If you visit the Catacombs of Paris, spend a few extra euros for a guided tour. Why? Because these beautifully detailed sculptures, hand-carved on the walls of the tunnel two centuries ago by a quarry worker, are not part of the standard tour, and are well worth a visit.
Struck in miniature with surprising and exquisite detail, the carvings provides a sudden and surprising understanding of people who worked down here, toiling every day to chip out the rock that gave a face to the beloved city above. Before the Catacombs were the resting place for some 7,000 Parisians, the subterranean tunnels were a stone quarry used to build the city above. It was dangerous work and many miners died as a result of cave-ins and poor working conditions.
One of these early miners was a man named Décure, a quarry worker and former soldier in the army of King Louis XV. During the Seven Years’ War, Décure was imprisoned by the English in a fort near Port Mahon on Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands. After the war he returned to Paris to work in the quarries, and came across a small room unknown by the others. Between 1777 and 1782, he came here in secrecy during lunch breaks or after his shifts, and carved three sculptures recounting his memories from the war.
One sculpture depicts Décure’s memory of Port Mahon where he was imprisoned; another is of a place called Port Philipe. Perhaps the most impressive is a detailed facade of a building in the Quartier de Cazerne (or Cazerne District). It’s believed they depict Décure’s imagined versions of these places, likely deviating quite a bit from reality, but rather offering a portal into the sculptor’s past. When you consider that these scenes were crafted using antiquated tools and torch light, it makes the spot that much more breathtaking.
Sadly, Décure was mortally wounded by a cave-in that occurred while he was carving a stairway to his artworks. Some of the inscriptions on his sculptures may have been made in his memory after his death. The sculptures were damaged during the French Revolution and with the passing of time, and have been restored several times.