gallery The Ossuary at the Catacombs of Paris: An Underground Commemoration Space and Exhibitionary Experience (2016)

The Catacombs, which form a veritable labyrinth beneath the very heart of Paris, were created in the galleries of the former quarries whose stone was used to build the capital.

Situated twenty meters below ground, the ossuary contains the remains of approximately six million Parisians, transferred there gradually between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries as graveyards were being closed because of the risk they posed to public health. The first of these was the Cimetière des Innocents graveyard in 1786 in what is now the district of Les Halle.

In the long maze of dark galleries and narrow passages, visitors can see a tableau of death with bones arranged in a macabre display of high Romantic taste. The alexandrine verse “Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la mort” [Halt, this is the realm of Death ] above the entrance to the ossuary is just one of an extensive series of maxims, poems and other sacred and profane passages giving pause for thought during the tour. This unusual site movingly brings the history of the Parisian people back to life and takes visitors on a timeless journey.

The Catacombs represent the interface between the history of Paris and the Earth’s geological evolution. Forty-five million years ago, Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a tropical sea. Dozens of metres of sediment accumulated on the sea bed, forming over time the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today. Geologists worldwide call this period in the history of the world the Lutetian period, alter Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman name for Paris.

As early as the first century AD, the Gallo-Romans were using this limestone to build Lutetia. From the thirteenth century onwards, the open quarries on the slopes along the river Bièvre were replaced by underground workings to supply the huge quantities of stone required to build Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and city ramparts. The supporting pillars, bell-shaped roof cavities, quarrymen’s footbath and Port-Mahon sculpture gallery, all of which can be seen on the tour, bear witness to the fact that mining activity was carried out at the site over the centuries.

The quarrying left empty areas used to create the eighteenth-century ossuary which became the Paris Catacombs.

The bones from several graveyards and churches in Paris undoubtedly include the remains of many famous names from previous centuries including, amongst others, the writers François Rabelais (between 1483 and 1494 -1553), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1698) and Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), the sculptor François Girardon (1628 – 1715), the painter Simon Vouet (I590 – 1649), the architects Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626), Claude Perrault (1613 – 1688) and also Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646 – 1708).

During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs, including members of the Swiss Guard killed in the storming of the Tuileries Palace on 10 August 1792 and victims of the massacres in September 1792. The remains of victims of the guillotine transferred there from their original burial pits include Lavoisier (1743 – 1794), Madame Elisabeth (1764 – 1794), Camille and Lucile Desmoulins (1760 – 1794 and 1771 – 1794), Danton (1759 – 1794) and Robespierre (1758 – 1794).

4 April 1777
: Louis XVI established the Quarries Inspectorate responsible for protecting Parisian quarries.The City of Paris Quarries Inspectorate is currently working on this project.
7 April 1786 : Blessing and consecration of the former Tombe-Issoire quarries, which became the ossuary known as the Catacombs. It took two years to transfer all the bones from the cimetière des Innocents graveyard, which was the largest in Paris.
1787-1814 : Transfer of bones from other Parisian parish graveyards to the Catacombs.
1810-1814 : Héncart de Thury, the Inspector of Quarries, carried out work to make the site accessible to visitors.
1859 : The final transfer of bones takes place during the urban regeneration work carried out by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussmann, who was the Prefect of the Seine Department in France, chosen by the Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban development program.
1983 : Management of the Catacombs is taken over from the Quarries Inspectorate by the City of Paris Cultural Affairs Division.
2002 : Catacombs officially become part of the Carnavalet – History of Paris Museum.
2008 : The Catacombs reopen after three months of work, notably in the Port-Mahon gallery, which had been closed since 1995.

20 metres : The depth of the Catacombs, equivalent to a five-story building
213 : The total number of staircase steps during the tour (130 to go down and 83 to reach the exit)
2 kilometres : The distance covered by the tour
45 minutes : The average duration of the tour
14°C : The constant temperature in the Catacombs
11,000 sq. m : The surface area of the ossuary
800 metres : The length of the galleries in the ossuary
6 – 7 million : The number of Parisians whose remains lie in the Catacombs

Via the Mairie de Paris Catacomb Museum Website


Spiral staircase that leads down from the street level to the catacombs below
Spiral staircase that leads down from the street level to the catacombs below, via a building at Place Denfert-Rochereau

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All photos by Cranium Corporation, 2016


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