What Might Have Been

Paris, Saturday, January 14, 2004. We are at Maillot Gate, a few steps away from the Champs Elysées and the business quarter of La Defense. On the left is the 34-story skyscraper of the Hotel Concorde La Fayette—a disruptive landmark amid the gorgeous town houses whose plush façades date back to the end of the 19th century and its “Belle Époque.” On the right, we find the Place Général Koenig surrounded by noisy and ugly boulevards.

But then, a surprise. At the corner of two avenues, just above the beltway itself, a beautiful little chapel appears like a mirage in this desert of concrete. And this chapel, like so many others in France, has a history, described in the hotel’s promotional material: “On 13th July 1842, the Duke of Orleans, eldest son of the King Louis-Philippe, had a fatal accident after jumping out of a moving carriage when its horses had bolted. On the very spot where the drama took place, Queen Marie-Amélie had a commemorative chapel built. With its curious Romantic-Byzantine style, it was classified as an historic monument in 1929; a fact which saved it from demolition in 1971, when the first work on the Centre International de Paris started. The chapel was dismantled, moved to a new site nearby and rebuilt stone by stone under the careful supervision of the architect Bazelaire de Rupière and Mr. Denizet, the head architect of the Monuments de Paris.”

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How to consider such a royal building so strangely located? It’s easy to dismiss—at first sight—as a mere relic of a past era. But there’s more to it than that. Duke Ferdinand d’Orléans—exceptionally intelligent, remarkably brave, and very popular—was about to become perhaps the most democratic and open-minded king in French history. Because of the unlikely accident that this chapel still commemorates, France missed its only opportunity to have a constitutional monarchy. This wise king would quite likely have tried to blend tradition with modernity in progress, faith with secularity, and justice with meritocracy. Such a constitutional monarchy may well have prevented the savage socialist revolutions of 1848 and 1870.

Indeed, Europe as a whole would have benefited from a moderate and peaceful monarchy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ferdinand’s family was well situated to provide it: His nine brothers and sisters—together with his several nephews and nieces—were married to most of the European royal families. Louis-Philippe, Ferdinand’s father and great-grandnephew of the Sun King, Louis XIV, was the last ruling king of France. Contrary to previous royal generations, he wanted his ten children to be in tune with their fellow citizens and not to dwell remote and isolated from the lives and day-to-day worries of the French people. He steered his children in this direction as much as he could. In doing so, he became keen on the institutions of the New World and was the first French head of government to visit the United States, where he met President Washington. Later, he urged his son, Joinville, to pay a visit to President John Taylor. He practiced English when the French language was worshipped and chose to live in Great Britain when he was exiled.

And so, King Louis-Philippe—who in his youth had endured first the French Revolution and then a troubled aftermath in exile—was about to be rewarded for his lifelong struggle to renew the French monarchy through his exemplary son. Unfortunately, his plan was ruined when Ferdinand died.

Full of sorrow, Louis-Philippe and Marie-Adelaïde, whose marriage remained a love match and their family a close one, built the commemorative chapel. Since Ingres was the most famous painter of the period and a friend of the dead prince, the royal couple commissioned him to create one Gothic church window for each member of the royal family.

Something of this historical drama still remains in the little chapel, now set amid its unfriendly concrete surroundings. As you enter, your eyes are bathed in the intense color pouring from Ingres’s grand church windows. The beauty of it all puts you in a contemplative frame of mind. This is no place for a quick stop. Here, the Faith that welcomes you is vigorous and assertive, chasing away any Voltairian skepticism or flat bourgeois rationalism.

In this western edge of the city, the present sits on the shoulders of the past wondering, perhaps, what might have been.

  • Patricia Jarnier

    Patricia Jarnier is a French journalist and art critic. She writes from Paris.

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