Claude-François Menestrier, Histoire du Roy Louis le Grand par les Médailles, Emblêmes, Devises, Jettons, Inscriptions, Armoires, et Autres Monumens Publics
This Book of the Month is a glowing illustrated tribute to Louis the XIV, the renowned ‘Sun King’ of France, titled Histoire du Roy Louis le Grand par les Médailles, Emblêmes, Devises, Jettons, Inscriptions, Armoires, et Autres Monumens Publics. It was published in 1691 in Paris, by a Jesuit called Claude-François Menestrier (See Fig. 1). It documents Louis XIV’s life and achievements from birth to the year of publication through the depiction of real and imagined medals, tokens, emblems, monuments and so forth.
Fig. 1 – Title Page from Histoire du Roy Louis le Grand by Menestrier
Biography of Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV remains one of the most well-known French monarchs in history, due to his lavish lifestyle, many mistresses, political achievements and high esteem of himself. He was born on the 5th of September 1638 to King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. When his father died suddenly, four year old Louis succeeded the throne as King. His mother Anne became Regent of France and along with Cardinal Jules Mazarin, she ruled the country. Mazarin had influence over the young monarch and it is said that his taste and elegance grew from observing the cardinal. In 1660, Louis married Marie-Thérèse of Austria, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain, although Louis did not prove to be a faithful husband, instead preferring the company of a string of mistresses throughout the years.
When Mazarin died in 1661, Louis decided to take over the ruling of his kingdom, viewing himself as the sole leader of France, God’s representative on earth. He worked hard every day to oversee the running of the kingdom, with his daily schedule organised to the minute. Every waking moment, except his lunch, was watched by his adoring court. He and his finance minister Colbert recognised the importance of culture for reflecting political superiority, and they encouraged state patronage on a grand scale; establishing academies of arts and science, purchasing antique treasures from all over the world, censoring texts to suit their own political agenda and carrying out building programmes. By enhancing Paris into an opulent cultural centre, Louis promoted the status of France among the rest of Europe, while proudly showing his own exquisite taste, generosity and power to his enemies. This text is another example of his shameless self-promotion, as it seeks to glorify him in any way possible (See Fig.2).
Fig. 2 – Description of Louis Le Grand, describing him as “The invincible, the wise, the conqueror, the wonder of his age, the terror of his enemies, the love of his people, the arbiter of peace and war, the admiration of the universe and to be worthy of the Master”
The author of this book, Claude-François Menestrier, was born on the 9th of May 1631 at Lyon and was educated at Lyon and Chambéry. From there he became a Jesuit and worked as a professor for several years. Between 1669 and 1670, he travelled around Europe before eventually settling in Paris and making a name for himself as a writer, expert in emblems and cultural events director, helping to plan and organise occasions, such as royal celebrations. He published over 160 works in total and included lavish illustrations in his books. This text, his Histoire du Roy, depicted medals, emblems, devices, tokens and monuments all dedicated to Louis XIV. The overarching tone of the text is glory and praise, to be heaped upon the reigning monarch, for example in an eloquent sonnet (See Fig. 3). Medals take up the largest portion of the book, as they were a key element of the propaganda machine of the French monarchy in the seventeenth century.
Fig. 3 – Sonnet from the opening pages written by Menestrier and dedicated to Louis XIV
Medals are pieces of metal that have a decorative or commemorative purpose (See Fig. 4), unlike coins, which are legal tender. The prototype of the modern medal was invented by an Italian painter called Pisanello in c.1439, with a portrait on the obverse and symbolic or allegorical depiction on the reverse. Pre sixteenth-century medals were cast, while post sixteenth-century medals were struck. This process involved the engraving of dies with imagery, which were then struck into heated metal to create the inscription or image on the medal. This process became mechanized in the seventeenth century, leading to a boom in production. In the 1660s, the Petite Academié was established by Colbert in Paris to control the production of these commemorative medals for Louis XIV. They looked back to the ancient coins of Greek and Rome for inspiration, but took a modern approach to the design, creating a sophisticated set of symbols to relay information about current affairs, albeit current affairs from a pro-Louis XIV perspective.
