Throughout the 19th century the Pantheon went back and forth between being a church and a mausoleum. During one of those periods when it was again called L’Eglise Saint-Genevieve a decision was made to decorate with murals the bare walls that were installed in 1791 to fill in the windows of the original church. The murals were to honor some of the rulers and religious leaders of France who became national heroes. Joan of Arc got a wall to herself. So did Charlemagne and Clovis. Four walls were devoted to Ste Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. King Louis IX is the only French monarch who is also a canonized saint in the Catholic Church. So he has a wall, too.
Charles-Philippe de Chennevières was a writer, art historian, museum curator and Director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1874 he assigned some of the leading artists of the day to decorate the walls of the Pantheon / Eglise Ste Genevieve with paintings that emphasized the roles of various monarchs and saints in the history of France. Alexandre Cabanel was a popular decorative painter who gained his fame with his Birth of Venus that stole the show in the 1863 Salon and was subsequently purchased by Napoleon III after the exhibition. He also created a noteworthy Glorification of St Louis in 1853 and for this reason was chosen by Chennevieres to produce the paintings for the St Louis Wall.
The St Louis Wall is right opposite the St Joan Wall. Cabanel’s friezes run left to right in a procession that follow Chennevieres’ instructions to the letter. The artist deviated from the director’s plans, however, when he designed his four main panels. The director asked his artists to come up with a main scene that crossed three panels and then add a side panel either on the left or on the right. Cabanel, though, decided to have his main theme in only two panels and then have two side panels.
On the Life of Ste Genevieve Wall Chennevieres had asked Pierre Puvis to start out with the education of St Genevieve but the artist instead created a painting showing the saint in prayer. Cabanel decided that he would show the education of his king. And so his first painting shows Blanche of Castile teaching her 12 year-old son King Louis IX. The other six figures in the painting all seem to be religious, emphasizing the religious education Louis received.
King Louis spent a fortune purchasing Christ’s Crown of Thorns and other religious relics including a piece of the True Cross. Then he built Sainte Chapelle on the grounds of his palace to hold the relics. Louis is pictured in the first frieze panel bearing the Crown of Thorns. All of the people in a procession in front of the king in the remaining panels are historical figures, mostly patron saints of various cities in France.
The two central panels are called King Louis Rendering Justice, Ending Judicial Fighting and Founding the Institutions that made Him Famous. He is sitting on his throne in the upper left portion of the first panel and a host of personages spread out below him and into the second panel. Robert d’Artois, the king’s brother, is next to Louis and also close by is Etienne Boileau, the provost of Paris, who seems to be settling a dispute regarding the measurement of a man’s foot. On the king’s right is Thibaud de Champagne, the troubadour, crusader and King of Navarre. There are also a couple of bishops in the painting plus a woman prostrate on the steps of the throne. Could she be a prostitute? Prostitution was banned during Louis’ reign as well as judicial dueling.
The major figure in the second panel is Robert Sorbon, the founder of the University of Paris. During Louis’ reign students from all over Europe flocked to Paris to attend the school in the area on the left bank of the Seine now called the Sorbonne. Behind Sorbon is a Knights Templar, probably on business involving one of the king’s crusades.
The last of the four main panels shows a gaunt Saint Louis, a Prisoner in Palestine. The king, weak from dysentery, is being held up by his chaplain, Henry of Marburg, and is being taunted by his Saracen captors. The Seventh Crusade was a disaster. Louis began preparations for the crusade in 1244 and left for Egypt in 1248. In 1250 he was defeated and captured and his army of 15,000 men was destroyed. His brother Robert was killed in battle. Louis and his barons were ransomed but the king decided to spend four more years in the Holy Land, mostly in Acre, the stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller in what is now northern Israel. He finally decided to return home when he heard of the death of his mother who was ruling France while he was away.
Louis continued his reign for 16 more years but then decided to go on another crusade which also was a disaster. He died apparently of dysentery in 1270 soon after landing in Tunis. The people of Paris considered him a saint right away and Pope Boniface VIII officially canonized him in 1297. The Ile Saint-Louis in the Seine east of Notre Dame, the city of St Louis, Missouri and Mission San Luis Rey in southern California are named after him.
Louis was a beloved ruler who dined with the poorest of his constituents nearly every day. He also persecuted the Jews, passing many usury laws against moneylenders, burning 24 cartloads (about 12,000 manuscript copies) of the Talmud in 1243, and in 1269 ordering all Jews to wear yellow badges when in public. His order of 1268 to expel all Jews from France was not enforced.
Cabanel produced his paintings between 1874 and 1877. Most of the walls were complete by 1880 when Chennevieres was forced to resign after being harassed for years by republicans who were outraged by his views on monarchy and the Catholic Church. After all, they reasoned, didn’t we have a revolution to get rid of these? Artists who created their paintings after 1880 were given some leeway and allowed to introduce some non-religious and non-monarchial themes in their paintings. When Victor Hugo, an avowed atheist, died in 1885 the National Assembly passed a law to eliminate Christian worship in the Pantheon. The project started by Chennevieres in 1874 was allowed to continue, however, and all but one painting were completed by 1898.
Cabanel’s paintings are recognized as among the best in the building. The king’s deep sky blue outfit that matches the color of his tent in the right panel and the background in the first panel is especially striking. In the first frieze panel, however, the king is wearing robes closer in hue to the traditional bleu de France.