Monday, June 11, 2012

Paris: Musée du Louvre

Monday, 6 June, 2011

Destination #3: Musée du Louvre

Before there was I.M. Pei's pyramid, Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace or the gift shop, there was the Palace of the Louvre:

Model of medieval palace in current Louvre

Eleanor's first husband Louis VII could acquit himself ably enough in battle, but he was never the military strategist that his son Philippe Auguste would prove himself to be. Nicknamed Dieudonné (God-Given) at birth, Louis' much longed-for son was born in 1165 (sharing a birth year with Joanna, the youngest daughter of Henry and Eleanor). Philippe was crowned at age 15 and took up where his father had left off sowing and cultivating seeds of discontent between Henry II and his sons Hal, Richard, Geoffrey and John (Eleanor was out of the picture due to her imprisonment by Henry). Philippe seemingly made it his life's work to destroy the Angevins. I can't help but wonder if father Louis' humiliation over the outcome of his marriage to Eleanor was transmitted to son Philippe, who took it upon himself to destroy as much of the Plantagenet legacy as he could by either might or manipulation for the glory of Les Capétiens.

Richard & Philippe quarreling after Messina. 14th century Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Philippe's interpersonal relationships were complicated, to say the least. It's beyond the scope of this blog to discuss Philippe's marital woes but they make for fascinating reading! Philippe spent most of his life fighting with someone, whether Pope or Plantagenet, vassal or wife. And yet, for all his presumed need for Plantagenet-based revenge, Philippe maintained what seems to have been a genuinely close friendship with the fourth son of Henry and Eleanor, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany. Philippe was allegedly so overcome with grief at Geoffrey's untimely death (which we saw memorialized earlier in a plaque at Notre Dame) that he had to be forcibly restrained from jumping into Geoffrey's coffin.

Let's just say that Philippe was never particularly subtle when it came to making grand gestures. Take the impressive Palais de Louvre, for example. Built in the late 1180s, it was intended to deter Henry Plantagenet should he consider casting covetous eyes upon Paris. It was considered an impregnable fortress the scale of which had not been seen to date, a fortified castle complete with water moat, drawbridge, crenelated towers 32 feet high, and thick walls. Philippe's cylindrical watch tower was known as Le Grosse Tour and was originally surrounded by a dry moat which was expanded. The complex eventually became home to Paris' archives and treasures of the kingdom. Philippe also kept his arsenal stored at this castle along with archives and treasure. The Louvre was never his residence.

Louvre in the time of Philippe Auguste by Louis-Pierre Baltard, circa 1803

The building was renovated and enlarged over subsequent centuries and in time it did became a lovely royal residence.

Illumination "Les très riches heures du duc de Berry" showing the much-enhanced Louvre in the time of Charles V, nearly 200 years later

The keep was razed in the 16th century by Francis I, but the foundations of Philippe Auguste's original Louvre fortress still remain in the bowels of the Old Louvre complex, which we'll visit a bit later in our tour today.

By this point most of us were limping along rather pathetically, having stomped through half the Rive Gauche, Notre-Dame, and the Cluny Museum by 1 PM. Time out for lunch on our own helped, but the Louvre is an intimidating stop even for the freshest of explorers and we were all rather wilted by this point!  Fortunately our guides took us directly to the only known artifact physically associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Behold, the Eleanor Vase.

"Hoc vas sponsa dedit Anor Regi Ludovico, Mitadolus avo, mihi Rex, Sanctisque Sugerus."  

That is: "As a bride, Eleanor gave the vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the Saints."

According to that inscription on the base that Abbot Suger added, Eleanor gave this vase to Louis as a
wedding gift. At some point Louis gave it to Abbot Suger for the Treasury at St-Denis.

Early Byzantine carvings of rock crystal often involved aquatic themes, which may be why later Europeans interpreted rock crystal as being petrified ice. Rock crystal was considered to be an allegory for the Fountain of Life....precious stuff, indeed. Its level of transparency and reflectivity was renowned and was popularly used in the Muslim world for the creation of precious lamps for shrines and drinking vessels. This leads to the intriguing speculation that perhaps the Eleanor Vase was never a vase at all, but instead was a drinking cup or lantern.

In Turner's collection of essays about Eleanor, historian George Birch believes that the piece was originally made in the Byzantine empire, possibly Persia, between 3 and 7 CE. He posits that Mitadolus was a Muslim emir from southern Spain, King Imad al-dawla of Saragossa, who gifted Eleanor's grandfather Duke William IX of Aquitaine with the vase in 1120 to win his support. This makes the vase all the more significant, not just as the lone surviving Eleanor artifact but as tangible evidence of Christian and Muslim collaboration from a unique era.

