The Bees’ Knees: Napoleon’s Use of Archaeology, Theft, and the Trappings of French Monarchy

In 1806, the legendary French artist Ingres was commissioned to paint an official portrait of Napoleon I of France in his coronation robes. Through the visual language of power, Napoleon and the artist interwove recognizable symbols of Frankish and Roman imperial history in order to solidify his own shaky claims to authority over France. The artist uses recognizable medieval artifacts such as the Hand of Charlemagne and the Bees of Childeric. This piece of 19th century propaganda additionally alludes to the mythical king of the gods Zeus and God the Father in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. By creating visual allusions to these Kings and Gods, Napoleon hoped to metaphorically clothe himself in the awe and majesty that these figures traditionally inspired in the eyes of the viewer.

The oil-on-canvas painting measures 259 cm × 162 cm (102 in × 64 in) and is currently located in the Musée de l’Armée, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris. The emperor is depicted in his coronation robes, seated in an elaborately gilt circular back throne. This gives testament to Napoleon’s interest in Antiquity. The back of the throne references the classical tradition of the triumphal arch, through which Roman emperors would parade after a victorious battle. The arch was also used to delineate statues of important gods, thus making a visual allusion to Napoleon’s godly authority over the French people and promising the expansion of the French Empire to rival that of Ancient Rome.  Other references to Ancient Rome include the Imperial Eagle that lies at his feet (slightly disproportionate as to be legible), and a golden crown of laurel leaves, as would have been worn by the Caesars.

In his left hand, Napoleon grasps the Hand of Justice, a symbol traditional to the recently deposed French Monarchy.  The scepter of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, is in his right hand. Charlemagne was king of the Franks from 768 AD, King of Italy from 774, and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800. Charlemagne would have been a particularly important figure for Napoleon, as he was originally from the Italian island of Corsica. Napoleon would have viewed himself as a new Charlemagne, not only with his dreams of Imperial France, but also by the hope of assuming his homeland into his new domain.

As a student of Art History who is currently studying Medieval Archaeology, what is most interesting to me about the newly minted Emperor’s attire is the gold-embroidered satin tunic and ermine-lined purple velvet cloak decorated with gold bees.

Detail of a bee on the surviving coronation robe.

Detail of a bee on the surviving coronation robe.

These bees are a reference to the gold cloisonné bees found amidst the then-recently discovered grave goods of King Childeric. The grave was rediscovered on May 27, 1653. The Merovingian tomb contained various artifacts such as an identifying gold signet ring, a leather purse containing gold coins, a gold bracelet, some pieces of iron, and numerous pieces of gold cloisonnéed with garnets. Of the cloisonné pieces, there were over 300 in the shape of bees.

childeric bees drawing

Chifflet’s illustration of Childeric’s bees, 1655.

The history of the illustrations was recently explained by Dr Young in lecture. To summarize, the discovery caused a great deal of excitement in Tournai and the surrounding area. Archduke Leopold William, Spanish governor of the Netherlands, charged his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, with the study and publishing the finds. In 1655 he published his work, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus. 

Leopold William then relocated the treasure to Vienna after his departure from the Netherlands in 1656. On his death, the treasure assumed into the property of the Emperor of Austria, Leopold I. In 1665 Leopold gave the treasure to Louis XIV as a gift in recognition of the help of the French against the Turks and against recent a revolt of Austrian subjects in Hungary.

The artifacts were first placed in the royal collections of the Louvre, then transferred to the Bibliothèque royale (now the Bibliothèque national), where they were placed into storage with limited access.

Childeric’s last surviving bees.

During the night of November 5-6, 1831, the artifacts were stolen. The records of the police search and the trial that followed were destroyed during the Commune, but it is clear that the thieves melted the larger gold pieces and hid the smaller, less easily melted pieces (like cloisonné bees) in the River Seine, from which they were retrieved in August of 1832. Only two of the bees (pictured at left) were ever recovered.

During the Napoleonic years, the bees of Childeric never lost their significance. Napoleon chose the bee as a symbol of his new empire in order to link his reign to that of Childeric, the first king of France. Bees traditionally symbolized immortality and resurrection, and were considered the oldest emblem of French sovereignty due to their prominence in the grave-goods. The bees replaced the fleur-de-lis of the old regime and appear on imperial tapestries and garments, as well as on Napoleonic era clothing, carpets, and furniture all across France.

So who knows, you might just dig up a new fashion trend!

Caitlin Moon (’14)



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