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The Louvre: Highlights for Medievalists

By Danielle Trynoski

Le Musée du Louvre. This meandering maze lives up to all the hype. If you’re a fan of sculpture, it’s here. Oil paintings? They’re here. Medieval jewelry? Check. Triptychs? Got’em. Islamic ceramics? Of course!

Tomb of Philippe Pot, the grand seneschal of Bourgogne, died 1493. Painted limestone. Photo by Danielle Trynoski
Tomb of Philippe Pot, the grand seneschal of Bourgogne, died 1493. Painted limestone. Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Despite offering exemplary samples of almost every type of art, the Louvre showcases some great examples of medieval art. The Richelieu Wing is where it’s at! Literally, most of it is in the Richelieu Wing. In the “French Sculpture” galleries, visitors can examine a range of medieval pieces from a variety of contexts. Residential, religious, mortuary, and architectural sculpture is all presented with detailed year and location information. Several pieces have additional context provided on accompanying labels, but most pieces are presented as comparison displays. The progression from early medieval sculpture with its characteristic broad, shallow eyes to the fine detail and realistic shapes of the high and later medieval styles is well-presented. One memorable piece is the gisant (tombstone carving) of Philippe Pot, d. 1493, the grand sénéschal of Bourgogne, supported by mourners. The rich colors of the original polychrome are mostly intact, and the carved script is crisp and easy to decipher. Each mourner carries a coat of arms and wears a hooded robe carved with realistic draping. The knight Philippe Pot is in full armor and helm with a detailed tunic and sword included. Another touching tribute was the alabaster tomb of Renée d’Orléans-Longueville, born 1508 and died 1515. The gisant of this young girl is surrounded by protective saints, and a watchful unicorn lays at her feet.

The "Eleanor" vase, a reputed gift from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Abbey of Saint-Denis, with the eagle of Abbot Suger behind. Photo by Danielle Trynoski
The “Eleanor” vase, a reputed gift from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Abbey of Saint-Denis, with the eagle of Abbot Suger behind. Photo by Danielle Trynoski

The Decorative Arts collection is stunning. It includes on display the “Eleanor Vase,” the “Equestrian Statuette of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald,” and the “Emperor Triumphant” diptych. In addition to these infamous artifacts, the Decorative Arts galleries also offer numerous examples of secular and religious pieces such as jewelry, carvings, ivories, and plaques. The cloisonné work is beautiful and gems sparkle from nearly every display. Since this is THE premier national museum of France, it’s only fitting that the display of Limoges enamel work is comprehensive. There are multiple fibulae, buckles, and personal objects on display, including some large and richly decorated Frankish and Ostrogothic examples. If you’re a medievalist with a day or less to explore the Louvre, make a bee-line for this gallery upon your arrival.

After perusing a selection of Roman sculpture and artifacts, one arrives at a glorious display of a nearly complete late Roman mosaic floor from the Church of St. Christopher in Qabr Hiram in Lebanon, c.575. The details in the people, animals, decorative figures, and foliage are crisp and delicate. The composition includes the whimsy of Roman interior decor and the newly introduced orthodoxy of Christianity. Multiple excellently designed interpretive touchscreens accompany the display on a viewing deck on the floor above the mosaic so you can explore additional details while taking in the full view. Other fragmentary mosaics are displayed nearby, alongside contemporary textiles. The colors, delicacy, and subject matter of all the works is impressive, but the breath-taking floor from St. Christopher’s shouldn’t be missed.

Mosaic floor from St. Christopher's, close-up view - Photo by Danielle Trynoski
Mosaic floor from St. Christopher’s, close-up view – Photo by Danielle Trynoski

The galleries of medieval Islamic art and artifacts are illuminating and educational. The labels here provide lots of context, especially compared to other galleries in the Louvre. The depth and breadth of the exhibit leads the visitor to consider the quantity and quality of the entire collection while enjoying the diversity available. Objects on display include decorative arts, weapons, eating and drinking utensils, textiles, manuscripts, and domestic artifacts. One intriguing selection in the games display case were these two rectangular items, listed as “diving rods.” What do you think they might be?

Medieval foundations at the Louvre. Photo by Danielle Trynoski
Medieval foundations at the Louvre. Photo by Danielle Trynoski

The medieval origins of the Louvre as a royal residence and fortress are also on display, in the Salle Basse, or Lower Hall. Philip Augustus constructed a royal fortress in the 12th century to protect the north side of the city, which was later razed to allow for the present 16th century buildings. However, the medieval foundations of the central keep were excavated during expansion in the 20th century and are now incorporated into the museum’s displays. It provides an interesting exhibit on medieval building, and also insight into the history of the structure and its evolution into its current state.

St Denis holding his head - an oil on panel painting - photo by Danielle Trynoski

And finally, paintings. The medieval paintings on panels and canvas capture saints, royalty, royalty posing as saints, mothers, fathers, and other characters. A portrayal of Saint Denis carrying his own head through Roman Paris, in full medieval regalia, was particularly striking.  Sadly, the well-known painting of Francois I by Jean Clouet was on loan during this visit but there was plenty to see aside from that. The Louvre has a high standard to uphold regarding paintings from western Europe, and they maintain that standard by simply showing what they’ve got. Most of the pieces in the paintings galleries don’t have lengthy text labels or touchscreens or interpretive video monitors, they just invite you to look. When museums have pieces with this renown, the majority of visitors come to observe. For those without prior knowledge, audio guides, privately hired tour guides, docent tours, and Google all help provide some context. While the galleries adjacent to the Mona Lisa were understandably crowded, it was overall a lively experience to slowly stroll through the paintings on display and take it all in.

12th century capital from Languedoc, likely from the abbey of Sainte-Énimie, depicting Samson and the lion - photo by Danielle Trynoski
12th century capital from Languedoc, likely from the abbey of Sainte-Énimie, depicting Samson and the lion – photo by Danielle Trynoski

With only one day in the Louvre, this medievalist worked hard to sniff out all the medieval wonders that the museum could offer. Check out this website for an overview tour of the Decorative Arts galleries, and explore the Louvre’s website for more photos and information. Happy travels, medievalists!

Click here to read more articles by Danielle Trynoski



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