The role of art and architecture takes a captivating spin with the absurd (albeit beautiful) opulence of Versailles. The grandeur of the palace, its art, and the surrounding gardens all represent an incredible departure from the humble origins of art we have studied in Lascaux and Morbihan both in style and in purpose. Instead of designing a chapel solely for the glorification of God, Versailles boasts a chapel which is undoubtedly more dedicated to the deifying of Louis XIV. While there are seemingly more examples than can be counted in this regard, consider the salon d’Hercule (room of Hercules), depicting on its ceiling the apotheosis of one of mythology’s greatest and most powerful heroes, conveniently situated outside the grand appartement du roi.
The perspective in this work is incredible, making it appear as if the heavens themselves are pouring down in all their glory. The impression is, of course, exactly what Louis would have wanted; a self-proclaimed god in his own right. By mystifying the people, much aided by the exuberance of the art and architecture of Versailles, Louis was able to hold them almost entirely under his sway. Gombrich’s Histoire de l’Art explains this point well:
Les princes souverains de l’Europe du XVIIe siècle étaient également désireux de faire étalage de leur pouvoir pour affermir leur emprise sur leurs peoples. Ils voulaient paraitre, dans leur gloire, des créatures d’une espèce supérieure, élevées par un droit divin bien au-dessus du commun des mortels […] Magnificence et pompe royale étaient pour [Louis XIV] de l’essence même du pouvoir. (447)
While it may sound so ridiculous to the modern audience, these kings (Louis XIV perhaps most of all) were successful in getting society to do their bidding, simply off of the premise that they were divinely appointed and therefore of a “superior species.” Yet, even though the salon d’Hercule may only be one small glimmer in a sea of self-directed praise, affection and deification, I find it to also be a rather ironic mirroring of Versailles itself. In steeping so much of Versailles with mythological references and motifs, Louis XIV and his court are quite likened to the gods on Mt. Olympus, all of them vying for favor and demanding “sacrifices” from mortal men to appease their self-indulging appetites. And, much like the gods, they all bicker and banter about themselves, their glory, their power, their desires.
With these things in mind, it is easy to see why there would be such great animosity for the monarchy and ruling class by the time of the French Revolution. The inanity of Versailles, a palace adorned in riches surrounded by a starving populace, perhaps typifies a misappropriation of art and architecture at its most dangerous end. And yet, while Marie Antoinette was severed from reality in her own right, her desires to appear as a humble peasant or farmer at Trianon reveal that, perhaps even she, queen of France, was a little sick of it all.