Just off the rue de Varenne, in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, stands the door to hell. You will be glad to know it is closed.
The door is a bronze sculpted by Auguste Rodin. This was the work of a lifetime: he began in 1880 and still did not consider it finished at the time of his death, in 1917. A number of his best-known sculptures were originally created to figure in this apocalyptic tableau. You will find, for instance, a smaller version of The Thinker (who was supposed to represent Dante—which is a kick-ass art trivia question), as well as Francesca and Paolo, the doomed lovers of The Kiss (not quite as good a trivia question, but still not bad). You’ll also find Ugolino as he crawls through the dust, his starving family clinging to his arms, and all kinds of other tormented sinners I won’t describe, but rather leave you to discover on your own.
The door stands just inside the garden of the Rodin museum. This is my favorite museum in Paris, for a variety of reasons. First, it should be taken into account that I do not consider the Louvre a museum, but rather a kind of cultural mini-universe. Then there’s the fact that I love Rodin. But most of all, it’s because of the garden. You can get into the garden for only one euro if you just want to walk around without going into the museum proper, which is Rodin’s former house and is well worth the other four euros. I would describe it for you, but you can find many descriptions of it in more traditional sources of information, so I’ll just nip back to the door to hell.
There’s a bench across from the door. I suggest you sit there and observe how people deal with this sculpture. A surprising number of people have their photos taken in front of the door to hell, either requesting this of their girlfriend/boyfriend, or pressing themselves upon strangers to take a picture of the two of them together, with the door to hell behind them. You have to wonder about this. It’s quite possible that they don’t actually know what the sculpture represents; there are no devils or pitchforks or anything. Or perhaps they like tempting fate, or are proud of the fact that they are on this side of the door (for now). Who knows?
Recently, I saw a young Chinese tourist wearing an orange polo shirt and a floppy yellow hat. She was standing in front of the door smiling and fiddling with her hands, as one does when one is being photographed. Her boyfriend was kneeling, instructing her to move this way or that in Chinese (or so I surmise). In the meantime, tortured bronze souls reached out to her, imploring. She remained oblivious. There are legions of tourists getting their pictures taken by the door to hell, but the orange polo shirt and especially the floppy yellow hat seemed particularly out of place for me. This is not what you wear to hell.
I don’t begrudge them their photos. It’s a very impressive sculpture, and if you happen to be wearing a floppy yellow hat when you abruptly find yourself in front of the door to hell, then you too may well forget to take it off.
You can’t actually go through the door to hell. Rodin didn’t sculpt it in such a way as to allow it to open. If this frustrates you then you may consider taking a walk south from the Rodin museum to go through a different kind of door and descend into the Paris catacombs, which might suffice as a proxy for hell.
For centuries, the stone that built the buildings and monuments of Paris came from quarries beneath what is now the 14th arrondissement. The quarries have not been mined for many years, but all that digging left a vast network of caves and tunnels underneath the southern part of Paris. In 1786, the city decided to remove the Cemetery of the Innocents, in the center of town, after a nearby basement wall collapsed and a local bourgeois discovered some unwelcome and long-dead visitors in his cellar. One thousand years of constant use had filled the cemetery to well beyond its limits. This, however, presented the problem of what to do with all those bones. Someone then remembered the empty quarries and thought this would be a swell place for their dead ancestors. The corpses were deposited in the abandoned quarries, turning the caves and tunnels into bona fide catacombs.
For the following hundred years or so, the catacombs served as a repository for the bones of Paris. A number of cemeteries were decommissioned and the bones removed to the catacombs. In the catacombs themselves, the bones are generally arranged according to the cemetery of their origin, providing a kind of postmortem address to the inhabitants (although, I suppose, in this context, the etymology of “inhabitant” renders it inappropriate … but I digress).
You can visit the catacombs. There is an entrance near the Place Denfert Rochereau. You go down a whole bunch of steps into an appropriately dank and dark tunnel through which you then walk for several minutes until you come to the catacombs proper.
You can’t miss it. One minute you’re walking along a tunnel, the walls of which are rock, and the next minute you’re walking along another tunnel, the walls of which are femurs, with artistically placed rows of skulls, and rib-bone latticework. The bones weren’t just dumped here, they were arranged into patterns. Lots of patterns, because there are lots and lots of bones.
About six million Parisians reside beneath the city in the catacombs, all mixed up together in a classless mélange that is fittingly republican (in the French sense of the word). It’s a chilling experience to go down and visit them. They are arranged neither by title, nor by station, nor even by gender, but rather by body part, apparently because it’s easier to make really pretty designs by first sorting all the skeletons into relatively similar bones. So men, women, friends, and enemies may well end up with their very bones all mixed together in the interest of visual effect, which is either uplifting and ultra-cool, or morbid and infinitely depressing, depending on your frame of mind.
Of course, there is far more to the catacombs than the part that is open to the public, and enterprising individuals—adventurers, thugs, resistance fighters, night owls, whoever—have always wandered around down there, much to the frustration of the Inspection Générale des Carrières, the city agency responsible for making sure the south of Paris doesn’t one day collapse. When you visit the bones, you can sometimes see dark, gated passages running gloomily off into the distance. Spooky.
The Place Denfert Rochereau is only a few minutes’ walk from the rue de Varenne. You can therefore visit the Rodin museum, finishing with a nice long contemplation of the door to hell … causing your mortality to begin knocking on the inside of your skull (“What, you forget about me?”), then head over to Denfert for a dip into the catacombs, where your mortality will do a veritable jig in your brain, all the while singing songs about dust. I agree it’s not the most lighthearted day out in Paris, but if he were really to think about it, Dante would probably approve.