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Paris, France

Napoleon's Angels

Twelve grave-faced marble angels guard the emperor's tomb at Les Invalides. 

The gold-plated dome that looms above Napoleon Bonaparte’s sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris is beautiful, considered one of the triumphs of French baroque architecture. But it’s the 12 stone-carved angel statues surrounding his tomb that are truly breathtaking.

The winged statues are mounted against the pillars of the crypt. Cloaked in draping clothing, all appear to have a shocked, unbelieving look on their faces. Many suggest the angels serve as guardians for Napoleon’s grave, while others believe they helped guide him to the heavens.

The life-sized white marble figures were actually designed to symbolize the general’s military achievements. The “Victories” are the final work of French sculptor Jean Jacques Pradier, who is renowned for his neoclassical works found at the Triomphe Arc de Triumph and the Louvre. (Pradier was laid to rest at Paris’ famous Père Lachaise cemetery).  

While Napoleon’s angels are a special treat for the eyes, the entire building is beautiful. The Les Invalides complex was built by the “Sun King” Louis XIV as a home and hospital for veteran soldiers. Today it includes the Musée de l’Armée French military museum, and the Dôme des Invalides, a former chapel inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome. Several French war heroes are entombed here, as well as members of Napoleon’s family, including his son, the King of Rome.

Though Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile in Longwood, Saint Helena in 1821, his body wasn’t interred at Les Invalides until 1861. His remains were brought to Paris in 1840, and finally entombed 20 years later after an elaborate redesign of the former church was completed to build this extravagant shrine to the emperor.