La Chapelle Expiatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile

I read this morning in the papers that the corpses of the late King and Queen of France, by order of their brother, the restored Louis the Eighteenth, were exhumed from their grave in the former graveyard of La Madeleine, which has since become a private garden. The remains were removed with royal honours to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for twelve centuries.

Queen Marie-Antoinette was found soon after the workmen began digging, and the remains of King Louis the Sixteenth were located the next day. A search for the bones of the King’s youngest sister, Madame Elisabeth, was also conducted at the cemetery of Les Errancis. The guillotine had filled La Madeleine by the spring of 1794, and the authorities had opened the new graveyard to accommodate its increasing output.

Chapelle Expiatoire

Chapelle Expiatoire Paris

That second investigation was unsuccessful. While the King and Queen had each been granted an individual execution and a coffin, Madame Elisabeth had been guillotined towards the end of the Terror as one in a cart of twenty-five prisoners. The remains had been thrown together into a common grave. The bodies, as required by law, had been stripped of all clothing, which, along with their other property, was forfeited to the Nation upon the imposition of the death sentence. Any identification would have become impossible very soon after the burial. Nevertheless, I trust that God will overlook the lack of proper funeral rites, which were denied to many in those days.

Those of you who have read Mistress of the Revolution, my first novel, will recognize its opening paragraphs. It is the news of the exhumations of the bodies Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette that prompt my narrator, Gabrielle, to write her memoirs and exhume her own past. So I have long thought of writing a post on the beautiful little Chapelle Expiatoire that was later built on the location of the former graveyard of La Madeleine, in what is now Square Louis XVI.

And now I find two excellent posts on the topic by Elena at Tea at Trianon and Terry at Travel with Terry: Paris.

The great writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who attended the exhumations, writes in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe: “Amidst the bones, I recognized the Queen’s head from the smile she had given me in Versailles.” Chateaubriand had been presented to the King and Queen only a few years before the Revolution. Did he really recognize Marie-Antoinette’s smile in the grim remains from La Madeleine?

Not long ago I had a heated discussion with a French historian, an 18th century specialist no less, who argued that the exhumations were mere propaganda, and that there had been no way of telling whether the bones taken to Saint-Denis were really those of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. According to that scholar, two bodies were needed, and they were picked at random among those in the mass grave. Chateaubriand, far from recognizing the Queen’s smile, was covering up the deception.

I disagree. Oh sure, that was long before the days of DNA testing, but I am sure that the right bones were found and reburied. Why? First, both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were buried in coffins. That made it easy to separate their bones from the hundreds of other remains surrounding them. Also, Descloseaux, the owner of the plot that had been the graveyard of La Madeleine, had attended the initial burials, and he had an excellent reason to remember – and later point out – the exact locations of the royal bodies. He purchased the plot after the graveyard closed, with the idea that someday, upon the restoration of the Bourbons, it would become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Paris. Indeed when Louis XVIII eventually purchased the plot to build the Chapelle Expiatoire, Descloseaux demanded – and received – many times its market value.

This is why I believe that the bodies buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, under the funeral monuments of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (below) are really those of the King and Queen.

And if you visit the Chapelle Expiatoire, in the Square Louis XVI, remember not only the royal couple, but also the other victims of Revolution still resting under the greenery of that little park.

Marie Antoinette St Denis Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette Louis XVI St Denis Basilica

Photograph of the monuments of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Saint-Denis by Eric Pouhier.

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14 Comments to “La Chapelle Expiatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile”

  1. Elisabeth, I feel certain that the tombs of the royal couple contain their remains. Yes, when you come to Paris, you must see Versailles, the Chapelle Expiatoire and Saint-Denis. So many other sites to see too… Leaf through the pages of this blog for more places to visit!

  2. Elisabeth says:

    I was very interested by this post Catherine! I think these Sculptures so poignant and beautiful. I am intrigued by your information. I don’t think Antonia Fraser’s biografie makes any mention of this – I have always hoped that the royal couple’s tomb really did contain the remains of the King and Queen. Especially when one reads the markings on Louis XVI’s Tomb “Roi de France et Navarre” – it is so poignant and one feels it really is the King’s tomb and not like the other Monuments. I must go when I am next in Paris!



  3. Judith says:

    Hello Catherine!
    What a remarkable post. Just incredible. It is interesting to see that their story did not end with the guillotine. Very interesting, I cannot wait to visit the other posts as well. I loved visiting Saint~Denis, it was beautiful and haunting. Every time I visit you, each post is more wonderful than the last! I don’t know how that is possible but it is true!
    Best wishes,

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    And thank you for commenting, Lucy! I am glad this post is attracting such lively interest.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    You will not be disappointed, Catherine!

  6. Lucy says:

    Catherine there are still many obstinates regarding this issue… I’m so glad you posted this! Thank you.

  7. Catherine says:

    Thank you for this wonderful and informative post. I rarely find any information about this important chapel. I will have to visit it next time I’m in Paris.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Elena – Thank you, I am honored.

    Felio – I too love this picture. Saint-Denis is a spectacular place, isn’t it?

    Penny – Yes, the bones are still in Saint-Denis, and yes, they could easily be DNA tested. I haven’t heard of any plans in this regard, though. I am sure they are the right bodies, and so must be enough people to make it unlikely. While it was extremely interesting from a historical standpoint to do DNA testing on the Dauphin’s heart, to find out if he had survived, I don’t see any compelling reason here.

    As for your other question, are the statues alike? Excellent question, and I think the response deserves a separate post, with a close-up.

  9. One of my favourite spots in the city. It is quiet, sober, dignified, and discrete. It’s a great combination of history and art/architecture, and very moving as well.

    Merci encore !

  10. Penny says:

    Interesting. are the bones still available? can they be DNA tested? are these statutes close to the way they looked as adults or idealised?

  11. Felio Vasa says:

    Wonderful post. It was through Mistress of the Revolution that I found out that they, Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette had coffins. The statues of Louis XVI & M.A. at Chapelle Expiatorie are beautiful. I could not take my eye off of the detail of her crown toppling.
    Speaking of which the photo you posted from
    St. Denis of Louis XVI & M.A. is spectacular! They’re one of my most favorite sculpture pieces, ever.

  12. This is so good. I am going to link it to my original post! Excellent!

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    You are most welcome, Julianne! I had long wanted to write this post.

  14. What an interesting post. Thank you!

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