I would like to talk to you about a monument only few people know about, although it is truly worth the visit: the “Expiatory Chapel” dedicated to French King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette.
The genesis which presides the erection of this building could be the beginning of a novel.
According to Chateaubriand, “the first crime committed during the French Revolution was the death of the King but the most awful one was the death of the Queen”.
Louis XVI, the last King of France under the Old Regime, was guillotined on the Parisian Concorde Place on the 21st January 1793 and his wife Marie-Antoinette underwent the same process on the 16th October of the same year, after a farcical trial.
Their bodies were taken to the nearby Madeleine cemetery and thrown into a communal grave with their heads between their legs.
And so, the adventure began at 48 rue d’Anjou, which looks onto the graveyard.
Indeed, Pierre-Louis-Olivier Descloseaux, a lawyer at the Parliament of Paris and a secret royalist took scrupulous notes of the identity and burial location of the 1343 convicts of the Revolution buried there from 1792 to 1794. Among these convicts were the King and the Queen.
Pierre-Louis-Olivier Descloseaux then bought the land where the graveyard was and marked the burial location of the royal couple by planting two weeping willows and cypresses around them.
In 1814, the brother of Louis XVI, Louis XVIII took the throne after one of the darkest, most turbulent and bloody periods of French history. In what was probably a desire to offer a more dignified burial to his late brother and to reinstate the prestige of the monarchy, the new King bought the land in which the royals rested, dug up their bodies using Descloseaux’s notes and had them entombed at the Saint-Denis basilica.
In 1815, the architect Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine launched the construction of the Expiatory Chapel for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, on the exact spot where they were first buried. The construction of this monument lasted over ten years.
The whole Chapel is elevated and hidden from plain sight by being totally enclosed. Once you walk past the vestibule, you enter the inner garden or Campo Santo (cemetery), in which symbolic tombstones pay tribute to the Swiss Guards that fell trying to protect Louis XVI when he was overthrown by the people.
The Chapel’s layout is similar to that of the Queen’s convent in Versailles. The last letter Marie-Antoinette sent to her husband’s wife is engraved beneath her statue.
It is a mother’s letter. A 37-year-old mother who knew she was bound to die within a few hours, whilst leaving her children to the care of her sister-in-law, although they are all in prison. A mother who was sentenced to death during a sham of a trial, in which she was accused of incest with her 8-year-old son, who was forced to admit to the facts by his jailers, in order to get reluctant judges to condemn her.
“It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments.
I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister. You who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you!
I have learned from the proceedings at my trial that my daughter was separated from you.
I hope that one day when they are older they may be able to rejoin you, and to enjoy to the full your tender care. Let them both think of the lesson which I have never ceased to impress upon them, that the principles and the exact performance of their duties are the chief foundation of life; and then mutual affection and confidence in one another will constitute its happiness. Let my daughter feel that at her age she ought always to aid her brother by the advice which her greater experience and her affection may inspire her to give him. And let my son in his turn render to his sister all the care and all the services which affection can inspire. Let them, in short, both feel that, in whatever positions they may be placed, they will never be truly happy but through their union.
Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths.
I have to speak to you of one thing which is very painful to my heart, I know how much pain the child must have caused you. Forgive him, my dear sister; think of his age, and how easy it is to make a child say whatever one wishes, especially when he does not understand it.”
What Marie-Antoinette did not know as she wrote to her sister-in-law, perhaps for the better, was that both her sister-in-law and her son would die in the following couple years. Her daughter was the only survivor, liberated at age 15 and so deeply broken by the events that she was called “the princess with red eyes”.
There is a black marble sarcophagus in the crypt, located at the exact spot where Louis XVI’s body lay in the communal graveyard of the Madeleine.
The visit isn’t the most festive, I’ll give you that.
However, the place is incredibly serene and generates a meditative state due to its sublime neo-classical architecture. Walking into the Chapel allows you to comprehend an essential chapter of French History.
The place, which is not very well-known and therefore rather empty, is sadly romantic and constitutes a strange bubble of fullness and silence in the midst of urban uproar.
July 2, 2018
Expiatory Chapel – Paris – Website