17 May 2008

People visit Paris for many reasons. Some come to enjoy the fine food and café ambiance, others for the burlesque and nightlife, still others to see the historic sights. There are some, though, who come as pilgrims to visit the sacred places—of which there are many in Paris.

The famous steps of Montmartre

As I mentioned in my previous post, we recently made a little pilgrimage to the city of lights, where we stayed at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre. Paris is a sprawling city, and with only a few days available, we had to choose carefully which sites we would see. One always underestimates the amount of time travel can take crossing the city, and, needless to say, we didn’t make it to all the places we had originally planned. Maneuvering about by the metro is no easy task with two little children and a bulky stroller. Nonetheless, we saw much in the short amount of time we had.

Entrance to the Conciergerie

One place I made a special point of seeing was the Conciergerie, which housed 2,700 prisoners during the Reign of Terror, including our beloved Queen Marie-Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI for several months before they were murdered. Elena Maria Vidal's Tea at Trianon is an excellent resource on all things relating to the Queen.

In honor of the Queen’s memory, King Louis XVIII ordered the original cell in which she was held to be turned into a chapel. Today, you can see an altar before the entrance to her little prison; the entrance itself is draped in rich black velvet with gold fringe, and bears the royal insignia.

In the little entryway, a plaque commemorates the executed king and husband of Marie-Antoinette.

The Queen’s cell, a truly tiny room, bears three oil paintings in her honor, including one depicting the scene from her last Mass offered by Abbé Magnin, held secretly at midnight in her chamber before she went to the scaffold. You can read about the incredible account here.

The little window that looks out onto the Cour des Femmes has been fitted with stained glass bearing the Queen’s initials.

The Cour des Femmes, or women’s courtyard, where the prisoner was allowed a brief walk each day.

Another view of the courtyard.

The Queen’s window from the courtyard (center). From here in the last days of her life she would gaze out onto the concrete enclosure and remember the liberty, which the revolutionaries loudly proclaimed for France, violently taken from her.

In another section of the Conciergerie, the Queen’s cell has been faithfully replicated. Here, one can see a statue of the Queen meditating before a crucifix on her table, while one of the two guards always on duty looks on (in fact, there were four guards, two at a time, who switched guard each day). All the Queen had to protect her modesty was a rude screen set up between her and the male soldiers, who refused to leave even when she had to change dress.

A view of the Queen’s bed.

From Jacques Herissay’s essay on the Queen and her final Mass:

The Conciergerie thus sees on this night the unfurling of the most unexpected of spectacles, a spectacle that, if they could have suspected it, would have made foam with rage the Héberts, the Chaumettes, the Chabots, the Clootzes, the Momoros, these fools who believed they could forever abolish the beliefs of the past.

The little wooden table has been transformed into an altar, two trembling lights brighten the pale face of the priest, whose voice is going to call down Our Lord in the Host; behind, lost in shadow, Marie-Antoinette, Miss Fouché, and the two soldiers kneel, following, without misssing a single thing, the liturgical gestures and words; then, when the moment for communion comes, the queen, the first, approaches the Holy Table, then it is Miss Fouche's turn, and finally, very humbly, the guards receive their God.

Nothing is suspected; the cell's vaults will keep their secret, and, the ceremony now ended, when Fr. Magnin and his companion return to their lodgings, Marie-Antoinette, remaining alone with her guardians, will have the long hours to pray to Him Who will give her the strength to climb, to the end, her calvary.

Jacques Hérissay, Les Aumôniers de la Guillotine, Chapitre II, 1963

Marie-Antoinette, priez pour nous!

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