Sunday, June 25, 2017

Old Paris Cemeteries Exude Unique Artistry

A dazzling and dizzying variety of grave markers are daily on public display to those who care to visit places of death.
This image is a microcosm of how there are so many different ways people can be honored and remembered with cemetery art.
On the left is a life size figure of someone who must have been very important during his life in Paris or elsewhere in France.
And on the right is an ancient gowned woman in a mourning pose with a lyre behind her.

Justin (pictured), Joseph, his girlfriend Tamy and I ventured to what is safe to say one of the most famous cemeteries in the world:  Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise.  
Pere-Lachaise, which opened in 1804, has many distinctions.  According to Wikipedia, it is the first rural cemetery and the first municipal one.

Its size is 110 acres and it is one packed, high volume grave site.  I find it hard to believe that there are 1 million people buried here, as Wikipedia states.  But maybe it does have that many "residents."

Rural cemeteries were designed to look like parks, with lots of pathways, trees and other landscaping features.

 The "rural" cemetery allowed individuals and families to acquire larger plots than may have been available in the city and church graveyards.
But most plots at these old Paris cemeteries are pretty small. You don't see the larger, expansive ones common in American rural cemeteries, such as Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, which dates to 1850, and about which I have written two books.
To, I suppose, compensate for the small plot size, many families opted for this style of grave marker, which is one I have never seen before.
The look of these tall narrow structures reminds me of the old telephone booths that today's ubiquitous personal cell phones have made virtually extinct.
This design could be considered a form of mausoleum.

Mausoleums are usually much larger.  So perhaps this style is a mini-mausoleum?
Many of these are family plots, with multiple people either buried below or with cremation remains in or beneath the structure.
I took a peak inside one and saw an altar of sorts with plaques on each side.  This grave site, which dates to the 19th century, looks very good for its age.
Each of my "telephone booth" photos above was taken at a second very large and old Paris cemetery.

This one is Cimetiere due Montparnasse.
Like Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Montparnasse is a densely packed stone necropolis.
Montparnasse Cemetery opened in 1824.  It consists of 47 acres and has 35,000 people buried here.

Like Pere Lachaise, there are many creative, artistic and unusual grave sites.
A young man (left) pays his respects at Montparnasse.

This cemetery is one of four (including Pere Lachaise) that opened after Paris officials, in 1786, banned cemeteries within the city.  This time period is when the Catacombs was becoming the underground depository for the skeletons of the dead that were being dug up around Paris due to growing public health concerns about having so many grave sites where so many people lived. See my earlier post from Paris about our visit to the Catacombs.
At Pere Lachaise, we were able to find, with some assistance, what many would consider a must-see grave- that of Jim Morrison, the singer of the rock band The Doors who died in Paris in 1971.
It was and wasn't an easy grave to find.
Morrison's grave is small and not on a main path. It doesn't stand out for its size or design, but does for all the people often gathered around it and for the many fresh (and plastic) flowers and other tributes left by fans.

Someone online said if you are walking around the cemetery and smell the smoke of marijuana, you are likely close to Jim Morrison's grave.
That wasn't the case for us.
Years ago there was a bust of Morrison atop his headstone, but vandals ruined that.

There is a security officer on hand usually.  We saw one who came out of nowhere when I tried to add our name on some nearby bamboo that was inscribed by many prior visitors.
The inscription on Morrison's headstone is as follows:
James Douglas Morrison
1943-1971
Kata Ton Aimona Eaytoy

Translation of this Greek phrase:  "True To His Own Spirit"

I have long been a fan of Jim Morrison and The Doors.  So visiting his final resting place was something I was eager to do, especially in the company of my two sons.

Jim Morrison was just 27 when he died of heart failure in the bathtub of his Paris apartment.

More on his time in Paris can be read here.

I hope, Jim, that you did "break on through to the other side" and that it was Heaven you broke into and that you and Pamela are happy there.
Next, I'd like to share some of my favorite grave site photographs from these two very old and influential Paris cemeteries, Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise.

Before coming to Paris, I had never seen Jesus on the cross sculptures on top of tombs.

At Montparnasse I came upon several like this. And what a powerful Christian image these project, especially one so large like this one.

The deceased must have been a strong believer in Christ and all His goodness to be buried with Jesus on the cross adorning and protecting his or her tomb.

Busts of the departed are also seen frequently at the two Paris cemeteries.
At the American Victorian cemeteries I have visited, busts like these are not as common.

Beginning in the early 19th century, Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise set the bar high for artistry and excellence.
Antonin Proust (1832-1905) was a very distinguished looking man. He was a French journalist and politician. Another distinction is that a portrait of him was painted by the French artist Edouard Manet.

His life did not have a happy ending, as he shot himself in the head, dying two days later.
Busts do help bring to life these places of death- maybe just a little.
Each of the two old Paris cemeteries I toured is known for being the final resting place of top writers, poets, actors and musicians.

Maurice du Plessys was a French poet who lived from 1864-1924.  He is in Wikipedia, so he must have been at least fairly famous and well known!
Famille Albrecht is inscribed on the front of this Albrecht family grave at Montparnasse Cemetery.
Mr. Albrecht (sorry I couldn't tell his military rank) appeared to have served in the French Army in World War I.
This is a bust of French Gen. Emmanuel Felix de Wimpffen (1811-1884) at Pere Lachaise.

De Wimpffen, of Austrian descent, is most known perhaps for having to surrender a defeated army in the Franco-Prussian War in 1859.
This is a poignant sculpture atop the Durie family crypt at Pere Lachaise.

A bereaved woman has her arm around a stone engraved with an image of Mr. Durie.

