Monday, 11 May 2009

What to see: Empress Joséphine’s tomb, Rueil-Malmaison

While hundreds or even thousands of people every day flock to the Invalides to see the sarcophagus of Emperor Napoléon I few go to see the tomb of his first wife, Empress Joséphine, in the parish church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul in Rueil-Malmaison, just outside Paris.
Hers was the “most extraordinary destiny in history”, wrote the historian André Castelot. Born on a plantation in Martinique she first came to France as the child-bride of the nobleman Alexandre de Beauharnais, who soon deserted her. Unlike him she narrowly escaped execution during the Terror of 1794, became the mistress of Paul Barras, one of the Directors who ruled France in those years, and then became the wife of the up-and-coming General Napoléon Bonaparte.
Soon he ruled most of Europe and after eight years of marriage Joséphine found herself Empress of the French and Queen of Italy. But after thirteen years of childless marriage the Emperor divorced her to be able to beget an heir. This longed-for heir was to die at 21, bringing Napoléon’s line to an end, while it was Joséphine’s grandson who restored the French Empire and her descendants who sit on five of the ten European thrones today.
The repudiated Empress died at her small palace Malmaison on 29 May 1814, just as Napoléon had fallen from power and been deported to Elba. The monument on the tomb was done by the sculptors Cartellier and Berthault and paid for by the Empress’s children Eugène and Hortense. It was completed in 1825 and shows Joséphine kneeling in her famous pose from Le Sacre, David’s painting of her coronation. Queen Hortense’s tomb is on the opposite side and in the church is also the tomb of Joséphine’s uncle, Robert Tascher de La Pagerie.
On 26 April 1821, nine days before he died at St Helena, lonely and deserted by his second wife, Napoléon had expressed a wish to be buried with Joséphine in Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul if the Bourbons would not let him rest in Saint-Denis, but after nineteen years in a nameless grave on St Helena it was to the Invalides that his remains were brought.
There are always lots of people in the Invalides. The first time I visited Joséphine’s tomb the church was empty. The second time I came there it was also empty, but someone had left a flower for the good Empress.
The first two pictures show the Empress’s tomb, followed by the exterior and interior of the church and the tomb of Queen Hortense.

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