The Public Institution of the Palace of Versailles has dedicated a major exhibition to commemorating the death of Louis XIV in Versailles 300 years ago, on 1st september 1715.
The death of the king, both as a man and an institution, was a key moment in the construction of the public perception of the monarchy, combining religion (the death of a Christian) and politics (the death and resurrection of the king, who never dies). From his final death throes to the burial it resembled a performance, a great Baroque show of huge significance to courtly society, which was affected more than ever by it.
The exhibition – the first on the subject – will look back on the details of the death, autopsy and funeral of Louis XIV, which strangely are little known, and to situate them in the funeral context of European sovereigns from the Renaissance period to the Enlightenment. It also discusses the survival – often paradoxical – of this ritual from the French Revolution to the contemporary era.
The exhibition will bring together works of art and historical documents of major importance from the largest French and foreign collections, including ceremonial portraits, funeral statues and effigies, gravestones, the manuscript for the account of the autopsy of the king, coins from the Saint-Denis Treasury, gold medals, emblems and ornaments, and furniture of funeral liturgy. Some of the pieces on display have never been exhibited in public.
Exhibiting these masterpieces has required grand scenography effects. Scenographer Pier Luigi Pizzi was asked by Béatrix Saule, the exhibition’s Head Curator, to design the layout for this great Baroque show. Across the nine sections, visitors will discover a veritable funeral opera conducted by the artist.
The subject of the exhibition will not fail to surprise, and is scientifically rigorous. It is based on an international research program on royal ceremonies in European Courts, undertaken over the course of three years at the Palace of Versailles Research Centre under the leadership of Professors Gérard Sabatier and Mark Hengerer and with the participation of a team representing a range of disciplines, from coroners to liturgists, from medieval to contemporary historians.
The exhibition layout
The loss of a king
1715 constituted a turning point and marked a period of societal change: the 17th century had ended and the Regency was beginning. Visitors to the exhibition will browse the exceptionally long 72- year reign through a frieze of medals from the king’s gold Histoire métallique collection, leading on to a wax portrait by Antoine Benoist of the king seven years before his death. The exhibition will evoke aspects of illumination as well as darker areas of the reign: painted and sculpted allegories illustrating the splendour of the reign, such as revealed in the funeral orations, will contrast with a selection of satirical engravings.
Louis is dying
On 1st September 1715 Louis XIV passed away at the age of 77, having reigned for 72 years. He died suddenly after a sharp decline in his health in the summer of 1715. Suffering from leg pain from the beginning of the summer, he declined rapidly and was gone less than 15 days after gangrene set in. He died as he had always lived: in public, still carrying out his “job as King” with a rigidity and courage that can only inspire admiration. He settled the procedures for his succession, put himself right with God and said his farewells successively to his family, faithful servants and Madame de Maintenon. Painted and engraved portraits and historical documents relate the sovereign’s final days in his room in Versailles and, as an epilogue, the very first actions of the following reign.
Operation and embalming
The day after the king’s death his body was transported to the Oeil-de-bœuf Antechamber, according to tradition, to be cut open, divided into three parts (body, heart and entrails) and embalmed by doctors and surgeons in front of the principal officers of the Court, before being placed in a double coffin made of lead and oak. The scene is well documented by eye-witness accounts, the register from the Menus-Plaisirs Administration and reports by the doctors. The display includes the copper plaque placed on Louis XIV’s coffin (Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis Basilica-cathedral, Musée de Cluny storage archive), which was desecrated during the Revolution, as well as surgical instruments and apothecary drugs (Paris, Musée de la Médecine).
Exhibition and effigie
On the third day Louis XIV’s coffin was displayed for a week in the Mercury Room in the King’s State Apartments in order for tributes to be paid. In contrast to the long-established tradition, no wax effigy of the deceased was made but the coffin was simply covered in the pall of the Crown. This break with the effigy ritual, which fictitiously extended the life of the monarch, can be explained by a change that was both judicial and religious. In other countries in Europe, however, the ritual of displaying the body (visibly or as an effigy) was still observed.
