Versailles (Part II): The Symbolic Instrument of the Royal Grandeur
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Versailles (Part II): The Symbolic Instrument of the Royal Grandeur

The palace of Versailles reflects the royal grandeur and glorifies Louis XIV through symbols and allegories.

Real instrument of the royal grandeur, Versailles was the book of stone and images of absolutism: sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings formed a language whose mythology and allegory constitute the alphabet. This language is particularly rich since the allegoric object designates an invisible idea.  Tha allegory is a means of symbolization  that enables to express transcendency and sacralization in which the royal power participates. Wasn't the King of France anointed by God himself during the sacring ceremony? His authority, the majesty surrounding him and which he incarnated, came from this mystery.

Designed by the painter and architect Charles Le Brun, the Grand Apartments (1671-1681) "where the King welcomes his guests but does not live" consists of a suite of seven rooms. Each one was dedicated to a planet of the Solar System. All included a decoration on the same model: in the centre of the ceiling, a mythological figure in relation with the god corresponding to the planet of the room (Mercure, Apollo, Mars...). On the four arch mouldings, paintings with scenes from Ancient History showing a Prince of Antic Times (August, Cyrus, Caesar) in an action of glory or at war. This was a true treaty of good government in images and this one could only be the King's own. 

The iconographic programme of the "Hall of Mirrors", decided after the Peace of Nijmegen (1678), putting an end to Franco-Dutch War, constituted a true revolution in the representation of Louis XIV. In two days only, Charles Le Brun designed the whole project for the vault: a vast programme displaying the military campaigns during the War of Devolution (1667-1668) and Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678). Colbert recommended that nothing should be added that was not in conformity with reality. The gallery was completed in 1684. The vault consisting of 27 paintings, medallions and camaïeux was built like an initiatory path to the glory of the prince. The official history of the Kingdom of France from 1661 to 1678 is summarized in the sole action of the sovereign, no longer presented through the mediation of Ancient History, mythology or allegory but with the King's own features.

Whereas in the Grand Apartments, only symbolic representations were allowed, the portrait of Louis XIV in person is found in the Hall of Mirrors in several paintings. By its shape and decoration, the War Room corresponds to the Peace War. The grand marble medallion shows the victorious Louis XIV, by Antoine Coysevox. From 1661 to 1690, Charles Le Brun conducted a great number of painters, sculptors, tapestry makers and decorators of all kinds in and around  the palace. He himself created and elaborated the decorative themes for the various rooms in Versailles and namely the Hall of Mirrors, as indicated before.  He was the manager of the famous Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture, Chancellor of the Academy, and as such exerted a quasi dictatorship as far as Arts were concerned.

Louis XIV visiting a trench during the War of Devolution by André Le Brun.

Image source:

The War Room at versailles. Medallion by Coysevox representing Louis XIV.

Image source:


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Comments (11)

Excellent historical sculptures and paintings we owe from history. An excellent post.

An excellent analysis as always, Francois. Reading your articles is like being given a guided tour by an expert. You are a true art historian.

BTW I'm out of votes, but I'll be back tomorrow.

Ranked #1 in France

Many thanks to all. Michael, you are too kind, my dear friend. Best wishes.

Exceptionally well written and the "Hall of Mirrors" in Versailles displays the exquisite elegance of France's renowned artistic craftsmanship. The pictures are breathtaking and a great example of the French history within the Arts. Great article!

Versailles is wild stuff.


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