Friday, October 16, 2009

The Empire of the Dead

Magnet # 65: Flags of the Eiffel Tower, Paris

Material: Resin

Purchased By: Dad

Aah, Paris - it's the city of lights, love, and art. It's also the city that sits atop about 185 miles of tunnels displaying the remains of around 6 million bodies. What, you haven't heard about the Catacombs of Paris before? It's perhaps Paris' least advertised tourist destination and one of the creepiest places in the world.

In the late seventeenth century, graveyards in Paris, particularly the almost ten centuries old Les Innocents cemetery, were beginning to overwhelm the city, bringing illnesses and diseases to those living nearby. Finally, a solution was arrived upon: bodies were to be buried outside the city in the future and those already interred there would be moved to empty quarries beneath Paris. For years, under the cover of night, bones were moved to these areas in processions overseen by priests, where they were displayed all over the walls. Artistic care was taken in this arrangement and the skulls and other body parts were often assembled in shapes, such as a cross or a heart. One sign at the entrance even proclaims (in French) "Stop! Here is the empire of the dead." The photographs of these ossuaries are equal parts fascinating and revolting. In the time since their creation, they have grown into a morbid tourist destination. Even Napoleon III once visited them with his son. And they continue to draw in as many as 250,000 curious guests a year.

It's funny - I've heard people swear they will never visit Paris, yet waver in their resolve when I bring up the Catacombs. But nobody will be touring them this Halloween, and perhaps not anytime soon. Vandals broke in on the night of September 11 and caused some damage, knocking over stacks of bones and making pathways unsafe for visitors. Until the authorities can make some sense of what happened and perhaps make arrests, the Catacombs are closed to the public indefinitely. Personally, I hope the jerks who did this unleashed some sort of curse and their punishment will be more of the supernatural variety, but I guess that's unlikely to happen. Then again, you never know in a place as otherworldly as the Catacombs.

Even with all of my online magnet searches, I've never seen a magnet of the Catacombs, but I would love to get one someday. I decided to post this one today not only to mention this creepy locale but because it's the 216th anniversary of Marie Antoinette's execution at the guillotine in 1793. Usually, I'd rather commemorate a birth instead of a death, but for this month's theme, the latter seems appropriate. Although her life ended sadly in imprisonment, a ridiculously unfair trial, and beheading, Marie Antoinette continues to fascinate modern history buffs and audiences alike. Some portray her as a self-indulgent traitor who didn't care about the suffering of others, so long as she lived in extravagance. Others see her as a penitent, loving mother thrown into a world she didn't understand and used as a scapegoat by the Revolution. There are two modern film portrayals of her that are worth a watch. Of course, there's Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette where Kirsten Dunst plays her as a somewhat confused and scared girl trying to gain control of the situation in which she has landed. Watching this opulent film with all of its gorgeous costumes, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the title character. If you'd like a less friendly adaptation of the doomed monarch, Joley Richardson did a wonderful job portraying her in a supporting role in the film The Affair of the Necklace. It tells of how a scandal regarding the aforementioned necklace helped contribute to Marie Antoinette's demise. Hilary Swank stars and The Mentalist's Simon Baker is pretty funny playing a French gigolo. It's said to be based on true events and offers a far less happy ending than that of Marie Antoinette. Watching both of these can help establish a more well-rounded view of the former Queen of France.

So there you have it - the other side of Paris. It may be considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world but it has its own wicked deeds and dark places to contend with. I think it is a place of extremities: for every beautiful monument or lavish painting in the Louve, there is a woeful tale from the French Revolution or a skull on display in the Catacombs. Its streets have been both scattered with gold and filled with blood. Fortunately for modern residents and tourists, the opulence of Paris dominates most of the city and the tokens of the sins of its past are quietly tucked away where only the more determined can find them.


  1. I'm slowly getting addicted to your blog. I love the information you come up with and now I'm even more wanting to enable your magnet addiction :)

  2. FYI: Here is a catacombs inspired magnet (probably not quite what you want as it doesn't list the Paris location specifically or use an actual picture)

  3. Thank you both! That is a very cool magnet - I will have to do a Zazzle order someday.

    And yes, enable me - enabling is good...