Yesterday, August 25, was the feast of St. Louis of France who died in 1270 and was canonised by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297. Louis is an immensely fascinating character, and I have written about him elsewhere as a saint rather than as a living monarch (see here, here and here). The cult of Saint Louis became very widely disseminated in Europe, largely thanks to the family ties of the Capetian dynasty which introduced him to Spain, The Kingdom of Neaples, Bohemia and Hungary. (1) As a consequence, Louis is endowed with a rich iconography which has received input from changing trends in art. In this brief blogpost, I give you a rather late rendition of the royal saint, painted by El Greco c.1586. El Greco was influenced by the Mannerist movement, but in his own version in which the the shapes are more voluble and elongated, and the use of perspective is applied more playfully and with less rigour than in the Italian schools of the sixteenth century. As we see in the image below, El Greco also employs shadows and light in a way reminiscent of the chiaroscuro technique perfected by Caravaggio but which had been developed since the late fifteenth century or so.
Louis as we see him here has greater resemblance to the Renaissance princes that were so often subject of mannerist portraits, and when compared with the medieval illuminations below we see that El Greco has brought out Louis' personality more acutely. This is of course unsurprising since completely different iconographic rules applied to Mannerist painting and manuscript illuminations of the high and later Middle Ages. It is nonetheless interesting to note that the Louis seen in the illuminations are more serenely beatific, almost as an embodiment of the perfect Christian king, whereas in El Greco's painting he is more reminiscent of the worldly king. El Greco's Saint Louis has no halo to suggest sanctity, and only his sombre, almost sad, expression and his thin, almost scrawny face might give a hint of the strict mendicant lifestyle he is said to have embraced.
Saint Louis standing serene
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.298v, breviary, use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of enluminures.cultures.fr
The liturgical Saint Louis
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0344, f.242, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1318
Courtesy of enluminures.cultures.fr
Naturally, the image of Saint Louis changed over the years, both in art and in literature, and this is the normal progression in saints' cults. When comparing to so diverse expressions of imagery as the medieval illumination and the sixteenth-century painting we see how differently one saint might be imagined. The important thing about this difference need not be the medium through which these images come down to us. Naturally, illumination and painting work differently and have different audiences and purposes, which also means that they have different messages in their iconography. But we also could argue that aside from the iconographic rules intrinsic to the various pictorial genres, we see here how the king and saint has been envisioned in different milieus and different spiritual climates. The medieval illuminations belong to a period close to the canonisation and close to that widespread enthusiasm which found expression both in lay and monastic art. The mannerist depiction by El Greco, however, belong to the Counter-Reformation and its more sober, restrained approach to the cult of saints, which might more than anything else account for Louis' dark, gloomy appearance.
1) For the cult in Spain and Neaples, see Gaposchkin 2010: 210ff; for the cult in Bohemia see Marosi 2011: 188; for the cult in Hungary see Szakács 2011: 222.
Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010
Giorgi, Rosa, Saints in Art, translated by Thomas Michael Hartmann, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003
Marosi, Erno, "Saints at Home and Abroad: Some Observations on the Creation of Iconographic Types in Hungary of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, József; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – Cults and Their Contexts from late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period – Essays in Honor of Gábor Klaniczay for His 60th Birthday, CEU Press, 2011
Szakácz, Béla Zsolt, "Palatine Lackfi and his Saints: Frescos in the Franciscan Church of Keszthely", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, József; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – Cults and Their Contexts from late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period – Essays in Honor of Gábor Klaniczay for His 60th Birthday, CEU Press, 2011