What Did He Look Like Really?
Entry 5 March 24, 2013. I had never heard of St. Louis of Toulouse until I saw the Louvre painting of him, from ca. 1450, by Antonio Vivarini (ca. 1415-1476). The acquaintance wasn’t very inspiring at first. In my notes for the day, I wrote very little: “I don’t know who St. Louis of Toulouse is, and I’m not going to go after that information this morning, but the way that St. Louis is dressed, he is likely a bishop. I wonder whether the fact that his mitre looks too big for him means that the painter wanted to emphasize that Louis was very young when he was raised to the rank of bishop. The painting is, like a couple of others I’ve seen so far, a portrait going to the waist. His clothing is very elaborately detailed, as if it’s the glory of the appointment that really interests the painter. The depiction of his face is sensitive and detailed.”
Not long after, I was reminded of St. Louis because I found a painting by another Vivarini, Bartolomeo (ca. 1430-1491). I was curious enough to look beyond what I could find in the Louvre book and on the museum website; it was easy to determine from other online sources that Bartolomeo was Antonio’s brother. I went back to look at Antonio’s picture and was struck by the small figures of saints on St. Louis’s stole, which made me decide to look him up too. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Louis (1274-1297) was the son of the king of Naples and nephew of the king of France. He and two of his two brothers were sent to Aragon, a medieval kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, as hostages to gain the release of their father, captured in battle, when Louis was 14. He spent seven years there and was educated by Franciscan friars. Returning to Naples in 1295, Louis renounced his right to the Naples throne and became a Franciscan friar in 1296. Soon after he was named the bishop of Toulouse, but less than a year after he died of a fever. He was celebrated for his service to the poor and canonized in 1317. What a great story. I feel a novel coming on.
I also learned from reading the Catholic Encyclopedia article and from seeing other paintings of St. Louis, including another in the Louvre by Moretto (ca. 1498-1544), in which Louis is paired with another Franciscan, St. Bernardino of Siena, that the Vivarini image contains some of the typical elements that appear in portrayals of St. Louis. After my first examination of the painting by Vivarini, though, I had thought the saint was wearing bishop’s robes, whereas the Catholic Encyclopedia says that the saint is typical depicted in in “pontifical garments and holding a book and a crozier.” Vivarini shows St. Louis holding both a book and a crozier, the ceremonial staff traditionally carried by a bishop.
Moretto’s image has all these same elements, although here St. Louis’s book is open, as if he is reading from it. Moretto’s Louis also looks older than in the Vivarini image, but there is an emphasis on the grandeur on the saint’s clothing and signs of authority similar to what I noticed in Vivarini. But Moretto also is clearly intent on giving the saints a similar stance and expression: both men are tall and serious, and a very similar, slight turn of the head toward the right shoulder is used for both.
The two images together make me wonder which of them looks more like St. Louis. Was Moretto’s St. Louis, from ca. 1520, created in some way on the basis of previous images, including Vivarini’s, because the painter wanted to achieve an authentic likeness?
So much to think about. I was interested to discover one way in which, even before seeing the painting, I had known St. Louis’s name: he is the bishop-saint for whom California’s San Luis Obispo was named by Franciscan missionaries.