The Funeral of Love

Entry 39, March 4, 2017


I was curious about the painting entitled The Funeral of Love (ca. 1580) from the first time I saw it at the top of page 489 in The Louvre: All the Paintings. I couldn’t make sense of its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. After trying for a while to come up with a theory, I’ve decided to content myself with explaining why it perplexes me.

From the start, I liked many things about The Funeral of Love: the sweep of the pathway rising from lower left to upper right; the buildings in the lower left foreground and the upper right background; the distant, atmospheric landscape of sea and mountains in the upper center; and the figures arranged on the path and around it, particularly the contrast between the naked cherubs and the classically robed adults.

I could also understand something of what was happening. The painting depicts a funeral. There is a shrouded body lying on the lid of a closed casket, and a group of solemn-faced men are standing behind the casket. The dignity of the casket followers is echoed in the onlookers: their facial expressions are serious, even sad, but show no extravagant signs of grief. The cherubs too—those supporting the casket; those grouped with the adult onlookers; and those walking in front of the casket and carrying banners, musical instruments, and poles decorated with ribbon—harmonize with the overall tone of the gathering.

I liked the title, too. Although I hadn’t heard the expression before, I was certainly familiar with art that linked love and death.

But that was as far as I could go without help. What in the painting suggests, except perhaps the multiplicity of cherubs, that it was Love’s corpse on the casket lid? However, if it isn’t Love, whose corpse is it? Was it a deceased person whom all the mourners loved, or was it perhaps that the mourners were there to support one of their number whose beloved had died? But which of them was singled out as the one who had lost his or her partner? Besides, don’t love stories customarily suggest that the beloved’s death doesn’t end the lover’s attachment?

Maybe I was missing clues that would lead me to a particular story, perhaps one from classical mythology. But neither Cupid, the god of love, nor Venus, the goddess of love, experienced death, nor do the stories of their human lovers include a funeral rite. The Louvre contains a number of works in which Venus mourns her human beloved, Adonis, but in none of them is there a funeral depicted. Although Cupid’s beloved, Psyche, was forced to travel to the Underworld, and at one point falls into a death-like sleep, she does not die.

The Atlas Database on the English-language Louvre website didn’t give me much help about where to look or what to look for. It says, “The subject of this painting has sometimes been interpreted as the mourning of Love, who is being followed by the poets of the Pléiade, a reference perhaps to the new direction the poet Ronsard had taken in his work, replacing the tone of his Amours and Odes with that of the Discours. Alternatively, the work might have been painted in response to the death of Diane de Poitiers in 1566.” How tantalizing to be left with two unattributed interpretations that, in themselves, weren’t altogether intelligible, at least for me.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to track down Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) and the Pléiade, the group of poets who shared his interests. Moreover, I located references to Ronsard’s shift away from his early, very popular love poetry and to attacks on his subsequent work. What I didn’t find was anything that suggested the members of the Pléiade were grieved by the new direction he had taken. An alternative explanation suggests itself: they were anticipating the death of Ronsard, who was in ill health for some years at the end of his life.

The second sentence refers to a powerful presence of the period shortly before the painting was done, Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), mistress of King Henry II (1519-1559). Diane was celebrated for her beauty and her skills in navigating through court politics. The many paintings that survive of her bear witness to her power. She was often the model for portrayals of the goddess Diana. For example, the painting, Diana the Huntress (ca. 1550), which appears just three pages before The Funeral of Love in The Louvre: All the Paintings, is described as a likeness of Diane de Poitiers.

Both of these interpretations are plausible. They both feature the loss of a person identified in the culture as a proponent of love. But how could I choose between them or provide evidence in support of another candidate?

One final point of frustration: I didn’t get much help from looking into the artist with whom The Louvre: All the Paintings associates The Funeral of Love, Henri Lerambert. Lerambert’s biographical information is sketchy: he’s identified not by life dates but by years in which he is “known”: 1568-1608. There is a little more about Lerambert on the Louvre website in an “Artwork of the Day” article that describes a tapestry, The Petitions (ca. 1610), from the series of tapestries entitled The Story of Artemisia. In the article, Lerambert is mentioned as “painter to the king’s tapestry-makers” and described as contributing to the tapestries by creating “cartoons” based on illustrations from Nicolas Houel’s poem, The Story of Artemisia. The poem took a story from ancient times of Artemisia, the widow of King Mausolos, to praise Catherine de Medici, the wife of Diane de Poitiers’ royal lover, Henry II. Both Artemisia and Catherine had served as regents for young sons.

There are other signs beyond the noncommittal reportage of clashing opinions that the writer of the English-language Atlas Database entry was having some trouble. The title of the painting on the English-language website isn’t The Funeral of Love but Allegory: The Funeral of Love. The name on the French language website is only The Funeral of Love (Funeraille d’Amour), as is the name in the Louvre book. Perhaps the English-language author thought adding “allegory” to the title would help to close the gap between what the painting shows and what interpreters had suggested was meant to be conveyed, that is, a love story from among Lerambert’s contemporaries. I also found it hard to reconcile the following statement from the Atlas Database with the interpretations I quoted above. “The funeral cortège of Love, followed by a group of poets, heads for the temple of Diana, while Venus, accompanied by her son, crosses the sky in a chariot pulled by doves.” It may be the temple of Diana, although I can’t make out any distinguishing marks, but I don’t see Cupid sitting next to Venus. If he were there, wouldn’t that rule out the identification of the corpse as Love?