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Here Comes the Sun-King

September 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the French King Louis XIV. This month we’ll be exploring the artistic legacy of Louis with a series of blogs and films.

This week Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour, explores the icons Louis used to glorify his reign, and how that led to the creation of the ‘Sun King’.

It is impossible now to think of King Louis XIV of France (1638- 1715; reigned from 1643) without immediately conjuring the image of ‘The Sun-King’, that fusion of heavenly and earthly powers, the king as a semi-divine being, someone not just to be obeyed but to be worshipped.

More than just about any other ruler in history, Louis manufactured and propagated his public image as a way of establishing, securing and constantly reinforcing his supreme power and right to rule. His manifestation as the sun in splendour in visual and performance art acted as a constant reminder that the power of the king flowed directly from God, that his place as ruler was guaranteed by unquestionable divine favour.  This campaign to perpetuate Louis’ image was so successful that it remains instantly recognisable today.

Interestingly though, Louis had been king for twenty years before he adopted the sun as his emblem. It is clear that the need for a suitably illustrious and god-like symbol was understood earlier in his reign, but it took some time before the sun was finally adopted in the early 1660s.

A1210 & A1209 right

An extraordinary pair of pistols in the Wallace Collection, made for Louis in 1659 or 1660, illustrate beautifully Louis’ search for an appropriately God-like visual identity. The sun is nowhere to be found, nor is the sun’s accompanying motto, NEC PLURIBUS IMPAR (‘not equalled by many’, or less literally but perhaps more comprehensibly, ‘equalled by no one’). Instead, the primary motifs are the Greco-Roman demi-god Hercules and the leonine attributes of his First Labour, the battle with the Nemean Lion.

A1210 detail-3

Here Louis is equated  with Hercules very directly by means of the inscriptions on the barrels of the weapons:

‘Behold the Belgic lion overpowered by the Hercules of the Gauls presages disaster for the Spanish Geryon… As Hercules sports the conquered lion’s skin, so does Louis flaunt in triumph the Belgic trophies…’

A1210 inscription-1

These inscriptions place the pistols at a very specific moment in Louis’ reign, a time of great military and political successes, and just before the adoption of the sun badge. In 1658 Louis (‘the Hercules of the Gauls’) had won an important victory at the Battle of the Dunes in the Spanish Netherlands (‘the Belgic Lion’), forcing Spain (‘the Spanish Geryon’; Geryon in Greek mythology was a multi-limbed, multi-headed giant, a fitting description of the Spanish Empire in the mid- seventeenth century) into the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), which fixed the Franco-Spanish border at this range of mountains and ceded parts of Luxembourg and Flanders to Louis (the ‘Belgic trophies’).

These pistols are by no means the only instance of Louis associating himself with Hercules. The mythical hero also appears as the central icon on a series of partizans designed by Louis’ court artist Jean Bérain (1640-1711) for a branch of the royal bodyguard, one of which is now in the Wallace Collection.

A1009 head right

These staff weapons were probably made no earlier than c. 1670, which is interesting because it demonstrates that the Hercules image continued to be used, to some extent, even after the Sun-King persona had been assumed.

However, it was the sun which rapidly became predominant, from the time Louis first appeared in the guise of the Sun-King at the great carrousel (a richly costumed courtly spectacle on horseback) held in Paris in 1662. From that time onward, the image of the sun proliferated. Another series of partizans, also designed by Jean Bérain in a similar style to the Wallace Collection example mentioned above, maintains the central motif of a muscular Greek figure, but now it is Apollo, god of the sun, rather than Hercules, while above, the sun in splendour casts forth its celestial radiance. Several weapons from this second series are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

Finally, yet another later set of partizans carrying designs by Bérain, again represented by an example in the Wallace Collection, did away with Classical imagery altogether, in favour of the sun, the fleur de lys, and other more contemporary heraldic and triumphal imagery.

A1008 head right

The sun in splendour proved to be so effective  and successful that it continued to be used on royal objects and in royal French imagery long after Louis’ death. Today in remains one of the most potent and revealing symbols of an ancient concept- the  divine right of kings.

By Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour


Discover more about the Hercules pistols in this film:

Want to know more about Louis XIV? Check back next week for the following post in the series, exploring the work of André-Charles Boulle


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