Historic Paintings: two views of Saint-Innocents of Paris, 16th & 19th centuries.

So here’s a Historic Painting double-header! The first picture, above, is a wonderfully colorful view of an iconic marketplace in Paris called Saint-Innocents. In a somewhat busy scene merchants are hawking their wares, especially produce; wagons clatter along the cobblestones, and animals including dogs and horses mill about with a host of interesting characters. Note the nun, the fellow in the military hat and the young widow dressed in black weeds. In the background we see the teeming buildings of urban Paris, their windows hanging with slack canopies or old curtains. The overwhelming sense is one of bustle and activity, if not chaos. This is Saint-Innocents as it appeared in the early decades of the 19th century.

This painting was created in 1822 by Swiss painter John James Chalon, who spent a lot of time in England. His paintings caught a number of subjects, from ships and nautical scenes to landscapes and historical depictions. One imagines he spent some bright spring or summer days actually at Saint-Innocents sketching the landscape as he was designing this picture.

Saint-Innocents was known in 1822 as a marketplace in the center of Paris, but its history stretches back much farther than that. For most of its existence it was not a market but a cemetery. That brings us to the second painting, by Theodor Hoffbauer, also from the 19th century but depicting what the same cityscape looked like about 1550:

Saint-Innocents, or Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, was Paris’s largest graveyard. Corpse disposal began here sometime in the Middle Ages, no later than the 12th century, and it was a favorite (if you can use that word) resting place for the city’s paupers and those who died in mass casualty events, like the Black Death of the 14th century. Finding room to cram in more bodies was a constant problem at Saint-Innocents. In this view you can see the brick charnel-houses (at left) which were built in the 14th and 15th centuries. By the beginning of the 18th century Saint-Innocents was so crammed with bodies that it was a public health hazard, both smelling horrible and serving as a vector of disease and contamination from rotting human remains. Paris authorities banned further burials here, or anywhere in the city, beginning in 1780.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Eventually the bones and remains deposited at Saint-Innocents over the centuries were dug up (that must have been a fun job) and deposited underground, in the Catacombs of Paris. Only then was the cleared land cobbled over and turned into the public marketplace that it was in 1822 when Chalon painted it. As you can see, his picture is a much less macabre scene than Hoffbauer’s.

Hoffbauer, born in Düsseldorf, specialized in historical urban scenes, picturing Paris and other cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. He was also famous for creating dioramas of historical scenes. He worked generally later than Chalon, who died in 1854; Hoffbauer lived until 1922.

I thought these two views, when put together, represented an interesting convergence of art, urban and environmental history. It’s amazing to contemplate the magnitude of the mortality represented here: the tens of thousands of real people who once rested here over the course of centuries, and then whose final resting place turned out not to be so final after all.

These images are in the public domain.
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