Marie-Antoinette at Saint-Denis

A follow-up on my my prior post on the Chapelle Expiatoire, thanks to a pertinent question by Penny: are the funeral monuments of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint-Denis good likenesses of the royal couple?

Marie Antoinette St Denis

Marie Antoinette St Denis statue

First it should be noted that the monuments date from the Restoration of the Bourbons, almost forty years after the executions of the King and Queen. However it is obvious that physical likeness was a prime concern of the sculptors, Edme Gaulle and Claude Petitot.

Louis XVI is represented suitably tall and stout (he was 5 foot 7, which made him a six-footer in modern English measurements.) The features are also true to the original, though somewhat idealized, but I find his expression unnecessarily stern and aloof.

As for Marie-Antoinette, I didn’t want to answer Penny’s question without posting a close-up of Marie-Antoinette statue as an orante (praying) since she appeared in the background in the other photograph.

In her case too an effort was made to achieve the best likeness. In terms of body shape, Marie-Antoinette was tall, though less so than her husband. As a grown woman, after four pregnancies, she had the full breasts and round arms shown here. These were then considered beautiful (that was long before the current fashion of extreme emaciation in women.)

The only odd notes come from the hair, too curly, and the dress, which both reflect the fashions of the 1820s, not those of her lifetime. But what matters is that you can recognize the Queen’s high forehead, small mouth and prominent nose. The sculptor obviously followed the excellent busts (her best portraits, by her own account) made during Marie-Antoinette’s lifetime.

However, in those busts, she is presented proudly upright, her head thrown backward in a characteristic, somewhat defiant pose. Here, on the contrary, she is pensive, humble, leaning forward and sideways towards her husband. This is very moving in light of the evolution of the royal couple’s complex relationship: mutual coldness at first, then disdain on her part, gradually followed by ever increasing closeness, respect and affection. During their last months together at the Temple, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette cared for each other in the deepest sense of the word. She was devastated by his death, and his last earthly concerns were for her and their children.

I believe this sculpture beautifully captures this. There was definitely more than propaganda to the Saint-Denis reburials.

Photograph: Sailko

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