And yet Louis gave it away! The reason for Louis passing along a wedding gift (which is thought to have happened while the couple was still married) is unknown. It certainly seems to have been an awkward decision when looked at with modern sensibilities, and perhaps also from medieval ones! Perhaps it was an offering in hopes that the couple's barren marriage would be blessed by a child (two daughters, Marie and Alix, were eventually born to Louis and Eleanor).  Or was it a personal gift from Louis to his mentor Abbot Suger as thanks for rendering spiritual and state guidance?  Maybe it was the last remaining piece of a set and deemed not worth keeping around the palace! Whatever it once was, it remains an exquisite piece and visiting it set the bar high for finding further traces of Eleanor's world in the 21st century.

The original piece that Eleanor gave Louis was likely only rock crystal. What can't be seen due to the gilded silver setting Suger later added is the neck of vase, which according to the Louvre website extends upwards two centimeters. St-Denis Treasury inventories stated that the setting is of gold, jewels, and pearls, and mentioned two red jaspers "on one of which is engraved an idol, and on the other the head of a man." Those are long gone. The blue enamel medallions with fleurs-de-lis on the third band down are likely later substitutes for lost jewels. Suger believed that the beauty of precious objects such as this one helped worshipers transcend the material world, and he likely used the piece as a communion vessel (which again makes me wonder if it was contemporarily considered to be a drinking cup, not a vase). The crystal was reportedly in perfect condition until it was cracked in the 18th century (seriously not a good century for French artifacts).

The Louvre photo below shows the best detail so I am reproducing it here for discussion purposes. More details can be found on the Louvre website HERE.

Our group stood for a very long time at this display and we snapped many photos. My favorite shot is this one of author Sharon Kay Penman with the Eleanor Vase:

Photo by Lisa Williams Adair

We wandered around the Richelieu wing looking at other representatives from the Middle Ages decorative arts collection. There were a number of items from the Treasury of the Royal Abbey of St-Denis which resonated deeply with me, given the effort I'd made to visit this significant cathedral on my first day of the trip. The Eleanor Vase was displayed with two other pieces that Abbot Suger himself had a hand in designing:

Photo by Wendy Mehary

Suger found the middle piece, a vase from Egypt, and added the gilded silver eagle to transform it into a liturgical chalice. He explained:
And further we adapted for the service of the altar, with the aid of gold and silver material, a porphyry vase, made admirable by the hand of the sculptor and polisher, after it had lain idly in a chest for many years, converting it from a flagon into the shape of an eagle; and we had the following verses inscribed on this vase: "This stone deserves to be enclosed in gems and gold. It was marble, but in these settings it is more precious than marble." (Includi gemmis lapis iste meretur auro: Marmor set, sed in his marmore cavior est).
The other piece on display at far left was commissioned by Abbot Suger and is known as The Sardonyx Ewer. It was used for holding sacramental wine. Its inscription reads "Dum libare Deo gemmis debemus & auro Hoc ego Suggerius offero vas Domino" loosely translated as "Since we ought to offer to God with jewels and gold, I offer this, I make a vessel unto the Lord."

There is a fourth piece that is known to have been commissioned by Abbot Suger, currently in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  Since visiting these medieval treasures in Paris and learning about their provenance, I've made it a point to stop in to pay my respect to Abbot Suger's aesthetic whenever touring the National Gallery. Here it is:

This cup is believed to be of Alexandrian origin in the last century BCE, although of course the mounting is circa 1137-1140. It is described as a "sardonyx cup with gilded silver mounting, set with stones, pearls, and glass" and was used as a liturgical chalice. The National Gallery catalogue claims that Abbot Suger
....took particular delight in the swirling bands of this stone cup in which the sard's red keenly vies with the darkness of the onyx that one essence seem to be bent on invading the other. The fluted carving, with deep channels cut into the sides, accentuates the sense of natural forces in surging motion...

The chalice may have been used in the re-consecration ceremony for the new altar chapels of St-Denis on 11 June 1144, an event that Eleanor very likely attended. Abbot Suger did not disclose the provenance of this sardonyx cup but is thought that it might have been brought to Saint-Denis by dealers who flocked there knowing of his love of pretty things or it may have been a pawn redeemed by a wealthy lenders from the Jewish community who'd settled in Saint-Denis and Paris. This is likely how other items in the St-Denis treasury were procured as well.

