In a previous post, I have discussed the role of the Angevin dynasty in fostering artistic patronage throughout the Kingdom of Naples from the 13th to14th century. Now, I would like to focus on a specific work of art, the St Louis of Toulouse Altarpiece painted by Simone Martini around 1317, the year of the saint’s canonisation. St Louis was a Franciscan friar, a bishop (although he died before he could reach his seat in Toulouse), and most importantly the second son of King Charles II of Naples. After the death of his older brother, Charles Martel, Louis was designated as the new legitimate heir. However, he abandoned his right in favour of the younger Robert, later known King Robert the Wise, to join the Franciscan Order. The altarpiece, probably commissioned by his brother during a visit to Tuscany, does not tell much about the saint’s personal piety. Rather, it acts as a powerful political statement concerning the aspirations and the dynastic worries of the ambitious Angevin royals.
During the conflict that followed the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, Charles II was imprisoned by the Aragonese forces. He was released only upon agreeing to leave his sons as captives. During this period, Louis and Robert lived under the Aragonese influence and were educated by Spiritual Franciscans, a radical group within the Franciscan order which emphasised poverty as the cornerstone of St Francis’s rule. This experience clearly bolstered the two brother’s devotion. Even though Robert did not choose the contemplative life, his piety was well-known among his contemporaries. For example, Dante Alighieri named him critically “the king of the sermon” in the Divine Comedy. In fact, Louis was used as the evidence of God’s favour toward the Angevin family, which campaigned actively for the canonisation soon after his death.
The context is necessary to understand the otherwise unusual subject matter. Indeed, a bishop crowning a king is an unusual iconographic choice and the reason can be found in the special relation between Louis and Robert. When Louis died in 1297, the Angevins needed to reinforce the legitimacy of Robert as the next heir, following troubled succession process in which Robert was the third candidate in line only. In the picture, two angels crown the bishop, thus showing the divine nature of his royal rights. On the other hand, he is giving a crown to his brother, who kneels before him as if acknowledging his sanctity. As usual in Medieval paintings, the artist employed different proportions to highlight the mutual roles of each character. Therefore, the smaller dimensions of Robert hint at the fact that his authority depends on the free choice of his brother, who abandoned the prospect of the throne in favour of religious life.
The political aspirations of the Angevin family have shaped the work of art completely. As Julian Gardner points out, this is among the first Italian paintings to use heraldry extensively and consistently. In Italy, coats of arms and family crests were used somewhat arbitrarily, whereas in France, the birthplace of the Angevin family, they were strictly regulated and defined one’s social status. The painting’s frame is decorated with gilded reliefs of the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the French royal family, on a blue ground. These are reproduced on the cloak of St Louis too, along with the coat of arms of Hungary and that of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, contained in the circular pin. In the painting, Simone Martini gathered the many titles accumulated by the Angevins in recent years. Moreover, he combined the royal rights with St Louis’s sanctity, a sign of God’s favour towards the kings of Naples and the ultimate seal of political legitimacy in the Middle Ages.From a technical point of view, the work of art shows the full pictorial skills of a great Sienese master such as Simone Martini. The background, made with burnished golden leaf, is embellished with extensive punchwork, which the artist also used to create St Louis’s halo. The intricate design beautifully frames the rich embroidery work on the saint’s robe. The opulent vestment hides the more modest Franciscan habit, whose simple chord falls onto the throne’s base. On the right-hand side, King Robert is dressed in blue and gold, colours related to his royal status. Overall, the painting is an astonishing example of the Sienese decorative style, which emerges through the variety of colours, patterns, and texture effects.
In conclusion, the altarpiece shows the complex reasons behind the commision of similar religious works in the Middle Ages. In those centuries, the forms of devotion were inextricably related to public life. St Louis was a member of the royal family and this helped the Angevins substantiate their claims over the Kingdom of Naples, acquired in the mid-thirteenth century only. Moreover, the peculiar iconography of St Louis as bishop crowning his brother Robert shows the rulers’ concerns with the troublesome succession process. Overall, the analysis shows that it is impossible to separate these different layers fully. Devotion, public piety, and power come together in a powerful and striking picture.