Reliquary crown of saint louis

Saint Louis – Catalogue of the Exhibition in Paris 2014

In connection with the grand exhibition in Paris celebrating the 800-anniversary of Saint Louis, a large and beautiful although unhandy catalogue has been published.

Saint Louis.
By Pierre-Yves le Pogam and Christine Vivet-Peclet (Eds)
Editions du Patrimoine Centre des monuments nationaux 2014
ISBN-10: 2757703412
ISBN-13: 978-2757703410


Saint Louis - catalogue coverThis is a real coffee-table book, obviously meant to be perused during lazy afternoons in winter-time. In this sense, the book lives up to one of the characteristics of the life and times of Louis IX. If people could afford it – and the French royal family obviously could – exquisite and delicate art was at their fingertips in the form of incredibly detailed ivory sculptures, glazed windows and not least covers and illuminated manuscripts. Now we can peruse renderings of all these delicacies for the paltry sum of €45.

Such embellishments really needs to be seen close up in order to be fully enjoyed. However, this was of course the privilege par excellence of royals and nobles at that time.

Thus, this style was already in the 19th century dubbed “the Rayonnant” in order to separate it from the early Gothic architecture, which was characterised by its focus on scale and space. As opposed to this the style of app. 1240 – 1350 was more concerned with the decorative motifs embellishing the surfaces. One should thus imagine that royalty and nobles in the 13th century were intensely occupied by securing their privacy.

In fact, the opposite seems to have been the case. it is apparent that Saint-Louis was personally occupied with opening up this magical world to the common people. This was done through a deft manipulation of architecture, liturgy, music, space and not least the body itself.

The present catalogue invites the reader to step into this magic world by considering both the staging of the saintly body of the king as well as the settings, which he was responsible for creating while performing his grand idea of being both a king and a saint.

A barefooted Saint Louis carries the Crown of Thorns  to Paris and installs it at Sainte Chapelle
A barefooted Saint Louis carries the Crown of Thorns to Paris and installs it at Sainte Chapelle

Of course its has been intensely debated to what extent Saint Louis himself was responsible  for the construction of this janus-faced myth; and to what extent it was his hagiographers who after his life built the myth. However, there is no doubt that both the exhibition and the catalogue share the view with Jaques le Goff – who wrote a remarkable biography in the 90s – that the king was personally responsible and that he was an accomplished director as well as actor on this scene.

In the catalogue (as well as in the exhibition) we are thus presented with a movement from the 19th century paintings, which represent the full-blown romantic myth through a discussion of how the saint was canonized in the end of the 13th century. From here we are presented with a series of studies focusing on the construction of the royal myth through the deft manipulation of the particular myth of saint Louis through portraiture and how he personally was responsible for reorganising the presentation of his dynasty in their sepulchral cathedral of Saint-Denis. To this is also added a short presentation of how Saint-Louis moved through the landscape as a penitent sinner or when he together with his family barefooted carried the crown of Thorns and other relics into Paris in 1348 in order to lay it to rest in the Sainte Chapelle which he had been the main instigator of. This jewel-box, which was in fact used as a public “text” teaching the sacred character of kings to the people, is of course also dealt with in the catalogue, where we are given examples of the delicacy of the original glazed windows.

Finally the end of the catalogue gives a presentation of what role the Royal Kingdom of Jerusalem played in the minds of Saint-Louis and his contemporaries. Unfortunately the catalogue does not present the recent 3D reconstructions of the Saint Chapelle and royal palace on the Île-de-France, which are exhibited at the end of the exhibition. This is a shame since this would have opened further up for an understanding of the medieval understanding of what was private, personal and public. The borders were obviously quite different for saint Louis, who opened both his garden and his royal chapel to the public for them to see the fusion of the royal and celestial spheres for themselves.

Although condensed, it is a delightful publication, which carries the experience of getting close to the man beyond January 2015, when the exhibition closes. However, the Catalogue is also in the usual unhandy form, unfit for reading at your leisure in the evening. Photos are exquisite, although they might more conveniently have been made accessible on a dedicated website. (The argument appertaining to copyright is not applicable as many of the photos are already owned by the French National Institutions and museums and as such belong to the State, which might just make a political choice and make those available and pay for the rest). And then of course the language is prohibitive for many. Saint-Louis is a key figure when it comes to get a grip on France in the High Middle Ages. It would have been nice to see the relevant French authorities at least acknowledge that tourists to Paris comprise non-native speakers with a wish to know more, when mounting such an impressive exhibition

Karen Schousboe


  • Introduction:
    Et le rire le roi – by Jacques Le Goff
  • Du saint à L’homme, parcours d’un mythe à rebours:
    L’image de saint Louis dans la peinture au XIXe Siècle By Frédéric Lacaille
    La canonisation de saint Louis by André Vauchez
    De l’image des rois à l’image du roi. By Pierre-Yves Le Pogam
    Le sacre de saint Louis. By Patrick Demouy
    Saint Louis et la mémoire royale à Saint-Denis. By Damien Berné
    Saint Louis, roi pelerine, roi croisé. Les peregrinations de Louis IX dans le royaume de France. By Pascale Thibault
  • Du royaume terrestre à la Jèrusalem celeste
    La Sainte-Chapelle: Fondation et liturgie. By ètienne Arnheim et Ghislain Brunel
    La Sainte-Chapelle: architecture et décor. By Pierre-Yves le Pogam
    Le Vitrail à la Sainte-Chapelle. By Françoise Perrot
  • La Quéte de Jerusalem
    “Pour la garde et pour l’honneur de la foi chrétienne”. Saint Louis et la fortification des ville en Terre sainte. By Jean Mesqui
    Entre le Livre et l’épée. La Bible du roi tout en imgaes comme expression d’un i´déal politique. By Yves Christe
    La splendour de ‘art de la cour de saint Louis. By Pierre-Yves Le Pogam
    Dépouillement et expressivité. By Pierre-Yves Le Pogam
  • Notices – Numbered Catalogue of exhibited items
  •  The catalogue also includes a table with the most important dates of the reign of Saint Louis, a family tree, two maps and a unfortunately highly selective bibliography.


Louvre holds a reliquary crown probably made in the Liège in Vallée de la Meuse 1260 -1280. Beneath the crystals it holds a number of diverse relics, amongst which is a thorn from the Crown of Christ. It is commonly called “the crown of Saint Louis”. However it is believed to have been made for a statue as a reliquary crown and not for his personal use. Whether or not Saint-Loui gifted the crown himself to the Dominicans in Liège, is disputed (the crown has no. 81 in the catalogue)


Review of the exhibition