12th century France
Peter Abelard (1079–1142)
You know the story: Teacher and student fall in love, have a baby (a boy, Astrolabe!), then marry secretly. Furious, student’s uncle has teacher castrated. The lovers separate, carry on in various monasteries and abbeys, all the while managing to stay in touch.
Classic medieval shenanigans. So why all the fuss?
Abelard and Heloise surprised by the Abbot Fulbert. 1819, oil on canvas, Jean Vignaud. Joslyn Art Museum, Nebraska, US
Because Abelard was one badass theologian who liked to provoke. His #IDGAF attitude and use of reason in matters of faith got him tried for heresy twice (Council of Soissons, 1121; Council of Sens, 1140). The latter got Abelard ordered silenced and excommunicated by Pope Innocent II (ultimately lifted).
And to withstand all that in 12th century medieval Europe took some balls, (uh, sorry) courage.
“In all areas Abelard was brilliant, innovative, and controversial. He was a genius. He knew it, and made no apologies. His vast knowledge, wit, charm, and even arrogance drew a generation of Europe’s finest minds to Paris to learn from him.” — Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)
Abelard, the beat maker
Fortunately for us music lovers, in the midst of all the theological and romantic intrigue, Abelard found time to break ground and compose some pretty rad, avant-garde hymns. While Abelard’s contemporaries were maintaining the status quo, Abelard was punking it up with strophic patterns.
“Abelard’s use of repetitive sequences, strophic patterns, and limited melodic ideas were considerably in advance of the day, where long, uninterrupted melody was the rule rather than the exception.” — Uncle Dave Lewis, AllMusic
O quanta qualia, the hit single
By far the best known musical work of Abelard is the hymn O quanta qualia. Written for the nuns of Héloise’s order at the Paraclete, this hymn is preserved in dozens of manuscripts and was quite well known in its era and afterward. Ibid.
It’s easy to see why it was a hit. It’s absolutely stunning and sedative. So ditch the Xanax and get yourself a copy of Abelard: Hymns and Sequences for Heloise. You’ll see. There’s nothing quite like it to take the edge off during the combative Paris metro morning rush hour. Decide for yourself and—bonus—brush up on your Latin. Check it out here with this movie trailer of Abelard’s biopic, Stealing Heaven.
Fast forward, Père Lachaise 1817
Alexandre Lenoir and the Museum of French Monuments
Reunited in death, Abelard and Heloise’s remains were shuffled around here and there throughout France over the centuries. Their last stop before Père Lachaise was the convent turned museum, the Museum of French Monuments. The museum’s founder and curator, Alexandre Lenoir, arranged for Abelard and Heloise’s remains to be transferred Paris. He also designed their mausoleum.
The Museum of French Monuments begun life as a temporary depot of the French Revolution, but under Lenoir’s guardianship, it acquired permission to open to the public as a permanent exhibition in 1795.
Lenoir arranged the collection as a chronological panorama of the development of French art and the garden was also transformed for exhibition with funerary pieces composing a picturesque landscape. — Alexandra Stara, Alexandre Lenoir’s Museum of French Monuments
This off-the-beaten track historic landmark, now home to the École des beaux-arts de Paris, is open to the public for open house in June and World Heritage Days in September. Guided tours are available by reservation.
Political upheaval forced Lenoir to close the museum in 1816 and his collection was dispersed. Abelard and Heloise were transferred to Père Lachaise. Abelard still managed to create a stir centuries after his death. The transfer was celebrated with a red carpet event attended by A-listers such as Empress Josephine. The rest was history for the struggling cemetery.
Remember, up to 1860, Père Lachaise was in the burbs, commune suburbaine. And even back then, Parisians snubbed anything outside Paris. But with the arrival of stars such as Abelard and Heloise, with an assist by Molière and La Fontaine, also in Lenoir’s collection, concession sales took off from roughly 1,800 in 1815 to 30,000 by 1830*.
Alexandre Lenoir (1761–1839) is buried in Montparnasse cemetery.
In order to ‘stage’ his museum according to his vision, Lenoir invested as much in further acquisitions of original pieces as he did in the construction of new ‘monuments’, most of which were collages of fragments from various other pieces. Ibid.
Lenoir recycled Abelard’s sarcophagus and effigy from the Priory of Saint-Marcel-lès-Chalon (Bourgogne). A headless effigy was remedied for Heloise. Other pieces include columns from the Basilica of Saint-Denis, a bas-relief from the Abbey of Royaument, and decorative elements from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The epitaph is a copy of the original at the Oratory of the Paraclete (Champagne-Ardenne).
Pierre Abelard, founder of this abbey, lived in the 12th century, he distinguished himself by the depth of his knowledge and his uncommon merit. However, he published a treaty on the Trinity that was condemned by the Council of Soissons in 1120. He immediately acquiesced and testified that he had only orthodox beliefs, he argued that the three Persons are essentially the same as one another, after having dedicated this church to the Holy Sprit, that he named the Paraclete for the solace he enjoyed here during his retreat. He married Heloise, who was its first abbess. The love that joined their spirits during their life, and which continued during their separation, through the most tender and spiritual letters, reunited their bodies in this grave. He died on April 21, 1143 at the age of 63, having led both a Christian and spiritual life. By the Honorable Lady Catherine de la Rochefoucauld, Abbess. June 3, 1701
The original text in French:
Pierre Abailard, fondateur de cette abbaye vivoit dans le douzième siècle, il se distingua par la profondeur de son sçavoir et par la rareté de son mérite. Cependant il publia un traité de la trinité qui fut condamné par un concile tenu à Soissons en 1120. Il se rétracta aussitôt par une soumission parfaite et pour témoigner qu’il n’avoit que des sentimens orthodoxes il fit faire de cette seule pierre ces trois figures qui représentent les trois personnes divines dans une nature, après avoir consacré cette église au saint esprit qu’il nomma paraclet par rapport aux consolations qu’il avoit goutées pendant la retraite qu’il fit en ce lieu. Il avoit épouse Héloyse qui en fut la première abbesse. L’amour qui avoit uni leurs esprits durant leur vie et qui se conserva pendant leur absence par des lettres les plus tendres et les plus spirituelles a réuni leurs corps dans ce tombeau. Il mourut le 21 avril l’an 1143, agé de 63 ans, après avoir donné l’un et l’autre des marques d’une vie chrétienne et spirituelle. Par très haute et très puissante dame Catherine de la Rochefoucauld abbesse. Le 3 juin 1701