The court in mourning
During periods of mourning, the appearance of the Court was transformed according to a strict etiquette that was more than ever apparent among its members. Certain rooms in the apartments were hung with black drapes. However, it was most evident in the clothes and accessories worn. After Mary Stuart, the last ‘White Queen’, women sovereigns adopted black, like Marie de Medici. Kings on the other hand, in both France and England, wore crimson violet or purple during mourning. For the members of the court there were subtle variations between ‘grand mourning’, ‘semimourning’ and ‘minor mourning’, according to the ‘mourning period’, the rank of the person in mourning and their family relationship with the deceased. These differences are revealed in the exhibition by large-scale images based on the Collection of Fashions in the French Court (Recueil des modes de la cour de France), alongside extremely rare accessories. The reception by Louis XIV of the Prince-Elector of Saxony in 1714 reveals the atmosphere in the French Court at the end of Louis XIV’s reign: a court still in mourning under the weight of the successive loss of all the king’s descendants.
The funeral procession
The funeral procession transporting the body of a sovereign to its final resting place has always been an important moment. Collections of engravings have preserved the image of the most luxurious corteges. Louis XIV’s funeral procession, which left Versailles on 8th September 1715 at 7pm to arrive at dawn at Saint-Denis, is evoked by engravings, the Great Stables supplies register, plans showing the order of the procession and the journey from Versailles to Saint-Denis, as well as L’Arrivée du convoi funèbre de Marie-Thérèse en vue de Saint-Denis (English royal collections) and the exhibition’s scenography which uses light (nocturnal effect), and sound (Funeral March by Philidor).
Four themes will be developed regarding the splendour of the funeral ceremonies: the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis and what it represented in France at the beginning of the 18th century, the decoration for the great funeral service, a grand show organised by the Menus-Plaisirs Administration, the ceremony itself (attendance, the service, emblems, the burial and the proclamation) and, last but not least, the repercussions of the ceremony in France and abroad.
Graves and mausoleums
In accordance with a tradition dating from the death of Philippe le Bel (1314), the bodies of French kings were separated into three parts (body, entrails and heart), each with its own grave, thereby increasing the number of places where homage could be paid to the dead king.
The body at Saint-Denis. Louis XIV’s coffin was placed here in the Bourbon tomb, without a monument. This detail is made even more surprising by the fact that the preceding dynasty, the Valois, was honoured with large graves made by the greatest artists, such as the Effigie funéraire de Catherine de Médicis (Girolamo Della Robbia, 1565, Musée du Louvre).
The entrails at Notre-Dame de Paris. A recent discovery has allowed the identification of the exact location of the barrels containing the entrails of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, at the foot of the steps to the sanctuary and the statues placed there. This group of statues built in 1715 executed the wishes of Louis XIII.
The heart in the Eglise des Jésuites on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris. Dedicated to Saint Louis, patron saint of the French monarchy, and constructed thanks to the support of Louis XIII, this church contained the monuments for the hearts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, destroyed during the Revolution.
From monarchic to national funeral ceremonies
From vandalism during the revolution, to the restoration. During the French Revolution royal necropoli were vandalised by the revolutionaries, the vaults of the kings were opened and their remains scattered. At the time of the Restoration the royal Abbey, once again an important location thanks to its strong symbolic identity, played host to luxurious ceremonies, notably during the transportation to Saint-Denis of the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, buried in the Madeleine cemetery after their execution.
The funeral service of Louis XVIII. All the emblems, ornaments and liturgical furnishings from the funeral ceremony for Louis XVIII, which conformed to the rituals observed for Louis XIV and Louis XV, have been preserved and will be displayed in their context, including the royal coat, crowns, sceptre and hand of justice; tunic coat, great helm, royal sword, gauntlets and spurs, tabards belonging to the heralds of arms; chasubles and copes, armchairs, chairs and stools for the officers.
Funeral ceremonies throughout history. This final section takes visitors through periods affected by changes of ideas and political regime, to show that these monarchical rites have survived and become elements of appropriation or deviation. Triumphant corteges turn towards new necropoli and reproduce the splendour of old funeral ceremonies, for example for the transportation of Voltaire to the French Panthéon on 11th July 1791, the return of Napoleon I’s ashes to the Invalides in 1840, ceremonies for Victor Hugo in 1885, as well as the funeral service for Sadi Carnot at the Panthéon in 1894, depicted by a painting measuring nearly 10 metres long that is on display for the first time.
Epilogue: Cinematic high points Walls of images will show extracts of films from funeral services for famous people from the 20th and 21st centuries, in partnership with Institut National de l’Audiovisuel.
Béatrix Saule, Director and Head Curator of the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Assisted by Hélène Delalex Conservation Officer at the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
and Gérard Sabatier, Emeritus Professor
Scenography : Pier Luigi Pizzi