The Expiatory Chapel was erected on the site of the former Madeleine cemetery, which opened in 1722. During the French Revolution, this cemetery, close to where the guillotine was set up on the Place de la Révolution [now Place de la Concorde], received the bodies of over 500 of its victims. It was closed in 1794.
Louis XVI, executed on 21 January 1793, followed by Marie-Antoinette, on 16 October 1793, are among those convicted and buried in the Madeleine Cemetery. During the Restoration, on 21 January 1815, Louis XVIII had the remains of the royal couple transferred to the Saint-Denis Basilica, the burial place of the kings of France.
Work started on building the Expiatory Chapel in 1816, after the transfer of the royal remains; it is a commemorative monument. It was designed as a reminder of the sin of Louis XVI’s death, and the primacy of the principle of monarchy. The architect Pierre Fontaine, assisted by Hippolyte Lebas, directed the construction. Neoclassical in style, with strong Romantic influences, the Expiatory Chapel was completed in 1826.
In the nave, two monumental sculptures illustrate the drama of the sovereigns. Jean-Pierre Cortot portrays the Queen with the features of Mary Magdalene. In an imploring pose, she is supported by the austere figure of Religion. Engraved on the pedestal is the last letter written by the queen on the morning of her execution. She faces the Apotheosis of Louis XVI, by the sculptor Joseph Bosio. Supported by an angel showing him the way to heaven, the King is represented in his coronation cloak decorated with fleurs de lys. Louis XVI’s will was engraved in marble at the foot of the statue.
This building, “perhaps the most remarkable monument in Paris”, according to Chateaubriand, is situated in the heart of the 8th arrondissement, in the square Louis XVI.