What happens when you get a history fanatic, a Catholic, and a graveyard obsessed nut together? You go to all the church’s in Paris that’s what!
My parents are here in town for my graduation from Le Cordon Bleu and we’re sight seeing. My mom is a history-o-holic. She’s probably the only person on earth who’s interested in touring France for it’s Sistercian Abbey’s (not for the wine and cheese). She’s also the only person I know that can correct tour guides on their facts. God, I love her.
My Stepdad is the Catholic. Growing up in a strict Lithuanian Catholic family, he is able to decipher many of the symbols that elude my mom and me. However, I think the church has mixed memories for him and when I asked if he wanted to light a candle for anyone the other day, the answer was a firm “No.” Then he joked and said, “I’d rather buy some indulgences…”
I’m the graveyard obsessed nut. When I was a child if we passed a graveyard on a road trip I would throw a fit until we stopped and walked through it. I had my gravestone picked out by the time I was six. This worried my parents greatly and still continues to mystify my Mom. I’ve always been fascinated with death and burial rituals.
We arrived at St. Denis, the famous final resting place of all the French Kings and Queens, on a cloudy morning . Many of my notorious favorites are buried here including Catherine Medici (who brought artichokes to France) and Marie Antoinette (Let them eat cake). According to my mother, it is also one of the earliest gothic churches, although it was embelished by later peiods, and influenced famous churches like Chartres.
The outside is in bad shape. In fact, we thought we had come to the wrong place. We were surprised once we walked inside to see the vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. We headed to the crypt, with morbid curiosity.
During the Revolution most of the tombs were desecrated. Many years later restoration was begun under Napoleon I to consecrate the church as the Imperial burial place. Under his authority the search began for the bones and relics of all those naughty Queens and Kings that had been dumped into two pits outside the church by the revolutionaries. Thankfully, the mausoleums had been preserved underneath the church and were restored above later.
The mausoleums are incredible. Those made after 1285 are lifelike, carved from death masks. Many of these are of King’s and Queen’s together naked on their deathbed showing detailed muscular structure, hair, and features. I was surprised to find out that they had been commissioned this way by the royalty themselves. Above their twisted deathbed statues they are dressed in coronation clothes showing their former decorated selves.
Marie d’Espagne really gave me the heeby-jeebies. I was taking a picture of her when I noticed that she was looking at me. I put my camera down to rub my eyes and make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, and her eyes seemed normal again – a blank marble slate with no pupil or retina or direction. When I went to take another picture, I could swear she was looking at me again. I changed the angle of my camera to see if it was the lighting, but no matter where I moved, there she was peering at me from the corner of her eye. I showed my mom the pics after we left the church and we both got shivers.
Marie Antoinette’s masouleum is saintly. She looks like a perfect little beautiful Queen deep in humble prayer. To betray otherwise, we noticed that her breasts are haflway popping out of her dress (unlike all the other Queens) and they are shiny from people rubbing them. It must be the new buddha-like tradition in St. Denis – rubbing Marie Antoinette’s breasts. Although, I can’t see how that would bring anybody luck. Nonetheless, there is something about her, even her statue, that is intriguing. Can’t wait to see the new film coming out on her. I hope it’s good and not too forgiving of the spoiled Queen.
As we walked out of the church back through the nave, my Stepdad remarked on the incredible architecture, “Imagine, they did all this without a computer or anything, just with their hands. Funny how enlightened we are today and we can’t build anything as beautiful as this.” We all paused to admire the endless archways and heavenly light peering in through the stained glass one last time before heading to the duldrums of metro Line 13.