The Freakish Fate of the Heart of Louis XIV

There is something about the heart of a king that wants to beat on after its owner’s death and earn its own place in history. This was true of Scotland’s Robert the Bruce, whose heart went on a 700-year journey after the king’s death. It was also true for France’s Louis XIV, whose heart may have taken a couple of particularly weird twists and turns after leaving the chest of the Sun King.

It has been the practice in France since the 13th century to remove the heart and other internal organs from the body of a deceased monarch. The heart would then be embalmed and placed in an ornate container. Under the cover of darkness, the heart received a separate funeral service, ending with a solemn procession to the heart’s final resting place. Usually, the location was separate from the sovereign’s body.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV died in 1715. His heart was taken from his palace at Versailles to l’Église Saint Paul-Saint Louis to lie beside the heart of his father Louis XIII. A chest capped with silver and bronze angels holding a silver heart was commissioned to hold his heart in honor. That is where it remained for 77 years.

The arrival of the French Revolution brought an abrupt end to the practice of venerating royalty — living or dead. The chests that held the hearts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV were melted down and used by the Mint. The hearts of the kings were bought up by Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin.

Why, you might ask, would this chap be interested in having the kings’ hearts? This wasn’t a case of morbid fascination with royalty or a desire to accumulate odd things, as in the case of the guy who collected 26 years’ worth of his belly button lint. This fellow was a landscape painter, and you could say that he really put a lot of heart into his work.

There was a shade of paint called “Mummy Brown” that was a particular favorite among Pre-Raphaelites. This pigment could only be made by adding ground-up organic matter. The preferred source for the additive was Egyptian mummies. Mummies were in short supply in post-Revolution France, but Pau figured the embalmed hearts of two long-deceased kings was the next best thing.

View of Caen by Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin. (Click on image to expand)

If you want to see the end result of Pau’s combination of artistry and bodily dismemberment, visit the museum in Pontoise, France, and take a look at his painting, View of Caen. It is believed that the work gets its rich color from the royal remains of the Sun King.

There is at least one other possible place Louis’ heart ended up. It is entirely possible that it was gobbled up as an impulsive snack by the eccentric William Buckland. For more about that possibility, read this article.

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