Three hundred years ago the seventy-two year reign of the Louis XIV (1643-1715) came to an end at Versailles when he lost his battle with a gangrenous leg. Museums and galleries around the world are celebrating this important anniversary with exhibitions that showcase fine and decorative arts of every media commissioned, collected, and inspired by the Sun King. The British Museum’s modest offering Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King is, to my mind, the most important of them all.
But why should we be looking at medals, when there so many wonderful Louis-Quatorze palaces, gardens, paintings, sculptures and tapestries to marvel at? For the majority of museumgoers commemorative medals, with their esoteric allegories and terse inscriptions, probably look like the oversized coins of an outmoded currency; they are the things you glance at quickly on the way to finding something more seductive. Yet in my book, Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV: Artifacts for a Future Past published by Ashgate this September, I argue that medals provide the key to understanding the best-known images and objects that were produced to decorate the Sun King’s palaces.
Medals were at the center of a long-standing project sponsored by the king to document his reign for posterity. They were made in imitation of the ancient Greek and Roman coins from which early-modern antiquarians gleaned information about the past. Louis XIV’s image-makers designed medals to transmit historical information to a future audience, and so they are the ideal objects for us to reflect upon this anniversary year.
The project to document the history of Louis XIV visually aimed to control the future reception of the king’s legacy, to ensure that he would be remembered in a positive light. The exhibition at the British museum reveals a fundamental flaw with this strategy, however. Counter-propaganda medals made in Holland, included in this exhibition, use the same overblown imagery created to celebrate Louis XIV to vilify him. This ‘war of medals,’ as it has been called, shows us just how potent these diminutive sculptures were once deemed to be, with the Dutch working to set the record straight in the same medium designed to ensure the Sun King’s immortality.
Little did those working to construct these historical identities of Louis XIV realize that the fashion for medals would not last.
Today medals occupy an equivocal space in museums, placed in sculpture departments in some, but under numismatics in others. The latter is a distinguished but rarefied discipline – the province of collectors and connoisseurs – where the study of medals and coins has coalesced. Too rarely are these miniature masterpieces brought to the attention of the academy or the public. I hope that my study and Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King at the British Museum will help to rehabilitate these fascinating little objects, and encourage people to look at them again with fresh eyes.
Robert Wellington is a lecturer at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory, Australian National University. His book, Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV: Artifacts for a Future Past is available now.
The exhibition Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King runs at The British Museum until November 15th. Entry is free.