Tomb of Abelard and Heloïse

Painting of the Tomb of Abelard and Heloïse

Contributor: Lene Østermark-Johansen

Location: Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Description: Lovers past and present are united in A. W. N. Pugin’s depiction of the tomb of Abelard (1079–1142) and Héloïse (1098–1164) in the Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise. The gothic monument with the reclining statues of the medieval lovers serves as suggestive background to the two young lovers, captured in intimate conversation in an Elysian garden, where death and love, stone and vegetation invite a contemplation of the passing of time with love as a transcending force.  The solitude à deux contrasts with the overpopulated city of the dead, crammed with funeral monuments, which meets the modern visitor to the cemetery.

Pugin’s illustration appeared in Paris and its Environs, Displayed in a Series of Picturesque Views (1829-31). With a bilingual text, written by L. T. Ventouillac, the book was directed at the French and British middle classes, catering for the revival of Continental tourism after the Napoleonic Wars. The collaboration between the French writer and the English illustrator/architect, himself the son of French emigrants who had fled France at the time of the Revolution, testifies to the strong cultural exchange across the Channel. Text and illustrations appeared in monthly installments, several of which featured the recently (1804) opened cemetery in the East of Paris where Heloïse and Abelard’s tomb was one of the first to be erected. Transferred during a major ceremony from Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Monuments Français on the Left Bank in 1817, the earthly remains of the lovers came to their final resting place after a turbulent history of exhumations, during which bones were dispersed as lovers’ relics. As Ventouillac pointed out, ‘The monument of these ill-fated lovers seems at last to have found a permanent asylum in the Pere la Chaise. Its history is almost as curious as their own.’ (1:99)

The intellectual, spiritual, and physical love affair between the theologian Abelard and his bright pupil Héloïse, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child, castration, secret marriage, and subsequent physical separation in monastic institutions is the stuff of which good stories are made. The survival of seven letters between the two lovers, transmitted through Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose, and through Petrarch and François Villon, provided the basis for an interest in the love story, rekindled by André Duchesne’s Latin edition of the correspondence (1616) and in England by John Hughes’s translation of the correspondence (1713). With Alexander Pope’s epistle ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (1717), often published with Hughes’s translation of the Letters, Héloïse emerged as an independent, thinking, and feeling woman with a voice of her own, calling for a cult of love tourism in celebration of the medieval martyrs to love:

May one kind grave unite each hapless name,
And graft my love immortal on thy fame!
Then, ages hence, when all my woes are o’er,
When this rebellious heart shall beat no more;
If ever chance two wandering lovers brings
To Paraclete’s white walls, and silver springs,
O’er the pale marble shall they join their heads,
And drink the falling tears each other sheds,
Then sadly say, with mutual pity moved,
“Oh may we never love as these have loved!”
From the full choir when loud Hosannas rise,
And swell the pomp of dreadful sacrifice,
Amid that scene if some relenting eye
Glance on the stone where our cold relics lie,
Devotion’s self shall steal a thought from heaven,
One human tear shall drop, and be forgiven.’ (ll. 343–357)

The French lovers had become part of English literature, and shortly afterwards Charles-Pierre Colardeau’s version of Pope’s poem, ‘Lettre d’Héloïse à Abailard’ (1758), ensured a French audience for the English poem. The Swiss-Austrian painter Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807) painted a series of scenes between Abelard and Héloïse inspired by Pope’s poem, while also Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise (1761) revived a sentimental cult of unhappy lovers with reference to the medieval pair. Across Europe Abelard and Héloïse had gained both heroic and sentimental value by the late eighteenth century. The audience for Pugin’s book would likely have been familiar with the popular version of the love story.

The bones of the lovers had led a turbulent existence. To comply with Abelard’s wishes, his earthly remains were transferred after his death in 1142 to Heloïse in the Abbey of Paraclete. At Héloïse’s death in 1164 the lovers were buried, in separate coffins, next to each other; a series of exhumations followed, and the bones were repeatedly translated from one place to another in 1497, 1621, 1630, 1780, 1792, and 1800, as the vanity of Prioresses and the turbulence of the Revolution left their impact. When in 1800 Lenoir transferred the bones to Paris for inclusion in his Musée des Monuments Français, he designed the bricolage which meets the modern visitor: with parts from Abelard’s tomb in St Marcel, bits from Saint German-des-Près, and a custom-made female head added to a reclining female statue, the monument became a romantic monstrosity, a mock-medieval tomb with little authenticity. Keeping a few bones as private relics, Lenoir presented friends like Vivant Denon and George Sand with teeth and body splinters; the monument in Père Lachaise may well be cenotaph rather than tomb.

When Fanny Trollope visited in 1835, her dislike was clearly audible: ‘I wish, whoever they are, who had the command of such matters, would have let the curious tomb of Abelard and Eloïsa remain in decent tranquillity in its original position. Nothing can assimilate worse than do its Gothic form and decorations with every object around it. … we can only hope that the elements will complete the work they have begun, and then this barbarous defacing will crumble away before our grandchildren shall know anything about it.’ (124) Some thirty years later Mark Twain evoked the European mass tourism which had developed: ‘Go when you will, you find somebody snuffling over that tomb. Go when you will, you find it furnished with those bouquets and immortelles. Go when you will, you find a gravel-train from Marseilles arriving to supply the deficiencies caused by memento-cabbaging vandals whose affections have miscarried.’

Date: 1831

Creator: J. Haigh after A. W. N. Pugin Tomb of Abelard and Heloïse in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Media rights: Image © welcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Object type: water-coloured drawing with gouache

Format:  13 x 9 cm

Publisher: Wellcome Collection, London

Catalogue number: Wellcome Library no. 555082i


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