Art as a Tool of the Sun King

At the palace at Versailles there were two rooms whose art I found both particularly visually arresting and marked an intriguing use of art. The first is the Hall of Mirrors (La Grande Galerie as it was called in 17th Century France):

The gallery is seventy-three meters long with thirty painted compositions and three hundred and fifty-seven mirrors decorating seventeen arches. This grand hall was used on a daily basis by courtiers and visitors to pass through, to wait for people, or meet others. In some cases, it was used for diplomatic receptions. Thus, the visiting dignitaries or leaders would have to cross the entire hall. These purposes made the hall not only a grand work of art, but an expression of French wealth and opulence as well a tool in diplomatic situations. Such a walk to the king would surely be humbling and intimidating. Here we find art being used as a political tool.

The second room of the palace which has a “new” and unique function of art is the king’s chapel:

The chapel, as is clearly seen, follows the Gothic style of filling the space with light. However, this light is not filtering through stained glass windows as in the Gothic cathedrals, but is pure sunlight. This would be less suspicious if Louis XIV had not been known as the “Sun King” (in fact his bedroom faced the rising sun so the two would rise together; or perhaps even the sun would rise with the king). Furthermore, the king would sit in a royal gallery and only go down to the nave for certain important religious celebrations. Such focus on the king in a chapel is a result of the idea of that the king was God’s chosen monarch. Thus, like the Hall of Mirrors, the chapel serves two purposes. Not only does it declare the glory of God and direct the attention of those in attendance towards Him, but it declares the very real and present glory of the king. It is spectacular for God’s glory, but it is spectacular because of the king’s might and wealth.

In both these cases it seems that art is not merely decorative, nor transcendental, nor even self-expressive. Here, art seems to be a utility. It does not direct the mind solely upwards, but calls attention to the king as well. It is not merely grandiose for aesthetic pleasure, it is grand so that it may make certain men feel very small. It is grand for the political will. And it does not express the personality of the artist, but instead is an expression of the wealth and might of the king.

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