Fig. 4 – Medal (c.1665) by Jean Warin (noted medallist and controller of the Paris Mint) Portrait of Louis XIV and depiction of the Louvre. Image from British Museum website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/c/cast_gunmetal_medal_of_louis.aspx
Menestrier’s text is full of illustrations employed to glorify the King. It documents events in Louis XIV’s life, such as his birth and first marriage, as well as achievements in terms of military glory and political success. His birth is depicted in a medal with Louis XIII his father on the obverse and a decorative reverse. The reverse shows the baby Louis XIV being drawn by horse and carriage across the sky, guided by a winged female, as well as an inscription with his exact time and date of birth. The imagery is encircled by a ring of astrological star signs (See Fig. 5)
Fig. 5 – Medal bearing details about Louis XIV’s birth
Louis XIV’s marriage was a purely diplomatic affair, a symbolic union of France and Spain, as Marie-Thérèse was the daughter of the King of Spain. It was an arranged marriage, a key part of the Treaty of the Pyrenees that brought an end to the war which had raged between the two countries from 1635 to 1659. The reverse of the medal from Menestrier’s book shows two hands joining together (See Fig.6), the French hand on the left and the Spanish hand on the right. The fleur-de-lis background provides a strong French message, acknowledging the partnership but promoting the French element to a higher status within the image.
Fig. 6 – Medal reverse (right) depicting the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse in 1660
These medals were created as propaganda pieces, with many creating allegorical representations of Louis’ power throughout Europe. In 1668 he abolished the practice of duelling among the aristocracy and another medal illustrates this prohibition (See Fig. 7) with a female allegory of Justice standing tall between two fallen duelling men. The men have crumpled to the ground, weak and pathetic, indicating that the duelling was an outdated tradition. This in turn promoted Louis’ perceived ability to change France and his commitment to justice as a concept.
Fig. 7 – Medal portraying the abolition of duelling by Louis XIV
Loyalty to the monarch was essential to a happy life during Louis XIV’s reign, as people fell over themselves to please him whenever possible. One medal from the text shows an allegory of the French town of Alsace kneeling before an allegorical France, representing Louis XIV’s power and strength (See Fig. 8). This kind of imagery features throughout the book, as various towns and cities kneel before the monarchy in a show of solidarity and loyalty. On this medal, in return, France hands Alsace a crest of fleur-de-lis, implying monarchical support and perhaps patronage for the area. The outer medal is decorative with elaborate draping fabric and repeated motifs, such as fleur-de-lis, buildings, animals and flowers.
Fig. 8 – Medal showing the loyalty of Alsace to the King in 1679
As well as medals, this book chronicles other artistic media, such as devices, emblems, tokens and commemorative sculpture to promote Louis XIV’s greatness. Again, these indicate the breadth of his wealth, power and patronage. One such device is titled ‘Pietate et Religione’ (See Fig. 9), a sweeping visual statement of Louis XIV’s commitment to his Catholic piety and religion. His profile appears in a side view in the centre of what appears to be a medal and this is surrounded by symbolic imagery. The figure on the left represents the Catholic church, as he holds in his hands the Eucharist, the keys of St. Paul and the ten commandments. The reclining flaming figure to the right beneath ‘Pietate’ holds a cross in one hand, while leisurely pushing literature bearing the words ‘Calvinus’ and ‘Luther’ into a fire below. This in itself is a strong and clearly anti-Protestant statement, demeaning the figureheads of Calvinism and Lutheranism, in order to elevate his own faith.
Fig. 9 – Religione et Pietate commemoration to Louis XIV
A final interesting feature of this book is a pull-out page with a large-scale engraving of La Place des Victoires in Paris (See Fig. 10). This is a key site in the history of Paris that remains today (albeit not in the same format), first envisioned by Louis XIV as a grand statement of his own power and privilege. The space was designed by Jules Mansart in 1685 and this engraving shows his original plan for the space. It included a bronze statue by Martin Desjardins of Louis XIV being crowned by Victory, trampling the Triple Alliance underfoot in a symbolic gesture of supremacy. This was destroyed during the French revolution, but a later equestrian statue of Louis XIV survives today. It is a unique view of Paris that no longer exists, beautifully engraved with wonderful architectural details, spatial depth and the ethereal addition of angels bearing an inscription about Louis XIV’s glory.
Fig. 10 – Foldout engraving of Place Des Victoires in Paris, the original plan by Jules Mansart of 1685
This text by Menestrier is a rich and glorious work, providing an insight into both the life of Louis XIV and his opinions on himself. His use of visual propaganda such as this work spread his reputation throughout his kingdom and beyond, promoting his life events and achievements. The beautiful illustrations created by Louis XIV’s engraver Jean-Baptist Nolin add depth and meaning to this text and really highlight the egomaniacal attitude of the Sun King of France, one of the longest ruling monarchs in history. As well as this, we cannot ignore the self-importance of Menestrier evident in the text, showcasing himself as a close ally of the King. In the title page, we see that the book was created ‘avec privilege du Roy’, indicating that Menestrier gained permissions and, no doubt, recognition for it. The Histoire du Louis Le Grand then has a twofold purpose of glorifying the King and all his achievements, but by association, it glorifies Menestrier for documenting and illustrating them to such a high standard.
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Text: Ms Ella Hassett, Library Assistant, The Edward Worth Library, Dublin.