Come with me on a journey into the past. Paris awaits!
Along the tree lined avenues and winding pathways of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, stone angels stand in silent sentinel over the maze of tombs. Cats rest upon graves warmed by the sun or seek out the shadows, whilst gendarmes cast a watchful eye over the many curious visitors to this iconic hillside.
Down one of the many lanes, midst old iron fretwork and uneven cobbles, you might come across an ornate crypt, believed to be the last resting place of a famous medieval couple. Perhaps you’ve heard of them – Heloise and Abelard?
Their tale was one of the most enduring love stories to arise from the 12th century….
Peter Abelard was a prominent theologian and philosopher at Notre Dame Cathedral. I immediately imagine him to be handsome and charismatic, perhaps even a little bit stuffy.
His life changed when Fulbert, a canon and close friend, asked him to tutor his niece. Enter Heloise – a rich, young noblewoman of outstanding intellect with an aptitude for the classics. Who knew Rhetoric, Latin, Greek or Hebrew could be so exciting?
Heloise soon fell under her teacher’s spell. A son was born. A secret marriage followed, though the lass was a reluctant partner because she feared it would damage her lover’s career. But the die was cast. Enraged by the scandalous relationship, Heloise’s protective uncle and guardian had Abelard castrated, and Eloise confined to a convent.
A tragic outcome to be sure, but their tale does not end there. For many years, the couple maintained a fruitful, supportive correspondence, each assisting the other in their grief, and in time their intellectual pursuits and earthly duties. Heloise rose to become an abbess of a convent (a gift from Abelard): the name of which, Paraclete, was Greek for ‘one who consoles’. Not surprisingly, she excelled in the highly complex administrative role. And in 1125, Abelard was elevated by the monks of an abbey in Brittany to be their abbot.
A miracle to my mind is that some of the couple’s letters have made it into the 21st century – a true melding of minds and hearts; a lesson perhaps in an unconditional love which allowed their relationship to transcend distance and the horrors bestowed by fate.
When Abelard died in 1142, his remains were entrusted to Heloise. And at her death in 1164, they were interred together. Legend has it that they were moved to Paris’s main cemetery in 1817 to lie beneath this specially-constructed canopy but not everyone is convinced of this.
Regardless, it has become a shrine for lovers who come to pay their respects, leave notes, and ask for guidance in their own troubled relationships.
The history of the cemetery fascinates me as well, established as it was by Napoleon in 1804. He famously said that every citizen had a right to be buried regardless of race and religion. But soon the rich and famous of France were clamouring to be buried here. Which is why, it is now such a rewarding, if somewhat macabre, experience – especially for those with a taste for Gothic art – to wander amongst the graves, to search out the resting places of those whose lives have brought meaning and richness to our own.
But I imagine that Heloise and Abelard would be pleased to know that – even in death, they share a hallowed space with so many talented artists and intellectuals from around the world….Chopin, Pissarro, de Balzac and Moliere to name just a few.
And here are a few of my favourite people buried at Pere Lachaise.
An unknown woman who obviously loved to read!
And a feline friend catching a few rays on a chilly Paris afternoon.