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Today is the Feast of St. Louis IX, King of France, who lived from 1214 to 1270. The world has changed a great deal since St. Louis’ day, but the span of his lifetime provides us with an interesting opportunity to put into context – albeit in a somewhat general way, given the constraints of a blog post – how Western art and architecture developed from the time of his birth to his death. Very often the lifespan of an historical figure merely serves to provide us with a sense of what historical (often military) events would have been witnessed or known to that person, but we do not have a sense of what cultural events took place during the same time period. For example, we all know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, landing on October 12th, but we may not know that the great Italian Cinquecento painter Piero della Francesca died on the same day.
In the case of St. Louis, at the time of his birth the position of a painter both in France and throughout Europe can be generalized as that of an anonymous artisan: we simply do not know the names of many of the painters creating altarpieces and wall paintings around the year 1214. For the sake of art history, oftentimes these anonymous individuals may be referred to as the “Master of” some existing altarpiece or wall cycle, but aside from being able to spot stylistic conventions and possible relationships, more often than not we are simply lacking biographical detail about their lives. By the year 1270 in Italy however, the great Cimabue had just begun to build his reputation in Florence, and his more famous pupil Giotto was about three years old. The seeds for the Italian Renaissance in painting had, at the time of St. Louis’ death, begun to germinate, and the painter was to, as a result, in the following centuries become what he is today, an independent figure.
With respect to architecture, two seminal works of French Architecture were going up during St. Louis’ lifetime. The present Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, site for the coronations of many of the Kings of France, was begun in 1211 after a fire destroyed the old Romanesque-style structure which had stood on the spot the year before. St. Louis was crowned King of France in this cathedral on November 29, 1226, while the building was still under construction. Sometime between then and 1245, the famous sculpture of the “Smiling Angel of Reims”, reproduced below, was placed on the West Front of the Cathedral.
Meanwhile work on the West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, so familiar to us today, began shortly before the birth of St. Louis. The twin bell towers that cap the facade were completed by 1245. It is not hard for us to imagine St. Louis visiting the construction site, and being shown the progress made on the building during his lifetime. It is no exaggeration to say that the Cathedrals at Reims, Paris, and elsewhere in France that were designed and (largely) built during the reign of St. Louis are justly considered to be among the great architectural and artistic treasures of the world.
Putting saints into the context of their times is always important if we are to gain a deeper understanding into how the historic events that marked their lives might have affected their actions and their thinking with respect to spiritual matters. At the same time however, we should not ignore the products of artistic expression, such as in painting, sculpture, and architecture, that would have been familiar to them in their lifetimes. Much of this has to do with establishing, in our minds, a sense of place. Just as we get a better understanding from a secular perspective of the work of Thomas Hardy by exploring the countryside of the County of Dorset, or that of William Wordsworth by visiting the Lake District, if we are fortunate enough to see the buildings and art that the saints themselves may have admired in their own day, we may gain greater insight into how they saw their relationship to God, to the Church, and to their fellow man.