A Welcome to the Kingdom of Louis XIV: An Artistic Vision of Absolutism in the French Court.
“No artistic style is more directly expressive of the political ambitions and achievements of a monarch than that named after Louis XIV (1643-1715), nor more clearly marked by the peculiar circumstances of its conception.”
Versailles is a testament to the rule of King Louis XIV ('the King'). Through the architecture and interior decoration, an image is created of his absolute power over the Kingdom of France. The visual representation of his power was ubiquitous due to the accessibility of his image. People of all demographics - citizens and foreigners – visited the chateau to marvel in its creation, and by extension Louis XIV's rule. As a result, the reliefs, tapestries and sculptures of the King became ingrained into the social consciousness of all people within the Christendom. This allowed the King to construct an image of himself per his will. Gerard Sabatier argues in his essay 'Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy’ that Versailles is a reflection of his rule and the absolute monarchy which he wielded. Through a visual analysis of Versailles, and particularly the work of Charles Le Brun in the Ambassador's staircase and the Great Gallery, we will view how Louis XIV used the Palace to reflect his absolute rule.
Louis XIV was born on the 5th of September 1638 in the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, France. Prior to his birth, his mother, Queen Anne of Austria, had suffered four stillbirths. As a result, the birth of Louis XIV was received as an act of God, and hence, he was fashioned the name “Louis the God-given.” The extravagance surrounding his birth can be seen as the beginning of a reign consumed with pomp and circumstance. In 1643, when Louis XIV was five, his father, Louis XIII, passed away. Due to Louis XIV not being of age to rule, a Regency Council was put in place to rule France during his youth. Queen Anne and Cardinal Mazarin supervised the regency council. Due to unrest in the Kingdom as a result of the continuation of the Thirty Years' War and a lack of a matured King, many people in the Aristocracy, French Parliament and citizen factions uprose against the monarchy. This further validated Louis XIV's inherent importance to the stability of the Regime. The civil unrest only grew after the Thirty Years' War as high taxes were put in place to pay for reparations. In Paris, riots broke out in what is known as the Fronde, directed at the houses of government officials. This resulted in Louis XIV needing to flee from the Capital. These foundational experiences in Louis XIV's life instilled in the King a distrust for the French Parliament, Aristocracy and, moreover, a dislike for Paris. By the 7th of September 1651, Queen Anne denounced her Regency, and King Louis XIV officially assumed the throne.
The foundational experiences that isolated Louis XIV from Paris resulted in constructing his new Capital in Versailles. After a successful hunting trip on the grounds of Versailles in 1607, the King's father, Louis XIII, fancied the area due to its bountiful game and location between the primary monarchical residence at the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the capital city of Paris. Due to his liking, Louis XIII decided to build two small hunting lodges in 1623. Louis XIII continued to expand his hunting lodge throughout the decade and by 1634 had established the foundational structure which his son would transform into the Palace of Versailles. Louis XIV had visited the hunting lodge many times throughout his life. The first of which occurred when he and his brother, Philippe I, fled there to escape a smallpox outbreak in 1641. From then on, Louis XIV regularly visited the area to indulge in leisurely activities. In 1661, shortly after the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the King began significant construction works on the Palace. Already ten years into his reign, this project would act as a projection of the Kings image and what would be expected in the remainder of his rule. The Palace took on a new purpose. From hunting lodge to grand entertainment space to eventually the home of the Monarchy, French Court and Government by 1682. By consolidating all of France's power to one space, the King was able to project an image of himself seen by all members of the French aristocracy. This was a tool used to assert his absolute rule over the Kingdom.
Moreover, Louis XIV decided to open the space for all people to visit. This allowed his image to circulate in aristocratic circles and become ubiquitous throughout his Kingdom. Sabatier illustrates the diverse array of visitors as "there was thus a continual crowd of people at Versailles, whether courtiers dwelling there, Parisians, natives of the kingdom of France, foreigners of all sorts (either there on business - for Versailles was the Capital, and the palace a sort of administrative centre - or simply curious to see the king, his apartments, and his collections), or, finally, workers of all trades busy in the palace where work was in progress at all times." As a result of the King's transfer of power from Paris to Versailles and his increasing presence in the social milieu, Louis XIV could use his image to reflect his absolute rule over the Kingdom.
