This painting, by the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer (c. 1795-1858), was inspired by the death scene of Saint Louis, more commonly known as King Louis IX of France (r. 1226-1270). Originally a child-king, Louis’s early reign was secured by his formidable mother, Queen Blanche, who successfully crushed scores of conspirators and rebels in a series of wars and stabilizing operations. Louis IX grew up to be pious, just and fair, while also maintaining a skill for warfare and negotiation that served him well when he was inclined to fight. He fended off several invasions from his English rival, King Henry III (r. 1207–1272) and then led the Seventh (c. 1248-1254) and Eighth (c. 1270) Crusades. King Louis IX fell ill and died while campaigning in Tunisia during Eighth Crusade. That death scene in Tunisia is what Ary Scheffer strove to re-create in his painting. For sources, the artist might have turned to the more historically-oriented Life of Saint Louis by the biographer, John of Joinville (c. 1224/1225-1317), or more folklore-embellished texts like the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (c. 13th century). John of Joinville’s account of the king’s death was as follows:
“The king took to his bed, feeling sure that he would soon pass from this world to the other. He called for my lord Philip, his son, and commanded him to uphold, just as he were making out his will, all the teachings he was leaving him…When the good king had given his instructions to his son my lord Philip, his sickness began to worsen grievously. He asked for the sacraments of the Holy Church and was seen to receive them in sound mind and with proper understanding, for when he was anointed and the seven psalms were said, he spoke the verses in response…After this the king had himself laid in a bed covered with ashes and placed his hands on his chest; as he looked toward Heaven he returned his spirit to our creator…” (John of Joinville, Life of Saint Louis, sections 739-757).
Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend recorded a similar telling of the king’s death, describing Louis’ last-minute teachings for his son, which were followed by sacraments, psalms and invocations of saints. Similarities aside, Ary Scheffer may have picked up a specific detail from the Golden Legend. Namely, a statement that King Louis IX reportedly died while “stretching his arms in [the] manner of a cross” (Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend, 7.30). Such is the scene that Ary Scheffer re-creates—it shows King Louis IX on his deathbed in 1270, with his arms crossed, surrounded by his son, the future King Philip III of France (r. 1270-1285), and various courtiers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Life of Saint Louis, by John of Joinville, translated by Caroline Smith in Chronicles of the Crusades: Joinville and Villehardouin. Penguin Classics, 2008.
- The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Caxton (c. 1422-1491), and reprinted unabridged and in seven volumes by SSEL (2022).