Mummies and Tombs: Turenne, Napoleon, and Death Ritual

By Lindsay, Suzanne Glover | The Art Bulletin, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Mummies and Tombs: Turenne, Napoleon, and Death Ritual


Lindsay, Suzanne Glover, The Art Bulletin


In July 1793, the government of the new French Republic ordered the "tombs and mausoleums of the former kings" destroyed immediately to celebrate the first anniversary of the monarchy's overthrow (August 10).1 The largest repository, the royal basilica of St-Denis just north of Paris, was a special target. As workers dismantled the monuments, the municipal government of St Denis took charge of the graves, sending lead coffins and metal artifacts to be recast as arms against insurgents within France and the allied emigres and European powers beyond. Bodily remains were to be transferred to "a common trench dug for that purpose of sufficient depth and width."2

Only one corpse, that of a nonroyal exhumed unofficially, escaped the pit: Louis XIV's most honored marshal, Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne (1611-1675). After migrating for seven years throughout Paris, his remains rejoined his tomb in 1800 at the Invalides, then called the Temple de Mars (Fig. 1). Both corpse and monument are still there, whereas the tombs of other violated burials returned to St-Denis merely as museum displays.3

Few cases of Revolutionary vandalism affected the public as profoundly as the attack on St-Denis.4 In art historical terms, the desecration of the royal necropolis and subsequent restoration of the surviving monuments proved devastating, leaving major works at best radically altered. For many scholars, this episode marks the end of these tombs' "life" and a decrease in their art historical value.5 I will treat the event instead as a window into the funerary practices of nineteenth-century France. I open with Turenne's special handling to explore the interplay among a neglected form of death ritual, funerary design, and public memory. The marshal is among the eminent historical figures whose preserved corpses (called, then as now, mummies) were venerated for having escaped natural decay.6 This secular version of the Christian reverence for preserved saints and martyrs forms part, I suggest, of post-Baroque France's cult of Brands hommes (those deemed worthy of national gratitude and upheld as moral exempla) and introduces an obscure kin to the funerary festivals of the 1790s.7 Part of France's complex response to its past during and after the Revolution, veneration of its intact historic dead shaped some of the most notable funerary projects of the nineteenth century--especially those for the mummy that haunted France of the 1840s: Napoleon's. These corpse-centered enterprises encouraged the use of a corpse-centered formal language for tombs that was emerging from decades of hostility in France, thanks partly to the restored prestige of Turenne's St-Denis monument. Napoleon dominated the process in various guises, in encounters with the dead marshal forty years apart.

Methodologically, this inquiry weaves together anthropology cultural history, and art based on a traditional view of Western tombs through 1700: that cultural studies and art history are mutually informative concerning this ritual form.8 I propose that in tombs for France's historic mummies, cult and art became closely linked, an argument signaled by the narrative shift from discrete accounts of each subject to a discussion of their interaction in late cases. By introducing issues of cult, I also want to suggest the importance of physicality and multisensory experience to the events discussed. Most obviously, such a study probes the various roles of the proverbial body in funerary cult. Physical proximity and carnal reality (or their vicarious replacements), touch, smell, and hearing also joined vision as vital resources for judgment, imagination, and memory in the fraught confrontations with history explored here-some choreographed as civic theater. I ground these arguments historically. The senses were highly prized during the period under study as defining features of Enlightenment empiricism and sensibility, an important legacy to post-Revolutionary France. …

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