. 2). Unchanged during the Conciergerie's restoration before its reopening in 1989, it can still be visited within the prison complex. This small chapel that the newly restored Bourbon monarchy built in honor of Marie-Antoinette confronts the visitor with a staging of history that differs considerably from that of the reconstructed cell. Marie-Antoinette's chapelle expiatoire is in fact a true chapel. It consists of a very small room painted entirely in dark blue, a colored glass window reminding one of ordinary church windows, a cenotaph on one side of the room, and an altar on the other. Here we see the queen again, this time not "in person," but appearing on three paintings representing memorable events of her last days.

In the Conciergerie, the fate of Marie-Antoinette is therefore recalled in two very different ways. On the one hand, we are confronted with a setting that seems to be authentic when in fact it is not; on the other hand, the original queen's cell has been so radically changed that it no longer appears as an authentic historical site. The commemoration of the queen within the prison complex of the Conciergerie is hence somewhat contradictory: the lines between authenticity and historical falsity, between fact and fiction are not as clear as they seem to be at first glance. This deliberate delusion especially draws one's attention to the queen's expiatory chapel of 1816, which is the main subject of this article. This slightly kitsch memorial raises questions that not only concern the construction, political context, and iconography of the chapel, but also consider the notion of authenticity and the ways in which history has been staged and commemorated throughout the ages. Therefore, the focus of my article is twofold: first, I will put the queen's expiatory chapel in the political and cultural context of its creation and discuss its iconography and propaganda content. In doing so, I will also consider some other expiatory monuments of the Restoration era. Then, I will focus on the queen's chapel as a memorial and historical site. I will especially raise the question as to whether notions of authenticity had been accounted for by the authorities and artists who were involved in the chapel's construction. With this twofold approach I particularly want to broaden the art-history research perspective which until now has been focused on the iconography and political relevance of the Restoration's expiatory monuments.[3] (Read more.)

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