There is a very short distance from the Place de la Concorde, formerly Place de la Revolution, to the garden where the Chapelle éxpiatoire has been erected. The grim horse-drawn cart carrying the bodies of all the beheaded men and women left the execution spot through the Rue Boissy d’Anglas, hip address for the Buddha Bar and turned at the angle of the Rue St Honoré where a century later the House of Hermès would blazon to the world luxury and exclusivity. From there, the cart headed for the Cemetery of the Madeleine, a simple piece of land acquired by the local parish in 1720.
The bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were unceremoniously dumped in one of the seven common graves existing at the time in that insalubrious spot, although unlike the rest of the guillotined, in separate coffins. In 1794 the piling of corpses forced the authorities to close the burial ground. With the fragile advent of the Bourbon Restoration, Louis XVIII, after transferring the royal remains to St Denis, wanted to render homage to his brother and sister-in-law and commissioned Pierre Fontaine to design on that location the Chapelle éxpiatoire, a landmark of late neoclassical style.
This curious and overlooked monument stands on a slight rise, severe in its architectural purity, bare of contents and sitting awkwardly one block away from the mayhem of office workers, department stores and commuter station that have colonized the urban surroundings. Upon entering the cubic space we are submerged in a sense of deep reverence and nostalgia. The designer succeeded in making the volumes and the space exude loss and sadness. This is a slice of the collective memory of France, a magnificent cenotaph and a political statement uncomfortably managed till recently by the successive ideologies in power but finally left in peace to speak to us about events that shaped the country.