Before war, plague or famine could carry them to the grave, the people of 15th century Europe were out for a good time. And between a bustling Parisian marketplace and patchwork of burial pits, their determination became a work of art. It was the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery danse macabre.
Within the walls of the oldest and largest burial site in Paris, mass graves capable of holding 1,500 dead lay open until full. Outside (and often spilling in), the market of Les Halles brought together merchants, artists and criminals from across the city. No wonder the first danse macabre appeared here. The reminder of mortality – and the need to enjoy it before it was too late – was all around.
In ways too numerous to count, it’s too late for me.
Holy Innocents’ Cemetery is long gone. Its danse macabre is destroyed. Its contents now populate the Paris Catacombs. Yet the Fountain of Innocents, originally built in the 16th century, remains to mark the site. In my journeys around Paris, I’d walked past it many times. In various states of distraction, I vowed each time to read up and come back later.
But on a visit to Place Joachim du Bellay, the former site of Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, its danse macabre and the monument to its memory, I found my chance had come and gone.
Reputations never die
Through the arcade, I watched queues snake outside stores selling must-have sportswear. Restaurant delivery drivers waited for orders to buzz on their phones. People without jobs to go to – or who, like me, did most of their work after the sun went down – congregated and called out.
As I was lining up my first photograph, a leathery man with a loose-fitting suit crossed my frame with a hand out in apology. When he saw what I intended to capture, he asked in French, “Do you know the story?” I replied simply and there was his hand again, this time held up in approbation. He took a conspiratorial step closer and, in a low voice, warned me to guard my camera closely. In fact, he was the first of four well-meaning locals to make a similar suggestion. My experiences in Saint Denis indicated that local prejudices should be taken with a pinch of salt. But I was reluctant to receive a fifth warning – or experience anything worse.
The dead were gone but the neighbourhood’s reputation wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed, as the summer afternoon wore into evening, Les Halles and the former site of Holy Innocents’ Cemetery erupted into rowdy life. I decided, fatefully, to return in the peace of the next morning.
The beginning of the end
As part of Philippe Auguste’s crusade to fortify Paris, three-metre-high walls transformed a local burial plot into Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in 1190. Close to the heart of Paris, it grew as the city did. By the 14th century, cemetery workers and local officials were looking for a way to empty and reuse the communal burial pits.
The fortifications of Philippe Auguste’s day found a new purpose. They no longer just kept the living out but held the dead inside. Charnel houses, built in arcades along the cemetery walls, collected the relocated remains of the cemetery’s oldest residents. The danse macabre appeared soon afterwards, between 1424 and 1425.
Although widely considered the earliest visual example, the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery danse macabre drew on a rich history. Death personified as a companion to the living was a common device in spoken and illustrated sermons. The character was a popular staple of village pageants and stately masked balls. But if the memory of death was only fleeting in those moments, the anonymous artist responsible for the fifteen panels sought to make it permanent.
In a way, the artist succeeded. Across the fifteen panels, fifteen scenes saw death conversing with the living. Below, four stanzas of poetry related messages universal to pope, knight, emperor and child alike. Many live on today as French-language sayings – though archaic ones.
“Qui trop embrasse mal étreint,” read one. He who takes too much holds little.
Another: “A toute peine est dû salaire.” All pain deserves pay.
Of course, no words were required to communicate the most important warning of all.
You don’t have forever
I’d told the kind stranger that I knew the story. But it became clear very quickly that I’d failed to understand it. Overnight, the Fountain of Innocents had, like the cemetery it stood for, been walled off from public view.
The city’s plans to restore the fountain had eluded me completely. So, while the complete report does include some truly unique perspectives, I regret to inform you that you will have to wait for mine. And if you knew the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery danse macabre, you’d undertake that wait with caution.
The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery danse macabre is a memento mori forgotten
Over the centuries, Holy Innocents’ Cemetery earned a reputation as a place barely fit for the living. Let alone worthy of the dead. Here, animals roamed for food, anatomists looted graves and commoners exchanged illegal goods and services.
Things were reported to have gotten especially depraved when, during the siege of Paris by the future King Henry IV, starving residents ran out of rats to eat and fed their families with human remains. Twenty years later, the same Henry IV would indirectly trigger the cemetery’s transformation from place of moral ruin into just plain ruin. His assassination occurred on 14 May 1610, while his carriage halted on the narrow Rue de la Ferronnerie.
The culprit was François Ravaillac but his accomplice was the setting. The response, albeit a slow one, was to widen the street. And the price was the destruction of the wall separating Rue de la Ferronnerie from Holy Innocents’ Cemetery – the rear wall of the charnel house containing the danse macabre.
Today, there are two plaques and one historical marker dedicated to the assassination – but no remains of or even reference to the danse macabre.
This was the beginning of the slow end for Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. A century later, the French government would place a ban on burials within the Paris city limits. The charnel houses were demolished. And most of their contents moved to the Paris Catacombs.
But some relics still survive.
Remains of Holy Innocents’ Cemetery
On the clear and quiet summer morning of my return to Place Joachim du Bellay, some hope remained.
Walking to the corner of Rue Saint-Denis and Rue Berger, I tried to keep my chin up. It helped that I was looking for something. Preserved in the exterior wall above a bar was another fountain I’d read about. Built by Jean Goujon to celebrate the coronation of King Henry II, it was one of the few things saved and preserved while the cemetery crumbled around it.
For another, I’d have to walk a little further.
Later that day, in a room in the Louvre packed with funerary art, I faced another significant relic from Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. This alabaster skeleton was found in the charnel houses and known as la Mort Saint-Innocent. Of course, even behind glass, there would be no stopping him. On his cartouche, I read the inscription.
Il n’est vivant tant soit plein d’art / Ne de force pour résistance / Que je ne frappe de mon dart / Pour bailler aux vers leur pitance / Priez dieu pour les trepassés.
There is no living man / No matter his talent / Who can resist my sting / And deny worms their meal / Pray for the dead.
It was an unexpected and genuine source of disappointment to be unable to share my experience of the Fountain of Innocents with you, dear reader. But assuming that war, plague or famine don’t carry me to the grave before then, I intend to return to the site when it reopens.
But who can say for certain? The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery danse macabre is long gone. But its message echoes through the centuries. I don’t have forever.