Triumph and disaster
medals of the Sun King

4 June – 15 November 2015

Recommend this exhibition

Gold medal. Obverse: portrait of Louis XIV facing right. Reverse: Louis XIV as the sun warming the earth. Made by Jean Warin, 1672.

This display examines the greatest medallic project ever undertaken – a self-portrait of the reign of Louis XIV of France.

Frontispiece to Médailles sur les principaux évènements du règne de Louis le Grand (Medallic History of Louis the Great, 1702). Etching and engraving, 1723. Father Time lies defeated by the medallic history of Louis XIV which will last forever.

Louis XIV – known as the Sun King – was King of France for over 70 years, reigning from 1643 to 1715. In 1662 his Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, put forward the idea of creating a series of medals commemorating the triumphs of Louis’ reign – a medallic history. This was to form an extraordinary work of collaborative art that resulted in a unique and fascinating self-portrait of the regime that dominated Europe for nearly 60 years.

The display explores the background to the medallic history’s production, introducing some of the key people involved in its design and execution, including Colbert, artist and sculptor Jean Warin and authors Charles Perrault (best known today for his collection of fairy tales) and Jean Racine. The display uses a selection of the British Museum’s outstanding collection of medals produced during this period to tell this fascinating story – from the setting up of a ‘Little Academy’ (a committee established in 1663 to advise Louis on commemorating his reign) to the process of creation and production, and how Louis was represented.

The show also includes a 1702 folio edition of the medallic history (Médailles sur les principaux événements du règne de Louis le Grand – essentially a catalogue of the medals that were produced) from the Department of Coins and Medals’ library collection. It is shown alongside two loan objects – a scrapbook from the British Library of ideas for medals in the form of sketches, descriptions and drawings by Sébastien Le Clerc, and an enamel portrait miniature of Louis from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Finally, a selection of satirical medals produced by Louis’ enemies in Germany and England represent responses to his medallic history.

Medal with Louis XIV of France as Apollo, driving the chariot of the sun which brings light to every part of the earth. By Jérôme Roussel, 1661.

Silver medal depicting an exploding bomb, decorated with the fleurs de lys and inscription IMP GALLIC, symbolic of France blowing itself up. Netherlands, 1689.

Medal with the Duke of Savoy as Jupiter in the form of an eagle, striking down Phaethon with a thunderbolt. Made by Jan Smeltzing, Netherlands, 1706.