Art Through Time: A Global View
Ceremony and Society Art: Louis XIV
Although this portrait presents a credible, if idealized, likeness of the sixty-three-year-old Louis XIV, similitude was not its chief purpose.
Above all, Rigaud’s image of the Sun King was intended as an expression of absolute power achieved through the glorification of the monarchy. The portrait is one of pomp and pageantry in which the French king is surrounded by the ceremonial objects of rule. At the same time, the casual treatment of these objects lends the image an air of informality that not only suggests the king’s gentlemanly demeanor, but also implies the innateness of his authority.
In his right hand, Louis casually holds the royal scepter, inverted as if a walking stick. The point of the scepter rests on a cushion, where the king’s crown is also set. Louis wears his majestic coronation robes, embroidered with the royal fleur-de-lis and lined with ermine, carefully draped to reveal his shapely legs (a possible reference to his dancing skills) as well as the hilt of a sword at his left hip. The nonchalance with which the king wears the weapon belies the tremendous significance of the object. This is not just any sword, but the so-called sword of Charlemagne, used in the coronation ceremonies of the kings of France.
The image contains several references to Louis XIV’s coronation, the one-time event that officially legitimated his power. However, the portrait also played a role in the ongoing spectacle that encompassed nearly every aspect of the king’s life at the palace of Versailles from the 1680s onward. There Louis’s daily activities became part of a grand performance. Everything from the king’s morning toilette to his evening meal was ritualized and enacted before an audience, the size of which varied according to privilege. Rigaud’s portrait, originally intended as a gift for the king of Spain, ultimately remained in France, where it served in rituals of statehood carried out in the throne room at Versailles. When Louis XIV was absent from court, the portrait was brought into the chamber as his representative. As such, it was to be treated with the same respect accorded the living king. Rules of etiquette applied equally to both. So, for instance, one would no more turn his or her back on the portrait of the king than on the king himself.
Patrick Hunt, Director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project
“There is a famous portrait of Louis Quatorze—Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, Louis XIV—by the court portraitist at the time, Hyacinthe Rigaud, where he shows Louis XIV in a majestic statement of historic power. And the king is also surrounded by the trappings of history with friezes of classical culture and pedestals with columns, an evocation that the king sees himself perhaps as a sum re-manifestation of a Roman emperor.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this portrait is where the king’s hand rests—on the pommel of a sword. If you look closely at the sword, you see it’s Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne. This is the sword that is used in coronations of French kings from hundreds of years previously. You could not be a king of France without this sword as part of that ceremony. And it’s also reputedly a holy sword. It’s a sword which had divine aura around it as being a sword of Christendom, almost a sacred sword. So there is no accident that Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne is in that picture fastened to Louis XIV.”
Bryson, Norman. Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Burke, Peter. The Fabrication of Louis XIV. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Cowart, Georgia J. The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Musée du Louvre Web site. http://www.louvre.fr.