Friday, July 17, 2009
Eleven Singing Nuns, and some others
Hard on the heels of Bastille Day we have the feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne. These 16 women (11 sisters, 3 lay sisters and 2 servants) were beheaded on this day in 1794, the year of the Terror. Before laying their heads upon the block, all 16 knelt down before the guillotine and chanted “Veni Creator”. At that time about 55 people were being guillotined every day, but even so, one imagines that this gracious exit of the nuns made something of an impression. This scene is the tearful climax of Poulenc’s opera, “Dialogue of the Carmelites”, one of my favorites.
Their heads thus separated from their bodies, all parts were thrown into a common grave at the Cemetery of Picpus. Over 1300 headless bodies and their heads were buried at Picpus before Robespierre himself went to the guillotine and the garden was closed. In 1803 it reopened as a private cemetery. In 1834 the Marquis de Lafayette was buried there. You can visit today, pay 3 Euros, and you will find him by the American flag. You will not find the graves of the 16 Carmelites, whose remains were lumped together, which means that there are no relics to be revered, enshrined, or bartered with.