How did this piece make it to Washington DC? The National Gallery catalogue explains:
In fulfillment of the law ordering the nationalization of the monastic orders, on 30 September 1791, the chalice was taken away from Saint-Denis and deposited at the Cabinet National des Médailles et Antiques. On the night of 16-17 February 1804, it was stolen from the Cabinet National, forced into a plaster bust of Laocoön, and smuggled, presumably by way of Holland, to England, which was then at war with France. It was acquired 1804 by Charles Towneley [1737-1805], London; in the Towneley family, London, until possibly 1920. (Harry Harding, London), in 1920; (Goldschmidt Galleries, New York), by 1921; purchased 20 March 1922 by Joseph E. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, after purchase by funds of the Estate; gift 1942 to NGA.
Much detail about this piece and Abbot Suger's visionary commissions can be found in the chapter on Medieval Metalwork and Styles in the National Gallery publication Western Decorative Arts: medieval, Renaissance, and historicizing styles.

One last look at detail on the sardonyx cup. While alterations have occurred over the centuries, this medallion with solemn haloed Christ, flanked by the Greek letters signifying 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End'" dates to Suger's time. I think that the intricate spirals of gold filigree, so detailed and done with the naked eye without modern visual magnification, are absolutely breath-taking:

Somehow I doubt it will ever make its way back to France to rejoin the other three Suger commissions, but I'd like to see that happen. They belong together.

Anyway, back to the Louvre. There were many other objects there from the Treasury of St-Denis, albeit from later eras. One that I found particularly intriguing was this patène de serpentine, a saucer inlaid with gold, precious stones, pearls, and colored glass. The paten itself dates to the time of Christ and a Glasgow historian gained some press in 2007 by speculating that this plate may be the legendary Holy Grail. The gold mount likely dates to the reign of Charles the Bald in the late 9th century, and this paten was used along with the Cup of the Ptolemies at the coronation of French queens. It's been associated with Abbot Suger but was probably not used during his time. Still, it's an intriguing piece:

When we finally tore ourselves away from the medieval decorative arts, we did a blitzkrieg highlight tour of the Louvre. We visited the Appartements Napoléon III and Cour Marley (see details about that on my other blog, The Historical Dilettante). We also had the opportunity to stop and see specific works such as Goujon's famous Diana and the Stag (forever associated with the fascinating Diane d'Poitiers); Venus de Milo (I was amused to later learn that founding members of The American Society of Plastic Surgeons had chosen to reproduce a likeness of the statue as their organization's emblem. Apparently for enough money, anyone can look like a beautiful woman with no arms); Winged Victory of Samothrace; and various Renaissance paintings including La Joconde (I have to admit to spending more time watching and being amused by the hordes of people jockeying for prime photo spots than gazing at the painting). Highlight tours are not my thing and I really hate being rushed through a museum. Oh well, such are the drawbacks of touring with a group.

Our most significant visit after viewing the Treasures from St-Denis was to the foundations of Philippe-Auguste's Louvre Fortress, deep in the bowels of what is considered the Old Louvre. 

As noted previously, although Philippe's fortress was razed during the Renaissance, excavations for the underground visitor’s center beneath I.M. Pei's glass pyramid uncovered the foundations of the original castle in 1983. These foundations are remarkably well-preserved and we enjoyed walking where once the wet moat protected the keep, and seeing the massive pediments.

We wandered on the long wooden walkway through the middle of the moat, down what amounts now to a dark tunnel beside the massive exposed foundations, and ended up in a mysterious little room of unknown purpose that featured a carving of this creepy fellow:

We returned by tour bus to our hotel. Some of our group attended a medieval-inspired dinner at a restaurant that had been arranged in advance. Since the menu was not accommodating to my dietary choices, I declined and instead had dinner with Paula, Sue and Nicole, and Yvonne at one of the restaurants at the Place de la Sorbonne. Sue and Nicole and I then wandered down to Montebello Quay for an evening boat ride on the Seine. We laughed a lot and enjoyed the sights of Paris (including several young men who mooned our passing bateau from the docks).

So much packed into such a short time! I was glad this was not my first trip to Paris, as I'd have felt cheated by the fast pace. When I look at my personal photos of this time, I am struck by how radiantly happy and excited and completely exhausted I look!

Tomorrow we will leave Paris to track Eleanor's life in Normandy and beyond, so it was back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Bonne nuit et fais des beaux rêves, Paris!

Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry about our first full day of touring in Paris can be found here: LINK.


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