In May 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died on the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he had been exiled by the British following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo six years earlier.
For two decades, Napoleon was buried there, but in 1840 the French king Louis Philippe and then-Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers, hoping to confer added legitimacy on the recently restored French monarchy, decided to repatriate his ashes to France. The very heart of France, no less.
Once the royal church of King Louis XIV, the Dôme des Invalides, part of the Invalides military complex in Paris, was chosen as the new burial site. In a process known as the retour des cendres (‘the return of the ashes’), Napoleon’s mortal remains – for he had not actually been cremated – were shipped from St Helena and interred at the Chapelle Saint-Jérôme within the Invalides. They lay there for 20 years while excavation and construction work took place on the Dôme to create an open crypt in which the huge sarcophagus would sit. Finally completed in April 1861,Napoleon’s remains were transferred into this huge object of red aventurine quartzite from a quarry in northern Russia, which itself rested on a block of green granite from Vosges in eastern France, which is just visible here.
A small ceremony marked the occasion, attended by Bonaparte’s nephew Napoleon III, the last monarch to reign over France.
Today, exactly 200 years after Napoleon’s death, the site is visited by over a million visitors annually. But restoration work has long since been needed on many aspects of the Dôme’s magnificent interior.
In May 2019, the Musée de l’Armée and the Fondation Napoléon launched a fundraising appeal to restore the sites at the Invalides dedicated to Bonaparte, as well as to his brothers Joseph, the former King of Naples and then of Spain, and Jérôme, the King of Westphalia and later governor of the Invalides.
The appeal’s target of €800,000 was reached in January this year, but work began long before. The tomb, the crypt, and its surroundings were meticulously cleaned and refurbished. Elsewhere in the Invalides complex, six paintings on the theme of the retour des cendres have been restored.
The process coincides with ‘Napoleon season’ at the Musée de l’Armée, including the major new exhibition ‘Napoleon is No More’; a contemporary art trail on the emperor’s life, with work from more than 30 living artists; and an array of talks, conferences, and concerts, all concerning one of the central figures of French – and indeed global – history.
Image: Musée de l’Armée.
Text: Calum Henderson.