Monday, 3 November 2014

Vivant Denon's reliquary - and Voltaire's tooth

This curious object is the famous "reliquary" of Vivant Denon, now on display in the Musée Bertrand in Châteauroux.  It is a real medieval - or at least late 15th to early 16th century - reliquary in guilded copper, acquired by Denon and filled by him with secular relics.  The contents are splendid and all of them genuine, a roll call of 19th-century historical and literary icons - and testimony to the depredations of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.

1. Bone fragments from El Cid (1043-1099) and Dona Jimena (1054-1115)  from their tomb in Burgos.
2. Bone fragments of Abelard (1079-1142) and Heloïse (1101-1164)  from their tomb at the Paraclete.
3. Hair from Agnès Sorel (circa 1420-1450), at Loches, et  from Inês de Castro (1320-1355),Alcobaça
4. Hairs from the moustache of Henri IV (1553-1610), King of France, and fragment from the shroud of Turenne (1611-1675), from Saint-Denis
5. Bone chips from Molière (1622-1673) and La Fontaine (1621-1695).
6. Half-tooth from  Voltaire (1694-1778); lock of hair from General Desaix (1768-1800).
The reliquary is first documented, with a detailed inventory of its contents, in the catalogue of the sale of Denon's collection which took place after his death 1826.  It was acquired  initially by the Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier for just over 5,000 francs; but in 1865 - in a sale which coincided with the funeral of the duc de Morney - it was bought by Comte Arthur Desaix, grand-nephew of the hero of Marengo. for a mere 300 francs and stayed in his possession for many years.  I haven't been able to ascertain at what point it arrived in its present home at the Musée Bertrand. 

Relics from French history

Alexandre Lenoir
by  Delafontaine, 179
With a little conjecture, it is possible to ascertain the provenance of all the "relics".  In France, Denon's quest  was facilitated by his subordinate and rival Alexandre Lenoir, who was himself an avid collector and no doubt found it politic to offer suitable trophies to his superior. The contents of the reliquary tie in easily with Lenoir's presence; he was prominently involved the official opening of the royal tombs at Saint-Denis in October 1793, and his Jardin d'Elysée was subsequently entrusted with the mummified remains of Turenne and, in 1799, with the bones of Molièlre and La Fontaine,  exhumed from the cemetery of St. Joseph (though the actual identify of the bodies is doubtful!) He was also in a position to obtain a hair or two from Agnès Sorel, another victim of Revolutionary vandalism, when the urn containing her remains was rescued from cemetery at Loches in 1801 and restored to her repaired tomb.

Above all, it was Lenoir who was responsible for the most illustrious of Denon's relics, the fragments of bone from Abelard and Heloise. In February 1800 he obtained permission to bring to Paris, with a view eventual reburial, the damaged mausoleum from the Oratory of the Paraclete and Abelard's cenotaph of Abelard from Saint-Marcel.  The bones themselves, which had been reinterred in the church of Saint-Laurent in Nogent-sur-Seine in 1792, were exhumed and remained long years in a unsealed wooden box, where they could be easily pilfered, being finally reburied in Père Lachaise only in 1817.

Tomb of Heloise & Abelard, by Alexander Lenoir, c.1785

Relics from Portugal and Spain

In the Iberian peninsular, Denon's relics were very much the spoils of war. The remains of Inês de Castro - murdered lover of Peter 1st of Portugal and subject of many 18th-century plays and operas -  were almost certainly taken from the Benedictine monastery at Alcobaça in Portugal when it was sacked after Junot's occupation of Lisbon in November 1807.
Vivant Denon replaces in their tomb the bones of El Cid and Dona Jimena
Painting by Alphonse Roehn after a watercolour sketch by Benjamin Zix
(portrayed behind Denon).  Oil, 1809.  Louvre.
Similarly the tomb of El Cid and his wife Dona Jimena at the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos was desecrated by a batallion of dragoons under Marshal Ney in 1808.  General Thiébault, the French military governor, later determined to repair French vandalism and had a new mausoleum built, to which the bones were tranferred in April 1809. In the meantime he kept them secure under his bed and refused all relic-hunters with the sole exception, he himself admitted, of Denon, who was passing through Burgos at the time. ( Thiébault, Mémoires iv. p.295-6; but see the post by Daniel Sanchez  - it would appear some bones had already been taken in late 1808.)  Thiébault's tomb was dismantled in 1826. Denon had himself sketched by his companion, the Strassbourg artist Benjamin Zix, "restoring" the remains - it would appear to their original tomb in the monastery - a scene which owed more to emergent Romantic sensibilities than to any historical reality.

Napoleonic relics

Vivant Denon's final category of relics are more personal and of his own time. General Desaix, killed at Marengo in 1800, was a personal friend; Denon was charged by Napoleon not only with his funeral, but with journeying to the sacristy of the convent San-Angelo in Milan to identify the corpse.  (He also possessed, bizarrely, a thumb from a much reviled nude statue of Desaix which was erected on the place des Victoires  in 1810 and later demolished). The side panels of the reliquary display mementos of Napoleon himself; a signature, the bloody fragment of shirt, a leaf from his favourite willow tree on St. Helena, and finally a few strands of hair and some whiskers.

The hairs and beard have recently been subjected to DNA analysis.  I don't understand a word of the results, but apparently the electron microscope revealed not only genetic material, but traces of shaving soap and iron residue from  Napoleon's razor!  

And finally.....a half a tooth of Voltaire's

Which of course, is the whole excuse for the post!  When sold off after death, this precious relic was catalogued separated - but happily soon restored to its rightful place in the reliquary.  Its precise provenance is unknown - presumably it was recovered at the time of Voltaire's exhumation from the  abbaye de Sellières in 1791.  Maybe the geneticists should get to work on it - personally I'd prefer a clone of Voltaire to a new Napoleon!.


Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, Histoire d'os et autres illustres abattis, Pluriel 2010, p.113-117

"Le Reliquaire de l'aimable Monsieur Denon", Castalie: Petite Bibliothèque de Curiosités.

Ulric Richard-Desaix
La Relique de Molière du cabinet du baron Vivant Denon : Portrait du baron Vivant Denon (1880)

Entries on the Tombes et sepultures website "Vivant Denon et son reliquaire"
"Les sépultures successives d'Heloise et d'Abelard",

"Profanateurs et témoins lors de la violation des tombeaux royaux en 1793"
Saint-Denis, cimetière des Rois [forum]

Daniel Sanchez,"The history of the Cid; after he died"  Move to Spain: travels [blog]

Napoleon's DNA:
Blaine Bettinger, "Napoleon Bonaparte’s Y-DNA Haplogroup Belonged to E1b1b1c1* (E-M34)" post dated 14 Feb.2012. The Genetic genealogist. Ancient DNA archives.

The reliquary in situ at the Musée Bertrand
The cultural significance of "relics" in the 19th century :

Alexander Nagel,"The afterlife of the reliquary" in  the catalogue for the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum Baltimore & British Museum, Oct.2010-Oct.2011, p.211-220.

Felicity Bodenstein, "The emotional museum: thoughts on the "secular relics"of nineteenth-century history museums in Paris and their posterity" Conserveries mémorielles: revue interdisciplinaire de jeunes chercheurs

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