Due to the widely accessible nature of Versailles, the art and decoration stand as more than aesthetics, but as representations of the King who commissioned them. This can be seen in Louis XIV's construction of the Ambassador's Staircase. Unlike other stately courts throughout Europe, diplomacy at Versailles was regulated to uphold the symbolic importance of ceremonies involving the King. The Ambassadors staircase was the primary engagement with the King offered to diplomats. At other times, diplomats were often segregated to the Salle des Ambassadeurs (Ambassadors room) and relied on intermediaries to relay messages to the French Court and Monarch. Ellen R. Welch argues that "this spatial constriction limited diplomats' ability to act at court to peruse their interest and those of their sovereigns." Thus, it can be argued that the management of the court was itself a way to assert Louis XIV's absolute power – even over subjects whom he did not hold jurisdiction. As such, the Ambassador's staircase acts as a dramatic representation of this power. Architect Louis Le Vau envisioned the Ambassadors staircase; however, it was built by his predecessor, François d'Orbay, in 1672.
Fig. 1 Jean-Michel Chevotet, “Vue interieur du grand escalier de Versailles du côte de l’Entrée,” engraving, 1721, Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The aesthetic programme executed by Charles Le Brun worked to depict a history of Louis XIV's triumphs both in military battle and diplomatic relations. Carolyn Yerkes suggests in her essay, The Grand Escalier at the Chateau de Versailles: The Monumental Staircase and its Edges, that "Le Brun's historical and allegorical program celebrated the achievements of Louis XIV through direct reference and through allusion." An analysis of these techniques can be addressed dichotomously: the walls and the ceiling, the historical and the fictive. Firstly, through four frescos depicting people from Africa, America, Asia and Europe, Le Brun utilised the trompe l’œil technique to create a dramatic spectacle. The deconstruction of depth through this realistic technique opens up the Ambassadors staircase to both the real and the fictive. Le Brun shows people from all over the world – leaning over balustrades – to catch a glimpse of the entering Monarch. These works assert Louis XIV's influence over both domestic and foreign visitors. Moreover, these works assert the space as one for cross-cultural discussion. Louis XIV taking his place on the landing of the staircase places himself – and by extension, the Kingdom of France – in the centre of this political assembly. Louis XIV famously said “L’Etat, c’est moi,” (“I am the state”). The use and implementation of these frescos work to solidify this notion.
Fig. 2 Charles Simonneau, “Plafond du Grand Escalier du Château de Versailles”, chalcographic copper plate print, 1710, Princeton University Art Museum.
Still, Sabatier suggests that the frescos "were not the most strategic part of the programme, even if the people from the four parts of the earth produced an effect of flattering superfluity with the spectacle of the ambassadors welcomed into the stairway under the eyes of courtiers." Instead, he suggests that the ceiling decoration was far more telling of the King's absolute rule. Once again depicting the four known continents, Le Brun portrays Africa, America, Asia and Europe in the four corners of the ceiling. Now staring down at Louis XIV, this once again shows the King's position in the centre of the world. On the pilasters, Le Brun personifies the twelve months. Like the representations of continents, these act to place Louis XIV in control of time as well. Bordering these depictions is a medallion, held up by personifications of victory, standing upon the vanquished. At the head of the medallion sits Louis XIV's emblem, highlighting his absolute rule over France's victories. Sabatier highlights the power of these images as "[e]ngraved illustrations filled with political allegory, which flooded Paris and the kingdom of France during the time of Louis XIII, Richelieu, and Mazarin had the same kind of 'pedagogic function' that cartoons, or television broadcasts have for children today." Furthermore, eight painted scenes surround the central skylight, depicting the history of the King. Painted chronologically, these historical depictions work to illustrate a rule which is both powerful and absolute. Ambassadors greeted at this site would be met with continuous representations of Louis XIV's triumphs, and so, the staircase was used to illustrate the absolute rule the King held over the French Kingdom and ultimate influence over neighbouring states.
Regardless, Sabatier highlights that due to the skylight obscuring the reception of the ceiling, "the most significant part of the arrangement remained invisible." Instead, Sabatier suggests that the decoration of the Great Gallery was more effective at reflecting the image of Louis XIV. The Great Gallery, also referred to as the Hall of Mirrors, was an elaborate display of the absolute rule of Louis XIV. The iconography outlined by Caesar Ripa in 1618 normalised classical uses of symbolism in the general populous, which allowed for Le Brun's Great Gallery to be interpreted by its diverse audience. The vast ceiling in the hall was decorated with displays of the political and military triumphs of Louis XIV.
Fig. 3 Charles Le Brun, “Le Roi gouverne par lui-même, 1661,” oil on backed canvas, 1681-1684, Palace of Versailles.
