The prince, the arts and death (14th-16th centuries)

At the end of the Middle Ages, the princes mobilized the patronage system for their last home, built during their lifetime. Thus develops a ars moriendi, sets of instructions to prepare Christians for death. Illustrated guides are published showing the struggle between the forces of evil and those of good, set in the bed of the dying. To die well, you have to avoid certain pitfalls, such as pride or greed. However, the princes organize their death in a sumptuary way. Is the funerary art that developed at the end of the Middle Ages then the manifestation of a particular piety, or an artistic manifestation contingent on dynastic needs?

The funerary statuary of princes at the end of the Middle Ages

The royal burials are all located in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, with the exception of Louis XI. Recumbent figures appear on tombs in the 12th century. They are first placed in the transept (sixteen recumbent figures), then in the north in the 14th century for the sons of Philippe Le Bel, and in the south for Charles V and Charles VI; finally, from the 16th century, the tombs were scattered throughout the basilica because of their increasingly monumental size (Louis XII in the north, François I in the south, for example). The recumbent statue serves as a testimony of his faith, and princes are often idealized there, with symbols of their piety such as the dog (loyalty), the lion (strength) and orientation towards Jerusalem as can be seen with the tomb of Charles IV and Jeanne d'Evreux (after 1328).

Realistic features appear on the faces of recumbent figures at the end of the 13th century, with Philip III and his wife Isabella of Aragon; the latter appears with a face marked by pain (she died after a fall from a horse). This realism is largely due to the wax casting of the faces of the deceased. This subsequently inspired recumbent figures, especially in the 15th century. The Duke of Burgundy Philippe le Bold (died in 1404) created a fashion that went so far as to influence the King of France and the other great princes of the kingdom, such as the Duke of Berry. This is particularly the case of the lower register of the tomb in the Charterhouse of Champmol, with an arcade within which there are couples of statuettes in the round, dressed in bure robes, a veritable funeral procession and, among this procession, ecclesiastics, nobles, members of the ducal household; they cry, they are mourners, each face expressing feelings. The Dukes of Burgundy developed this funerary art until Charles the Bold, with patronage that supported artists such as Jean de Marville, Claude Suter or the painter Jean Malouel.

Before the 15th century, we embalm the body of the king, we surround it with regalia and we separate the heart and the bowels. On the death of Charles VI (1422) is invented the effigy, which lasts until Henri IV (died in 1610): with a leather mask and a wooden body, we maintain the fiction of the body by serving meals and by carrying the effigy during the funeral. This symbolism is linked to the idea of ​​the king's two bodies, one physical and mortal, the other representing the immortal monarchy. Once the effigy is presented, the officers shout, "The king is dead, long live the king," and the new ruler may appear.

The beginning of the 15th century also brought other changes, influenced by macabre concerns. The statues appear kneeling (Louis XI in Cléry, Louis XII in Saint-Denis), even emaciated, as in Avignon the tomb of Cardinal Jean de la Grange. This macabre art is developing even in Italy, even if there the recumbent figures gave way from the 15th century to ancient themes.

Celebrate a dynasty and heroize the prince

The princes of the late Middle Ages want to pay homage to their ancestors and their families. Thus, in Saint-Denis, there are kings as well as queens and their children. It is indeed the dynasty, and no longer just the monarchy, that is honored.

One of the most famous examples is the tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, by Guido Mazzoni, an Italian artist who worked for the Duke of Ferrara. The antique-style triumphal arch is a novelty in France, imported from Italy in the midst of the Renaissance. However, the tomb is nevertheless very French because it grants the prayer and the macabre concern. The tomb reads like a journey: we insist on the corruptibility of bodies, but at the same time we have confidence in the future and in the resurrection for virtuous rulers. The tomb of François I and Claudius of France is even more the sign of a mixture between the French style and the Italian style, with a heroisation of the prince.

If we compare France and Italy, the prince's heroising in the tombs is more complex than it seems. That of the great seneschal of Normandy, Louis de Brézé (1460-1531), presents the deceased on horseback and triumphant militarily, surrounded by caryatids. For Francis I, on the other hand, we are more in the representation of the Christian king triumphing over death. In Italy, the Medici Chapel, intended first for Laurent and Pierre de Medici, was designed by Michelangelo, but does not insist on heroisation, rather on the brevity of life and melancholy, despite a set more monumental than in Saint-Denis. As for the tomb of Pope Julius II, still by Michelangelo, it is so ambitious and expensive that it is not completed, but it was supposed to show a warrior and heroic pope in the face of external enemies, all in the presence of Moses .

Other princes want to honor their dynasty, and for this sometimes draw inspiration from the royal model. This is the case, for example, with Anne de Montmorency (1492-1567) and her mausoleum. Great feudal prince and great patron, he knew Italy well, yet his tomb reverted to the chivalrous ideals of the Middle Ages, only partly inspired by the monumentality of the kings of France. The mausoleum was however made by Renaissance artists, such as Barthélemy Prieur. The prince is shown lying with his hands joined in prayer, with his constable's sword at his side. He also reconnects with his ancestors: in a sanctuary in Montmorency, there is a collegiate church fitted out visually by orders representing the family (stained glass windows with the father, the son, etc.). The taste of a great feudal lord may therefore differ in certain respects from that of his sovereign.


- E. Kantorowicz, The two bodies of the king, Gallimard, 1989 (1time edition, 1957).

- R. E. Giesey, The king never dies, Flammarion, 1987.

- E. Male, Religious art of the late Middle Ages in France, A. Colin, 1995 (1time edition, 1908).

- B. Bové, The time of the Hundred Years War (1328-1453), Belin, 2009.

- P. Hamon, The Renaissance (1453-1559), Belin, 2009.

- N. Le Roux, The Wars of Religion (1559-1629), Belin, 2009.

Article inspired by a course by M. Amalou, Paris 1, as part of the CAPES preparation.

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