The family must have been proud of this beautiful remembrance and comforted to know that perhaps others in the family may one day rest eternally here also.
Here is the impressive sculpture above the grave of Pierre Frederic Dorian, a French industrialist (iron works, weapons, cutlery) and politician. He lived from 1814-1873.  Wikipedia calls him an "iron master."
I learned of this elaborate and unique Pere Lachaise grave site before our visit. It was listed on a website as one of 10 "fascinating" graves at Pere Lachaise, coming in at No. 4.

Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) was his name.


The brief write up says how he lived to only age 32, dying of tuberculosis.

But Gericault left behind great work, including at least one piece, "Raft of the Medusa," that is quite popular at the Louvre.

But you don't have to visit the great Louvre art museum to see Gericault's masterpeice.  It is depicted on his large sarcophagus below the relaxed life size sculpture of the relaxed artist at work. See the above photo for the replica of his masterpiece.

This amazing cemetery sculpture is also one of my favorites.  It shows two bearded men, side by side, holding hands.

The crypt dates to 1871.  This was definitely one I needed to know more about, so later in the day I would search online the names engraved on the side.
These men were Spinelli and Sivel. They were adventurous balloonists who had set world records for the great heights they reached.

But in 1875 in an attempt to go even higher they would die aboard their balloon named Zenith some 28,000 feet up in the sky.

Their story is told here.
After their tragic deaths, the men became national heroes, considered "martyrs of science."
To wrap up this post, I'd like to show several more of my favorite grave markers from each Paris necropolis, starting with Montparnasse Cemetery.
This one, hands down, is among the most creative grave designs I've ever seen.
From the grave, these hands are reaching to the sky, to heaven, holding a cross designed with hearts.
Allison Meier, in 2013, included this Montparnasse grave marker in her post, titled" The Tombs of Artists: A Last Statement From the Grave."

She pointed out this one is the work of the sculptor buried here, a Spaniard named Baltasar Lobo who lived from 1910-1993.  Meier describes this piece as a figure mourning or at rest on his grave.

Wikipedia describes Lobo as "an artist, anarchist and sculptor best known for his compositions depicting mother and child."
Zamora, Spain, near his birthplace, has a museum named for him.
I found this Jesus depiction interesting and beautiful.  I like both the facial expression and the expression conveyed in the positions of His hands and arms.

It also has a simplistic starkness to it.  No words or epitaph accompany this Jesus art.  The onlooker needs to take it in and decide for himself or herself what the message is here.
Montparnasse is on land that used to be agricultural.  One remnant of that time remains.

This is an old flour windmill that has survived the centuries. The wind generating "wings" are long gone, but the structure stands tall.  It once served as the home of the cemetery's caretaker.

Today it is closed off with a fence around it.  Fits in nicely amid the varied stone structures, don't you think?
This is another lovely artist grave site. Auguste Rubin (1841-1909) was a French sculptor.

The young child seems to be depicted as having inscribed Rubin's name and birth/death dates on the tall marker, below Rubin's profiled image at the top.

The boy has started a line to draw or write something next.
But what?  That is the question I am left pondering....
For artistry and detail this large sarcophagus gets high marks.

The women on top is full sized, relaxed but pensive.

Below on one side are four faces in profile.  Family members, I think it's safe to say.
On the other side of the sarcophagus is a sculptured figure that is similar to the woman at the top.
This side sculpture is alone a beautiful piece of art.

When combined with everything else within this fenced grave marker creates a true masterpiece of cemetery art.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery is just as potent with powerful imagery.

The beautiful sculpture in the foreground of my photograph is of a woman, possibly an angel, with her arm around a boy.

It marks the grave of French politician and writer Eugene Spuller (1835-1896). He was a high level minister and cabinet member in different French administrations.  He was involved on July 4, 1884 when the French government presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

The sculpture on his grave is a representation of a work called "National Education" by Paul Gasq, according to Wikipedia.
This massive columned temple of a grave marker is of an angel in recline.  Her arm is broken off, but it is still lovely in how she is in this leisurely pose, which I don't think I've seen before at a cemetery.

The red roses only accent the beauty of this work.
All of the people sitting around this elevated sarcophagus makes this Pere Lachaise grave site stand out.

There is a lot going on here, so many women in different poses with different expressions on their faces.
This one also impresses with its size, scale and scene of a woman seemingly floating over the man on his death bed.
It's elegance is not only in the sculpture, but also the flower boxes beneath it.

The neighboring grave to the right is also strong symbolically and in sheer size and detail.
This is another favorite of mine for its life-like figures.

Such a moving scene here, such emotions.
This unusual grave marker reminds me of the one I show earlier in this post of hands at Montparnasse Cemetery.

It is a stark design of someone's arms coming up through the ledger stone.
There is a wristwatch on the left arm.  I did check to see if it showed a time.  It does not.
I have always said that old cemeteries and graveyards like this in Paris are akin to outdoor art galleries.

I truly believe that. The creativity and craftsmanship are outstanding. And all done with hammers, chisels and other tools we today would consider very crude.
The 19th century in Europe and here in America was the golden age for stone cutters.

People back then, if they had the financial means, were willing to spend large sums of money to have created such iconic masterpieces for their deceased loved ones.
The quality of the material of which they were made stands the test of time.

The spirituality, humanity and symbolism continue to provoke and inspire to this day.
These visits to Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse in Paris, plus our visits to the Catacombs and other local historic sites have given me much to ponder that can be added to the course I teach at the College of Charleston titled "Beyond the Grave: What Old Cemeteries Tell and Teach the Living."
And to experience Pere Lachaise with my boys (from left) Justin and Joseph (and Tamy, Josephs's girlfriend) made this an even more special day--- with our Jim Morrison "find a grave" adventure and everything else we saw together walking around this strangely rich and exotic place.
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