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Chapelle Expiatoire

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Hardly anyone pays attention to this tidy square, stashed neatly in between the lively Place de la Madeleine and the bustle of the big department stores on Boulevard Haussmann. Hordes of people pass it by every day, few of them aware of the significance of the Greco Roman chapel in the park. Aside from a few children at play in the little playground, and a bench or two occupied by the elderly, this looks to be a peaceful, quiet spot. But in the year 1793, it served a grizzly purpose.

On Monday, January 21, 1793, Louis XVI faced the guillotine on the square now called Place de la Concorde. The year marked the execution of many enemies of the French Revolution, and many innocents were beheaded as well.

Every day headless corpses needed to be disposed of, and bloody carts drove them to the little cemetery, the Madeleine, where they were thrown into a mass grave and covered with lime. It did not matter your rank in life: magistrate, King, writer, servant, all were huddled together in death. Then on October 16th of the same year, two days after being found guilty of treason, Marie Antoinette, the Queen, was taken from the prison, the Conciergerie, and beheaded as well. Her remains were tossed into the grave, near her husband, and it is supposed that over one thousand bodies were dumped into the pit which was dug on this spot, where children now play.

It wasn't until 1815, that King Louis XVIII exhumed the remains of the king and queen, and had them transferred to the royal crypt at Saint Denis. He then proceeded to build a chapel in their honor, completed in 1826, designed by the architect Napoleon employed to erect the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel.

Pierre-Francois-Leonard Fontaine was his name, and his little temple is a somber and dignified jewel box in the middle of the city. Two very touching sculptures, Louis XVI to whom an angel shows the sky by Francois Joseph Bosio and Marie Antoinette supported by Religion by Jean-Pierre Cortot grace the chapel, and at the far end of the room, an altar sits above the place where the royal couple were interred.

There you have it. Two hundred years go by. Who remembers the King and Queen who lived as royals and died like criminals? Here lie the remains of a thousand countrymen, condemned and executed, bones of bodies and skulls flung helter-skelter. Underneath our feet, down where the roots of the shade trees live, they rest. Up here, garden, playground and monument are silent reminders of a country's transition, from ruler to revolution.

Most Parisians can't tell you where the Square Louis XVI can be found, but now you know.

Square Louis XVI
28, rue Pasquier
8th Arrondisement
Metro: St. Augustin
Open: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 1pm-5pm
Closed Jan.1, May 1, Nov.1, Dec.25

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