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Work Cardinal René de Birague (1506-1583)

Department of Sculptures: France, Renaissance

Cardinal René de Birague (1506-83)

© Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

France, Renaissance

Montalbetti Valérie

This imposing statue of Birague is one of the crowning achievements of bronze sculpture in France. Germain Pilon, at the height of his powers, used the dazzling drapery of the cardinal's robe to give the sculpture striking monumentality. At the same time, this is a remarkable portrait of the man himself.

A powerful figure

Born in Milan, then a French duchy, René de Birague pursued a successful career in the service of the French monarchy, as an administrator, jurist, and later as a soldier. He was appointed chancellor of France after the death of Michel de l'Hôpital in 1674. He took holy orders after his wife's death in 1572, and became a cardinal in 1578. He was a highly controversial figure. In 1573, he commissioned Germain Pilon, the dominant figure of late 16th-century sculpture, to sculpt the tomb of his wife Valentine Balbiani (Louvre). René de Birague had chosen the church of Sainte-Catherine-des-Écoliers in Paris for his funerary chapel. In 1584, his heirs asked Pilon to sculpt his tomb, but it seems that plans were already made for this during the cardinal's lifetime, in 1577-78.

A work of striking magnitude

Pilon designed a simple and monumental tomb, with the central statue of the cardinal praying framed within an architecture of bronze and marble. The praying figure had become a highly prized means of expressing eternal prayer, following the example of the royal tombs at Saint-Denis. The figure of Birague praying derives from that of Henry II, which Pilon had sculpted for the mausoleum of the Valois family, but here he gives it an unprecedented magnitude that makes it one of the crowning achievements of bronze sculpture. The imposing robe falling into a mass of swirling folds prolongs the figure to take up the monument's full width. The concentrated, expressive face and fimly joined hands protruding from the robe have intense presence. All decorative details that might have interfered with the overall effect have been eliminated except for the fur. The statue was orginally polychromed, perhaps because of the poor lighting in the chapel, with the red of the cardinal's robe dominating. The deceased is looking slightly sideways, a gesture which enabled those praying in the chapel to look towards the altar; this slight movement is enough to conquer the space of the viewer.

A penetrating portrait

Pilon, who had sculpted many medallions and a series of busts of the Valois kings, was renowned for his lifelike depiction of physical traits and the psychological penetration of his portraits. He gives us here a strikngly faithful likeness of the aged face of a great man: cropped hair, prominent cheekbones, authoritarian nose, veined forehead, deep wrinkles, bags under the eyes. The portrait's precision stems from the fact that the artist sculpted the chancellor's effigy during his lifetime, in 1577, for a medallion now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The tomb was dismantled and moved to the church of Saint-Louis-des-Jésuites when the church of Sainte-Catherine was demolished in 1783, then again dismantled during the Revolution. The praying figure, thanks to the ingenuity of Lenoir, was not melted down.


Babelon Jean, Germain Pilon, Paris, 1927, pp. 66-67.
Beaulieu Michèle, Description raisonnée des sculptures du musée du Louvre, t. II Renaissance française, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion
des musées nationaux, 1978, pp. 136-138.
Bresc-Bautier Geneviève (sous la dir. de), Germain Pilon et les sculpteurs français de la Renaissance, Actes du colloque organisé au musée
du Louvre, 26 et 27 octobre 1990, Paris, La Documentation française, 1993, pp. 206-208.
Courajod Louis, "Germain Pilon et le tombeau de Birague par devant notaire", L'Art, 1878.
Grodecki Catherine, "Les marchés de Germain Pilon pour la chapelle funéraire et les tombeaux des Birague en l'église Sainte-Catherine-du-Val-des-Écoliers", Revue de l'Art, n 54, 1981, pp. 61-78.
Zerner Henri, L'Art de la Renaissance en France. L'invention du classicisme, Paris, Flammarion, 1996, pp. 354-358.

Technical description

  • Germain PILON (Paris, c. 1525 - Paris, 1590)

    Cardinal René de Birague (1506-83)

  • Bronze

    H. 1.40 m; W. 2.10 m; D. 0.85 m

  • Provenance: Musée des Monuments Français; Musée de Versailles, 1834 , 1834

    L.P. 396

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Room 214

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