Chapelle Expiatoire, June 2010

11 June 2010

Tucked away on the Rue Pasquier in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, there is a small park that holds a precious secret – an exquisite little chapel that serves as a memorial to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

After the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in January and October 1793 respectively, their bodies were dumped without ceremony alongside those of several thousand other victims of the revolution in the small graveyard of the nearby Église Madeleine. Their bodies remained there forgotten until 1803 when the site was bought by a loyally royalist magistrate, Pierre-Louis Olivier Desclozeaux who knew where the bodies lay and did his best to discreetly mark the spots with cypress trees.

After the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, one of Louis XVIII’s first actions was to have his brother and sister in law’s bodies exhumed and buried with proper ceremony in the Basilica of Saint Denis alongside their ancestors. A year later, Desclozeaux sold the graveyard to King Louis who then proceeded to build a memorial chapel on the site, sharing the enormous (3 million livres) expense with his niece and the sole remaining child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Duchesse d’Angouleme.

As you walk up the path towards the main building, you see graves that are intended to commemorate the unfortunate Swiss Guards who were massacred at the Tuileries in August 1792. The entire building was designed by one of Napoleon’s favourite architects Pierre Fontaine and took ten years to complete.

The interior of the chapel mirrors the serenity of the exterior and is a perfectly balanced and harmonious neo classical design, that manages to be both uplifting and sombre at the same time. I think that Marie Antoinette would have absolutely approved.

On the left hand side as you enter the chapel, there is a statue of Marie Antoinette Supported by Religion by Jean Pierre Cortot. Religion has the features of Marie Antoinette’s sister in law, Madame Elisabeth.

This is a beautiful statue – elegant and moving at the same time.

On the right hand side is Louis XVI Called to Immortality, Sustained by an Angel by Francois Bosio. Poor Louis.

It is impossible to stand in the Chapelle Expiatoire and not be moved by the horrible fates of the royal couple and of the other thousands of victims whose bodies reside on that hallowed site. You can descend to a vault below the main chapel and see a black marble altar that marks the spot where the royal couple’s remains were originally discovered – they were identified thanks to the fact that unlike the other bodies that surrounded them, they had been buried in coffins.

If you are ever in the area and are at all interested in the story of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette then I would thoroughly recommend paying it a visit.