Biographies & Memoirs

The Chapelle Expiatoire

Called to immortality.

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 behind a high wall that serves as a memorial to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Above the entrance there is the following inscription:

King Louis XVIII raised this monument to consecrate the place where the mortal remains of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, transferred on 21 January 1815 to the royal tomb of Saint-Denis, reposed for 21 years. It was finished during the second year of the reign of Charles X, year of grace 1826.’

After the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793, their bodies were dumped without ceremony alongside those of several thousand other victims of the revolution in the small graveyard of the nearby Madeleine church. Their bodies remained there forgotten alongside those of the Swiss Guards massacred in August 1792, Antoine Barnave (who went to his death in November 1793 with a piece from one of Marie Antoinette’s dresses in his pocket), Charlotte Corday, Madame du Barry, Madame Roland and the Duc d’Orléans until 1803 when the site was bought by a loyally royalist magistrate, Pierre-Louis Olivier Desclozeaux who had been watching when the royal couple were buried and so was able to recall where the bodies lay and do his best to discreetly mark the spots with cypress trees.

Intriguingly, in 1770 the little Madeleine cemetery was also the burial ground for the one hundred and thirty three victims of the tragic accident that occurred at the firework display to mark the Parisian celebration of Louis and Marie Antoinette’s wedding. Who could ever have guessed that the royal couple would one day end up buried alongside them and in such grisly circumstances?

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 royal necropolis, the Basilica of Saint Denis. A year later, Desclozeaux sold the graveyard to King Louis who then proceeded to build a memorial chapel on the site, sharing the three million livres expense with his niece and the sole remaining child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Marie-Thérèse, now the Duchesse d’Angoulême after marrying the eldest son of her uncle the Comte d’Artois.

As you walk up the path towards the main building, you see memorials to commemorate the unfortunate Swiss Guards who were massacred at the Tuileries in August 1792 as well as memorials to other well known victims of the Terror buried there before the cemetery was officially closed in March 1794 after the executions of Hébert and his chief supporters. It’s not known how many victims of the revolution were buried at this site, but it could be anything up to three thousand. Thousands of others, including Madame Élisabeth, Camille and Lucile Desmoulins, Robespierre and the handsome Duc de Lauzun were buried at the Errancis cemetery while others, including Madame de Noailles and several members of her family, lie in grave pits at the Picpus cemetery.

The Chapelle Expiatoire was designed by one of Napoleon’s favourite architects Pierre Fontaine and overseen by his assistant Louis-Hippolyte Lebas and took ten years to complete. By the time it was actually finished, Louis XVIII was no more and it was his brother Charles X along with the Duchesse d’Angoulême who presided over the chapel’s inauguration in 1826. The Archbishop of Paris was on hand to bless the corner stone and, perhaps rather inappropriately, took this as an opportunity to preach about forgiveness for the exiled members of the Revolutionary National Convention. Or perhaps it wasn’t actually all that inappropriate – the chapel could be taken to not only be an apotheosis of the executed Louis and Marie Antoinette but also an acknowledgement that the horrors of the Terror were now in the past, sanctified and cleansed by the erection of a memorial chapel and proper remembrance of the numerous dead.

The interior of the chapel mirrors the serenity and pale glow of the exterior and is a perfectly balanced and harmonious neoclassical design that manages to be both uplifting and sombre at the same time. I think that Marie Antoinette would have absolutely approved as when one steps inside one is reminded of the gentle serenity of her chapel at the Petit Trianon and the dairy built for her at Rambouillet. Although the chapel is also dedicated to the memory of Louis XVI, it is clear that here as with other sites associated with the doomed couple it is his wife who is chiefly evoked and brought to mind.

On the left hand side as you enter the chapel, there is a statue of Marie Antoinette Supported by Religion by Jean Pierre Cortot, in which Religion has the beautifully serene features of Marie Antoinette’s sister in law, Madame Elisabeth. This is a beautiful statue – elegant and moving at the same time as the Queen appears to almost abandon herself to religion in a frenzy of devotion with her hair tumbling down her back and eyes gazing fervently upwards. We are reminded here that although Marie Antoinette lived an apparently frivolous life before the Revolution, she found enormous comfort in her faith during her final years, when virtually all else had been stripped from her, as symbolised by the crown that rolls forgotten and abandoned on the ground by her knee.

On the right hand side is Louis XVI Called to Immortality, Sustained by an Angel by Francois Bosio. Poor Louis. He is anchored to the ground by his grand robes and gazes upwards with seeming relief as the light footed angel shows him the way forward. Here is a man who never wanted to be King, who did his best and died feeling like he had failed in his duty both to his people and also his family.

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 and others throughout the city, all lying together regardless of political viewpoint. 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 allegedly originally discovered – they were identified thanks to the fact that unlike the other bodies that surrounded them, they had been buried in coffins.

On 21 January 1815, the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were moved from their resting place close to the Madeleine in Paris to the Basilica St Denis, there to lie for eternity alongside the bodies of their ancestors although possibly not in the way that they had planned as by the time they were interred here the remains of the royalty of France had been removed from their graves and dumped into mass graves outside the Basilica in the autumn of 1793 before being hurriedly replaced higgledy piggledy and with very little order all together in the crypt.

Their beautiful memorial statues by Edmé Gaulle and Pierre Petitot kneel in the basilica with regal solemnity. The statue of Louis XVI bestows the maligned and ridiculed King with a dignity that he was denied in real life, while Marie Antoinette, pleasingly, is dressed in the elegant fashion of 1815 which sadly she never got to wear. Their bodies, however, rest alongside those of Louis’ brothers and their wives beneath plain black marble slabs in the crypt below the main church, close to the memorials for Madame Élisabeth, who was guillotined in May 1794 and their children, Louis-Joseph, Sophie Béatrice and poor little Louis XVIII, who died in the Temple prison in June 1795 and whose heart was laid to rest in Saint Denis in 2004.

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