Portrait by Rubens of Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV and involuntary organ donor.
This week, dear readers, I’m going to tell you a story. Possibly even a true story, although very difficult to verify at this remove. My source is another (see last week’s article) of my favorite guides to the curiosities of Paris called, appropriately enough, 300 Lieux pour les Curieux (literally “300 places for curious people”), written by Vincent Formery, Thomas Jonglez and Anne-Christine Beauviala and published by Editions Bonneton, so far only in French.
The story begins in 1638, when the previously childless Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII and, as things happened to work out, Queen of France, gave birth to Louis the Next, the future Sun King. She was 37 years old, which in those unenlightened times was elderly enough for early-bird state dinners, especially for a queen with only one priority mission in her job description, namely to keep the heir supply coming. So the birth of her first baby, and a boy at that, was seen as something of a miracle. By no one more so than the king, apparently, and, at least publicly, by Anne herself, whose status among her subjects, along with the Bourbon line of succession, was finally secure.
So grateful to divine providence was the queen that she put even more energy and devotion into her pet project, the construction of Val de Grâce church, which now stands on the grounds of the identically named hospital at 277 bis Rue Saint Jacques. There she had her own little side chapel, up front to the left of the altar (still there), and when she died in 1666, her heart was embalmed and placed there in an ornate wooden coffer (long gone).
Yes, just the heart. Evidently, it was the practice at the time to hack up royal cadavers and sprinkle the pieces about like sawdust at a beheading. A strange custom in modern eyes, but still more decorous than running them through a wood chipper, which is what they must have been doing with their saints, given the innumerable bits of the beatified to be found in church reliquaries all over Europe. But that’s a different story.
In any case, there in Val de Grâce Mama-Sun’s most vital organ rested in peace, for a while (drumroll), joined over the years by other used hearts from the O’Austria family until the old oaken chest was congested, crammed to the aching-breaking point with some 36 posh tickers.
Then came the Revolution, and in about 1790, such things no longer being regarded as valuable keepsakes, the casket containing all this blue-blooded muscle was sold at public auction. A painter named Martin Drölling bought a knave’s dozen of the pickled pumps.
Yes, a painter. In those pre-Sherwin-Williams days, artists concocted their own pigments, and this kind of organic matter was prized as a raw material: ground up and mixed with oil, mammalian circulatory tissue yielded “mummie,” a reddish-brown tempera that produced what my Bonneton guidebook calls “a magnificent glazed effect extremely difficult to reproduce by any other means.”
Sadly, the aortas weren’t bar-coded, so we’ll never know whether Marty’s mummie actually contained Lou’s mommy, but Drölling used the paint. He was a brushman of no small repute, and his works still hang today in Saint Sulpice church and at the Louvre.
Being me, as soon as I read this I had to go check it out. Although in Saint Sulpice (third chapel from the back on the left) the light is too dim and the canvases too grimed with dust and incense soot to distinguish a magnificent brown glaze from a mochaccino stain, the Drölling canvases in the Louvre (Sully wing, 2nd étage, rooms 56 and 57) are so clean you could chop meat on them. But I have to confess: I stood there in front of L’Intérieur d’une Cuisine long enough to be taken for a Duane Hanson sculpture and fork-lifted over to the Musée d’Art Moderne, trying to pick out the browns and trying even harder to decide whether they had a magnificent glazed effect, and I’m telling you, there’s no telling. The only amazing glaze was on my eyeballs.
But I thought of something: sooner or later (the former in the case of Saint Sulpice), these paintings will have to be restored. And when the time comes, what are the toucher-uppers going to use to resurrect the mummie?
Some readers are probably already thinking about how a donation of cardiac tissue from certain of France’s current reigning despots would solve the problem. And some are probably even thinking “Why wait ‘till they’re dead?” But I have a better (and legal) idea: we just need 10 or 12 people willing to bequeath their organs, not to medicine but to art. I’m not sure if the cause would be as noble as Martin Drölling’s palette, but it would sure make for a classy emergency wallet card:
Allergic to penicillin.
Organ donor: in case of cardiopulmonary arrest, airlift to the Louvre.
Note: If you go to Saint Sulpice, don’t miss the gnomon, the astronomical instrument in the left corner of the transept, with its thin copper inlay running down its middle and across the floor. There’s a little sign in French and English explaining what it’s about and, for readers of The Da Vinci Code, what it’s not about. Then go down to the crypt if it’s open (take the door to the “Chapelle de la Vierge Marie” to the right behind the altar and go downstairs) and notice how its size, shape and orientation are different from the floor plan of the church above. It’s actually the foundation of the original 14th century church, the bottom four meters of which were preserved when the newer, larger church was built some 300 years later.
© 2011 Paris Update
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