Although this is an unusually macabre subject for me, it has its poignancy. In 2016, I visited Paris and toured the catacombs beneath the city. The skeletons of six million people — the contents of several cemeteries and churches, victims of the plague and French Revolution, and victims of other natural and, often obviously unnatural, causes — have lain under the city for hundreds of years. Constructed around 1774 to house the skeletons of bodies from Paris’s overflowing cemeteries, the catacombs were a popular venue for concerts and parties in the 1800s, and finally opened for tourism in 1874.
Nowadays, the tour is an incredible glimpse into Paris’s history. I walked past the remains of children, adults who died in a variety of violent and nonviolent ways. The evidence of trepanning — the practice of drilling holes in a cranium to relieve pressure — was on many of the skulls lining the halls. One had an obvious axe cut into the skull.
It was an emotional, somber experience for me. Each “room” cut into the sides of the tunnel had bones stacked in different ways. I passed a sign for a small children’s cemetery, and the skulls were stacked artfully between femurs in such a way that it formed a heart shape. Some rooms were full of nothing but skulls. Others stacked up to eye level with ribs, and still others nearly touching the ceilings with pelvises. Stacked in artful manners, creating designs with the bones. One column is wrapped with stacked femurs and skulls in a barrel shape.
The sheer number of people this represents is staggering. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Each person had a life like mine, full of good and bad experiences, love, hatred, tears and laughter. And in one of the hundreds of little rooms, thousands of lives might be reflected. It was cramped with a spiritual presence, heavy with import. It was hard to have space for my own soul in this place.
I wandered slowly through them, looking for the right piece to paint, knowing immediately on entering that I would be honoring at least one. I considered one with a violent death, but that would be too dark for me. I considered a child’s skull, but that was too emotional. I settled on this one – a fair representation and able to be perfectly captured in situ.
It represents one life. Of six million others I passed in my tour.
It is like considering the heavens, to see history compressed into such a short time and space, to try to imagine the millions of lives, events, emotions, bonds, sins that culminated in that underground ossuary. It is beautiful and astounding, and it changed me deeply, forever.
9×12 Watercolor on Paper