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Home>Collection & Louvre Palace>Curatorial Departments>King Childebert I (died 558), founder of the abbey of...

Le roi Childebert, fondateur de l'abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés

© 1996 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, Middle Ages

Author(s):
Gaborit Jean-René

This is a retrospective statue of King Childebert I, son of Clovis, founder of the abbey of Sainte-Croix-Saint-Vincent, later named Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In fact, the sculptor probably executed the portrait of a 13th-century king. It is one of the earliest examples of the new style that flourished in Paris in the mid-13th century, epitomized by the statues of the Apostles in the Sainte-Chapelle (between 1245 and 1248).

Tribute to the founders

It was common practice in the Middle Ages to adorn churches with retrospective statues, especially if they represented sovereigns or members of a royal family. The abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had been founded (under the name de Sainte-Croix-Saint-Vincent) by Childebert I. It was all the more important to recall this fact since legend also claimed that this Merovingian king was a benefactor of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which gave rise to a certain rivalry between the two churches. Consequently, a retrospective statue of Childebert was placed at the entrance to the abbey refectory, in the cloister. It stood along the path of the processions that passed through this room several times a day; the memory of the brotherhood's deceased benefactor was thus associated with their prayers. No other trace of the refectory has survived.

Description

The king is clad in a long tunic (originally blue) drawn in at the waist by a leather belt with metal ornaments. He once held a scepter (now mutilated) in his right hand, while his left hand (now lost) grasped the strap of a heavy cloak, on which a few traces of red can still be seen. On his head he wears a crown with four flowerets. The base and parts of the feet have been restored.

History

The construction of the refectory is sometimes attributed to the architect Pierre de Montreuil, who later built a Lady Chapel (now demolished) in the same abbey. Work began in 1239 and was completed in 1245. The date of execution of this statue must be somewhere between these two dates, for it is inextricably linked to the architecture: the column against which the statue stood, still visible on the back, was hewn out of the same block of stone. An 18th-century description states that it was placed in the center of the doorway in front of a pillar or pier, called a trumeau, supporting the tympanum.
Given this date of execution, the statue is representative of the first stage of the stylistic metamorphosis that sculpture underwent in the mid-13th century. Until then, Parisian sculptors had remained faithful to drapery carved with tiny soft folds, associated with rather heavy-looking figures (Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois portal), most often distinguished by simple forms, moderate naturalism and the slightly angular drapery found during the same period in Amiens Cathedral. After 1240 sculptors suddenly showed much greater freedom in the play of volumes, more grace and character in their rendering of expressions, and a sort of casualness in their depiction of movements. Childebert's pleasant face, with elegantly curled hair and beard, is very similar to that of Christ on the central portal of Notre Dame de Paris. The pronounced arching of the chest and the somewhat affected gesture of the right hand herald features that would be found some years later in the Sainte-Chapelle, and during the third quarter of the 13th century in many works in the Parisian region, Champagne, and the north of France.

Technical description

  • Île-de-France

    Le roi Childebert, fondateur de l'abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés

    entre 1239 et 1244

    Provenant du trumeau de la porte du réfectoire de l'abbaye bénédictine de Saint-Germain- des-Prés à Paris

  • Pierre calcaire, restes de polychromie

    H. : 1,91 m. ; L. : 0,53 m. ; Pr. : 0,55 m.

  • Versement de l'Ecole des beaux-arts, 1851 , 1851

    M.L. 93

  • Sculptures

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