Deep below the ‘City of Light’ is a world lit only by candles and miners helmets, accessed through manholes and secret doors. This dark subterranean nether region is a maze comprising 180 miles of tunnels which are easy to get lost in…
The catacombs below Paris were mainly built in the 18th and 19th centuries out of limestone quarries more ancient still. When the city’s graveyards became full, millions of dead Parisians were exhumed and placed into the old tunnels.
Now the old ossuary is part of a guided tour where sightseers see the bones piled decoratively, skulls and femurs side by side. Yet the rest of of the tunnels are visited by people National Geographic writer Neil Shea describes as “a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. They’re called cataphiles, people who love the Paris underground.”
Neil asks Yopie, one of his cataphile guides underground, why they come there. “No boss, no master,” replies the guide. “Many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.”
In a sandy chamber known as the “beach,” a wave rolls across a wall painted (and repainted) by cataphiles in the style of Japanese printmaker Hokusai. Such works can take hundreds of hours—the painting but also the carrying in of supplies.
This is a world writer Neil Shea and photographer Steve Alvarez showcase in feature in the the February 2011 issue of National Geographic. They cover a lot of fascinating ground, but we decided it would be interesting to focus on a smaller aspect of their journey: the artwork in this mysterious underground world.
Many of us have heard of the ossuary that lies in the catacombs, but far fewer know of the underground network of tunnels, where artists create their work on the walls and floors of the long abandoned quarries. You will find everything here – from the most banal graffiti scrawls, to street art murals and paintings that look like they could have been created by an old master’s brush.
At a kind of ‘grand opening’ in 2010 – which included crepes and champagne savored deep underground – Gilles Cyprès, 35, a well known cataphile artist, unveiled his third mural to 20 friends. It was a six foot tall, surrealistic dream scene with wide country vistas and folkloric creatures. Cyprès said: “There are lots of complications and technical difficulties. For me it is a challenge and if I am capable of doing this down here then I am capable of drawing or painting anything.”
Three traditions of the Paris quarries—art, beer, and mushrooms—come together in a room cataphiles call Le Cellier, or “the storeroom.” Until 1968 it stored beer. After the quarries stopped being mined for limestone in the 1800s, Parisian breweries expanded into the cool underground spaces. So did mushroom growers—though the mushroom in the frescoes, painted in the past few decades, is not the famous champignon de Paris, the common button mushroom that was grown in the quarries. It’s a psychedelic variety.
Painting is not the only art form to be found deep in the catacombs. There is also performance art, bone sculptures (piling of bones into aesthetically pleasing shapes), and more typical sculptures – both freestanding and carved into the walls of limestone. Other entertainment is also to be found, such as that provided by fire throwers or others with skills to please the cataphiles and their friends. There is even a word used to describe art created here: “Kata-art”.
Japanese woman serving a drink
Graffiti has been around since ancient times and is often defined as any type of public markings; these may appear in the forms of simple written words or elaborate wall paintings. Graffiti has a long history in catacombs: there is wall art in tombs of the ancient Egyptians and the catacombs of Rome, as well as signatures from archaeologists and explorers found scratched into the walls of tunnels and galleries. Of course they didn’t have the spray paint and other trappings that make life easier for our modern day artists – and make no mistake, many of them are true artists.
The eucharist bread and fish in the Rome catacombs
In a discussion on the early catacomb art of ancient Rome on art.org, it was pointed out that: “Catacomb decoration was not the work of a particular school of artists but of individual believers who, by assembling and reconverting humble belongings, managed to express themselves in a spontaneous and intimate way. From a means of giving recognition to anonymous tombs, this custom went on to kindle new styles. The addition of bright materials, shells, pieces of glass, and colored marbles meant that these subterranean creations came to life in the light of the blazing lanterns”.
It is an explanation that still has meaning today, especially in the labyrinth of the Paris catacombs where artists work next to galleries full of the bones of their ancestors.
A green tree under crystal clear water
For centuries, the graffiti and artwork found in tombs and catacombs have
been highly useful to, and valued by, scientists, archaeologists and
anthropologists. Using these clues, they have been able to reconstruct what
societal beliefs were like and understand cultures from periods long past. One day in the distant future, similar experts may do the same with the present day artwork of the Paris catacombs and learn more about our culture today.
A sculpture in one of the party rooms
The darkness underneath the City of Light is not as dark as some may imagine or wish to imagine. A vibrant separate life that casts its allure on those who visit exists, as National Geographic’s Neil Shea discovered when he left the tunnels: “We walk. Not far off I notice a manhole. It must open onto a tunnel. The tunnel may parallel the street, or it may dive toward the vault. My mind moves along that passage, imagining its path and its many branches. Cataphiles tell me this sort of thing is perfectly normal when you return to the surface; you can’t help it, they say. You picture the cool, still freedom of the underground, with all its possibilities.”
Very special thanks to National Geographic for their help in putting this piece together. To learn more about these amazing catacombs and the treasures they hold, go to the February issue and read Neil Shea’s superb article.