The Conciergerie is located on Île de la Cité, in the heart of one of the oldest parts of Paris. It was at one time a royal residence, which was later used as a prison. Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her final days at the Conciergerie before she was executed on October 16, 1793.
Now, appropriately, the Conciergerie, a National Museum of France, is currently hosting Marie-Antoinette, Metamorphosis of an Image. The exhibit seeks to represent the transformation of the Queen’s image in popular culture within the centuries after her death.
The Conciergerie is comprised of a series of buildings that was once known as the Palais de la Cité. Its original construction predates that of the Louvre. Since the 6th century, the Palais de la Cité was used as a royal residence. In the Middle Ages, the building would also become the seat of parliament as well as the administrative center of the city. In 1238, King Louis IX commissioned the construction of a royal chapel to house the holy relics he obtained during the Crusades. Sainte-Chapelle is one of the world’s most precious examples of gothic architecture and is located in the same complex as the Conciergerie.
During the French Revolution, the Conciergerie was turned into both a prison and a courthouse. Interestingly, the Palais de la Justice, which is housed on the premises, remains the principal courthouse in Paris. We can’t help but wonder if those who are tried there think about the building’s grim past. At least the death penalty was abolished in 1981…
The exhibit traces both the private life and public persona of the Queen. With over 200 works, including artefacts, objects belonging to Marie-Antoinette, clothing reproductions, and images of the Queen throughout her life. Without question, in her day Marie-Antoinette was the equivalent to today’s superstar. The fact that she wanted more privacy only made her more mysterious to the public. Naturally, rumours abounded, unfortunately, many of them were slanderous and salacious. The continued success of the many films and books about her testify to the fact that we are still obsessed with the ill-fated Queen. She remains an undisputed pop icon.
The exhibit tries to show the complexity of how one of history’s most enigmatic personalities has been perceived and portrayed: the martyr, the victim, the widow, the young Queen in all her splendour, the simple shepherdess, and the strong and independent woman.
Conversely, she was also viewed as a “loose woman”, a traitor to her adopted nation, and as someone who lived in opulence and didn’t care while many starved. The exhibit objectively illustrates how she was both vilified, deified, envied, imitated and adored.
The visit is divided into the following sections:
Entering the Conciergerie by way of the Salle des Gens d’Armes is jarring if you know the history of the venue. While the medieval arches are extraordinary, and the stuff of fables, you’ll be immediately struck by the fact that the building was once the final residence of many unfortunates during the ‘Reign of Terror’ of the French Revolution. Unlike the colourful promotional posters for the exhibit, which feature the Queen in “simple” shepherdess garb, the entrance signage is devoid of all colour. Was the choice for a striking funerary black purposeful? If so, it was appropriate. This was, after all, a Queen who was guillotined by her own people.
Immediately, visitors are shown original court documents from Marie-Antoinette’s trial. Also, the crimes with which she was charged were lit up on the wall, in both French and English. Relics such as a nightgown, a shoe and a belt which belonged to her are on display next to the documents. It was sombre, to say the least. Somehow the documents made the story of the legendary Queen very real.
Creatively, the exhibit made a 3D timeline of her life and a screen projected all of the biographies written about her, of which there are many. The artefacts of items belonging to the Queen at her home in Versailles were moving. Many of the paintings reflect a majestic Marie-Antoinette in all her jewelled magnificence.
In addition, costumes that were worn by actor, Diane Kruger, when she portrayed Marie-Antoinette in ‘Farewell, my Queen’, are displayed. Also, there is a ‘film nook’ which screens excerpts from films about the Queen in French, with English subtitles.
There are several paintings depicting the Queen on the way to her execution. After that, the exhibit took a turn for the worst…visitors are shown pornographic drawings of the Queen that were made during her lifetime, and shortly after her death, to demonstrate the love, hate, lust and disrespect for her. Right next to those books, visitors are confronted with artistic renderings and woodcuts of her public execution.
One thing is certain, when seeing all of the Marie-Antoinette themed advertising, fashion and jewellery reproductions, complete with Miss Piggy dressed up as the Queen, right after looking at images of her decapitation, is pretty disturbing. The exhibit did its best to present an objective view of the many portrayals of the Queen, death then fashion, so it made sense to end on a positive note. However, we would not recommend this exhibit for younger audiences.
“Marie-Antoinette, Metamorphosis of an Image” exhibit is on at the Conciergerie until January 26, 2020. If French history, medieval architecture and, of course, the iconic queen herself, interests you, we recommend checking out this exhibit!
Address: Conciergerie, 2 boulevard du Palais, 75001, PARIS
Hours of operation:
Monday – Sunday- 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
*Wednesdays open until 8:30 p.m.
Ticket price: 9€