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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Age of Saint Louis (1226–1270)

“We came to the sands of Acre, where we pitched camp, the King [Louis IX] and the host. Thither in that place came to me a troop of many people from Great Armenia, that were going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem … By an interpreter … they begged me that I would show them the saintly King. I went to the King where he sat in a pavilion, leaning against the pole of the pavilion … I said to him: ‘Sir, there is without a band of many folk from Great Armenia, that are going to Jerusalem, and they pray me, Sir, that I have them shown the saintly King; but I have no wish yet to kiss your bones.’ And he laughed aloud and told me to go to fetch them; and so I did.”

Thus Jean, sire de Joinville, friend and Crusader in the company of Louis IX of France, describes the degree to which people venerated the king as a saint even during his lifetime. Following his death, nearly 400 witnesses gathered at Saint-Denis to testify to his sanctity. There, in the royal abbey, a chapel came to be dedicated to Saint Louis (Two Grisaille Panels, 1982.433.3,4). There the faithful—and, in particular his own descendants—came to pray and honor his example (The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, 54.1.2), for during his long reign (1226–70), both the saintly king and the nation thrived, and the city of Paris was firmly established as the premier artistic and intellectual center of Europe. At the end of Louis’s reign, 101 different craft guilds were established in the city; the university welcomed scholars and students from across Europe.

Louis IX and the Sainte-Chapelle
We know from Louis’s biographers that “From the beginning when he came to hold his realm and knew himself of discernment, he began to build churches and many religious houses …” Most celebrated was the Sainte-Chapelle, his royal chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Built to enshrine the relics of Christ’s Passion, it was consecrated on April 26, 1246. The stained glass of the chapel celebrates Louis’s acquisition of the relics (Stained-Glass Panel, 37.173.3). But it was clearly a site for Louis’s private devotions as well, and his biographer tells of the king’s sometimes acrobatic religious fervor: “I went to the King’s chapel and found the King, who had mounted on the gallery of the relics, and had caused them to take down the True Cross.”

Art under Saint Louis
Louis IX was a key supporter of the Franciscan and Dominican orders. An ivory diptych (Diptych with the Last Judgment and Coronation of the Virgin, 1970.324.7a-b) shows a mendicant friar being led up the ladder to heaven, followed by the image of a king, a visual testament to the important role played by Franciscan and Dominican confessors at the royal court. The Bible made in Paris (Bible, 1997.320) includes the profile of a Dominican friar kneeling beneath the Crucifixion. By the middle of the thirteenth century at least, book dealers selling manuscripts like these were established in Paris, on the Left Bank by the university, and in front of Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité.

Not only Dominican and Franciscan establishments flourished during the reign of Saint Louis. In the Lady Chapel at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, stained glass rivaling that at the Sainte-Chapelle was installed between 1244 and 1255, almost coincident with the completion of the Sainte-Chapelle (Scenes from the Passion of Saint Vincent of Saragossa and the History of His Relics, 24.167a-k); new sculpture further enriched the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other churches of Paris (Head of an Angel, 1990.132).

The Death of Saint Louis
Louis twice participated in Crusades to recapture the Holy Land, bringing his court into the broader international arena. He died in Tunis while on Crusade; in a depiction of the procession of his relics, the casket bearing his body is set on a rich and exotic silk of the type prized in East and West alike (Silk with Griffins, 1984.344).