Beauty in Decay
A recent trip to Paris saw me queuing a little uncomfortably to descend into the Catacombs. I knew nothing about the site and was unprepared for the moving sights that awaited below ground.
Originally a quarry, the “Municipal Ossuary” was chosen in the late 18th Century as a site to receive the remains excavated from the ten centuries old Cemetery of the Innocents. The sheer volume of burials there had caused bones to appear in cellars, affecting stored wine and curdling milk. The public health hazard had become so great that the City cemeteries had to close and the remains of their 6 million inhabitants were reinterred haphazardly in the Catacombs, including many of the dead of the French Revolution of 1788-92.
At the turn of the century the popular perception of death shifted from the idea of “returning to God” to the notion of loss. Efforts were made to turn the catacombs into a mausoleum and the bones were stacked in intricate patterns and structures.
Sparsely lit, there is an eerie, other-wordly atmosphere in the corridors as you walk past carefully arranged “walls” of femurs and tibias and well-preserved skulls, some of which outline shapes such as hearts. It is strangely affecting, this art created from human remains. There really is a curious beauty in decay. At the end, of course, all that is left is bones.
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy – 75014 Paris
Open daily from 10am to 8pm, except Mondays and 1st May. Last admission: 7pm.