Located in the charming square Louis-XVI, at the corner of boulevard Haussmann and rue d’Anjou, this expiatory chapel was built in 1816-1826 to commemorate Louis XVI. Remarkably quiet for somewhere right in the heart of Paris, it recalls a particular dramatic period on French history.
After he had been guillotined in place de la Concorde, the king’s body was brought here for burial in what was then the Cemetery of La Madeleine. Opened in 1721, that cemetery was at the time best known as the burial place of the 133 people who, in a sad presage of things to come, were crushed to death in rue Royale (now place de la Concorde) during the fireworks display held on 30 April 1770 to mark the marriage of the future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria. The cemetery was also used to bury the 900 Swiss soldiers of the Royal Guard at the Tuileries who were massacred when the palace was attacked on 20 August 1792. Subsequently, it was also the burial place of those guillotined between 26 August 1792 and 24 March 1794, on which date the cemetery was closed because of complaints regarding the pestilential odour.
Guillotined on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was – like all those who had died a similar death – buried with his severed head between his legs, his body then being covered with quicklime. He was, however, accorded the right to an open coffin and buried in an individual grave (by the rue d’Anjou wall of the cemetery) rather than in a mass grave. The body of Marie-Antoinette was buried alongside him on 25 October 1793.
After the Restoration, King Louis XVIII had the bodies of his brother, Louis XVI, and his queen moved to the royal mausoleum of Saint-Denis on 21 January 1815. He himself then paid for the re-purchase of the areas of this cemetery that had been sold to private individuals so that the present commemorative chapel might be built there.
Modeled on a Graeco-Roman necropolis, the structure occupies the entire 900 m² of the old Madeleine cemetery. The courtyard leading up to the chapel proper is lined north and south by a nine-arch arcade, each bay of which houses an empty tomb; the number commemorates the 900 Swiss soldiers of the Royal Guard. The altar in the crypt is in the form of a tomb and stands on the exact site of Louis XVI’s grave. On January 21 each year, a commemorative Mass is celebrated here.
Next time you are in Paris, pay a visit to this Chapel. It is a very beautiful and peaceful place, so in contrast to the circumstances surrounding the original cemetery, and does allow one to contemplate the terror and tragedy of so many who died and were buried at this site, including the 900 Swiss soldiers.
(Adapted in part from Secret Paris by Jacques Garance Maud Ratton)