Visiting Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides in Paris
Here's my guide to visiting Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides in Paris. Napoleon is as splendid in death as he was in life.
Located in Paris' 7th arrondissement, Les Invalides is a cluster of monuments and museums celebrating France’s tumultuous military history. And you've likely clapped your eyes on it without even knowing. Les Invalides' glistening dome is an unmissable fixture on the Paris skyline.
Napoleon is buried in Les Invalides. His tomb lies directly under the Les Invalides dome. Paris' Musée de l’Armée is also onsite, and here's my guide to the Army Museum. One entrance ticket gets you into both Les Invalides and the Army Museum.
Napoleon, a Short Biography
The Corsica-born Napoleon was one of the most formidable and colorful alpha men in French history. He rose rapidly in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army during the late 1790s.
In 1799, Napoleon came to power as first consul after overthrowing the revolutionary government. He tried to restore stability to the French government after the excesses of the French Revolution.
In 1804, in a true alpha move, Napoleon crowned himself emperor. He fought the Napoleonic Wars between 1803-15. But, after a catastrophic Russian invasion in 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba. Not exactly heraldic.
Napoleon had a brief resurrection. He escaped Elba in early 1815. He raised a new army that enjoyed temporary success. But an allied force crushed Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and the wheel of fortune turned against him permanently.
After this blow, Napoleon tried to commit suicide. For years, he had carried a vial of poison. Unbeknownst to him, the poison became diluted with the passage of time. When he drank it, the poison only made him sick.
Napoleon spent the rest of his life in ignominious exile on the island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa. In 1819, Napoleon died as a British prisoner, most likely of stomach cancer. There were rumors of arsenic, as it was discovered in Napoleon's hair. But an autopsy confirmed that he died of natural causes.
Napoleon's Burial Site
Napoleon wanted to be buried on his beloved "banks of the Seine." His wishes were thwarted and ignored, though Les Invalides is near the Seine. In 1840, King Louis-Philippe transferred his remains from St. Helena to Les Invalides. Only a military pantheon was symbolically fitting for such a great man.
Napoleon's monumental red sarcophagus was transported by barge up the Seine. Them it was hoisted on a golden coach drawn by twelve white horses. As the coach passed through the streets, Parisians shouting “Vive la Grande Armee.”
Initially, Napoleon's sarcophagus was moved inside the St. Jerome chapel of Les Invalides. It was ultimately destined for the royal chapel though.
But major excavation work was required to fit the massive sarcophagus inside. The fix: a circular hollow dug under the center of the dome to create an open crypt. With the help of an architect, Louis Visconte, Napoleon's tomb was installed with pomp and circumstance on April 2, 1861.
Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides: Pomp and Circumstance
Napoleon's tomb is on two levels within Les Invalides. The entrance is on the upper level. There, you're surrounded by exquisite murals, gold detailing, and sculptures galore.
To get a closer look at the tomb, head downstairs. You'll be met at the bottom of the crypt by two giant statues. The door to the crypt is made from canon from Austerlitz, one of Napoleon's most glorious victories.
Napoleon's tomb takes center stage, lying directly under Les Invalides' fabled dome. The dome is spectacular, both inside and out, with an otherworldly opulence. You cannot help but feel awed. To ensure continuing adoration, Paris re-gilded the dome's exterior in 1989. 12 kilograms of gold were required for the new coat of gold.
Napoleon's tomb sits on a beautiful mosaic floor. It contains a nest of six concentric coffins, made of iron, mahogany, lead, ebony, and oak. They coffins get progressively smaller until you get to the remains of the man himself.
Though an alpha, Napoleon was a smallish man. Much tinier than his bigger than life reputation. Hence the oft-used phrase "Napoleon Complex." But Napoleon wasn't all that diminutive. He was actually 5'6".
And his tomb is a magnificent one, fashioned from red Finnish porphyry and purple quartzite, (representing imperial power), set on a green granite pedestal. There's an inlaid green laurel wreath and marble surrounding the tomb. The casket basically lies in the centre of a giant sun. Oh, the symbolism.
On the floor, a polychrome mosaic illustrates the main battles of the Empire. In the circular gallery, there are 12 grave-faced marble statutes of winged women dressed in classical style. They're mounted against the pillars of the crypt and appear to guard Napoleon.
The women, dubbed "Victories," represent Napoleon's military victories and hold symbolic laurel wreathes. They're the handiwork of French sculptor Jean Jacques Pradier, who is renowned for his neoclassical works at the Arc de Triumph and the Louvre.
There's also a towering 8 foot tall statue of the Napoleon himself. It's not exactly life size.
The center hall is flanked by four side chapels where other French notables are buried, including the sepultures of two of Napoleon's brothers, Jerome and Joseph Bonaparte.
You can also find the tomb of Napoleon's only legitimate son, Napoleon II, the so called "eaglet" and King of Rome. He had an early death due to tuberculosis.
Napoleon's civil accomplishments are also touted. In ten bas reliefs, Napoleon is lauded for bringing peace to France, for centralizing the government, and codifying laws.
The Chapel of Les Invalides
Napoleon's tomb shares space with the royal chapel inside Les Invalides. The chapel is included in your entry price, so you should definitely check it out.
In 1677, Louis XIV commissioned the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart to build the dome and the royal chapel, known as the Cathedral of St. Louis des Invalides.
It was built between 1679-1708. The cathedral was Paris' tallest building until the Eiffel Tower was erected in1887. It's definitely one of Paris' must see churches.
You enter the royal chapel through monumental bronze doors decorated with fleurs-de-lys and Louis XIV's initials. Inside, the decoration is sumptuous: painted cupolas, pilasters. columns, low-relief sculptures, and stained-glass windows.