Significant is the work that is situated in the centre of the ceiling, and hence the centre of the Palace of Versailles. The work reflects Louis XIV assuming the throne after the death of Cardinal Mazarin. The young King faces a personified representation of glory whilst sitting above the people of France. Above the King sits many gods, one of which holds an hourglass, once again instilling Louis XIV hypothetic control over time. Hall Bjørnstad writes in his essay, 'From the Cabinet of Fairies to the Cabinet of the King: The Marvellous Workings of Absolutism,' that "the rest of the royal body, and especially the gesture of his left arm and the direction of his eyes (which are not looking at the state he is governing) says more about the logic of his newly inaugurated absolutism." Considering that this imagery would have been accessible to the general public, Le Brun uses the image of Louis XIV to reflect his absolute monarchy. Moreover, the inscription which sits at the base of the work reads "Le Roi gouverne par lui-même," ("The King governs on his own"). This imagery, which is both more explicit and more accessible than those in the Ambassador's staircase, directly reflects a King who has absolute rule over the Kingdom of France.
Louis XIV’s rule was absolute in both its function and its reception. The Palace of Versailles acts as a canvas for which this rule was represented in the artistic decoration of its interiors. Using both historical and mythological iconography, the artisans tasked with decorating the Palace used their medium to instil in domestic and foreign visitors the King's power. Ultimately, as an elaborate portrait of Louis XIV's rule, Versailles acts as a reflection of the absolute power he wielded.
 Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art (London: Laurance King, 1999), 611.  Richard Wilkinson, “Louis XIV (Second Edition),” in Routledge Historical Biographies, ed. Robert Pearce (New York: Routledge, 2007), 11.  “King of France and Navarre (1638-1715),” Louis XIV, Chateau de Versailles, accessed 1 May, 2021, https://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/great-characters/louis-xiv#from-royal-residences-to-the-palace-of-versailles  Wilkinson, “Louis XIV (Second Edition), 11.  Barbara Gaehtgens, "Prints, Politics, and a Child King: The Battle of Rocroi in 1643." Getty Research Journal, no. 7 (2015): 1.  Bronwen McShea, "Surviving the Beaver Wars and the Fronde," in Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 66.  Andrew Mansfield, "The Reign of Louis XIV: Absolute Monarchy." In Ideas of Monarchical Reform: Fénelon, Jacobitism, and the Political Works of the Chevalier Ramsay (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 106.  “Anne of Austria, Queen and Regent of France,” The British Museum, accessed May 2, 2021, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG17405  "Versailles, France," Historic Gardens Review, no. 18 (2007): 42.  Ibid  Frank M. Snowden, "The Historical Impact of Smallpox," in Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019): 99.  Peter Sahlins, "Precious Beasts: Animals and Absolutism in the Early Reign of Louis XIV," in 1668: The Year of the Animal in France (New York: Zone Books, 2017): 54. Christopher Andrew, "Intelligence in the Era of the Sun King," in Secret World: A History of Intelligence (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2018): 242.  Gérard Sabatier, “Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy,” in Iconography, Propaganda, and Legitimation, ed. Allan Ellenius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 220.  Welch, "Diplomacy on the Public Stage (1697–1714)," 188.  Welch, "Diplomacy on the Public Stage (1697–1714)," 188.  Carolyn Yerkes. "The Grand Escalier at the Château De Versailles: The Monumental Staircase and Its Edges," The Princeton University Library Chronicle 76, no. 1-2 (2015): 81.  Ibid, p. 72  Ibid, p.73 Herbert H. Rowen, “"L'Etat C'est a Moi": Louis XIV and the State,” French Historical Studies 2, no. 1 (1961): 83.  Sabatier, “Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy,” 222.  Sabatier, “Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy,” 220.  Yerkes, "The Grand Escalier at the Château De Versailles: The Monumental Staircase and Its Edges," 73.  Musée du Lovre and La Caixa, “Drawing Versaille: Charles Le Brun (1619-1690),” from 18 November 2015 to 14 February 2016, https://enfilade18thc.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/press-release-i-drawing-versailles-charles-le-brun-1619-1690-i-caixaforum-barcelona.pdf, 9  Sabatier, “Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy,” 220.  Musée du Lovre and La Caixa, “Drawing Versaille: Charles Le Brun (1619-1690),” from 18 November 2015 to 14 February 2016, https://enfilade18thc.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/press-release-i-drawing-versailles-charles-le-brun-1619-1690-i-caixaforum-barcelona.pdf, 5.  Sabatier, “Beneath the Ceiling of Versailles: Towards an Archaeology and Anthropology of the Use of the King's 'Signs' during the Absolute Monarchy,” 222.  Ibid.  Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Benjamin Motte, 1709): 1-81.  Hall Bjørnstad, "From the Cabinet of Fairies to the Cabinet of the King: The Marvelous Workings of Absolutism," The Princeton University Library Chronicle 76, no. 1-2 (2015): 254.  Ibid.  Ibid, 256.  Ibid.
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