Among St. Louis’ most iconic landmarks is Art Hill, crowned by the Saint Louis Art Museum, with a statue of the city’s namesake, Louis IX, seated gallantly atop his horse. But few—even those born and bred here—know much about this 13th-century monarch turned saint.
The Saint Louis Art Museum will change all of that with its upcoming exhibit, Louis IX: King, Saint, Namesake. In two galleries, the exhibition will explore the art commissioned under Louis IX, as well as his ongoing legacy. “It’s good to appreciate and understand why Pierre Laclede would have chosen that name for the city,” says Judy Mann, curator of European art to 1800, who co-curated the exhibit with Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “Partly it’s because Louis’ ancestors were from the same general region of France as Laclede’s ancestors, but he was also an important saint at that time.”
The exhibit was conceived as part of the stl250 festivities and includes the iconic statue itself. “So many people come to see the statue, but there’s very little information available about it,” Mann says. “It was made in plaster for the World’s Fair in 1904, as one of many sculptures around the fair. The organizers felt that would be the perfect one to give to the city of St. Louis to celebrate the success of the fair, and it was cast in bronze and eventually moved to Art Hill.”
But the true centerpiece of the exhibit will be pages from the Morgan Library Picture Bible, which is believed to have been commissioned by Louis IX himself. Because of the Bible’s value, only two pages could be transported to St. Louis from the Pierpoint Morgan Library. “On each page, there are four or more different scenes, richly illustrated,” Mann says. The pages in the exhibit depict Old Testament scenes of Joseph in Egypt and Joshua fighting epic battles. “These scenes aren’t frequently illustrated,” she says, adding, “It’s really amazing to see how much time and effort goes into these beautiful things.”
Alongside the manuscript will be a video showing how the parchment was prepared, as well as a chance to have a hands-on look at authentic, undecorated parchment. “We want people to come and really have the chance to touch and feel things,” Mann says. This is a unique opportunity, since the paint on ancient manuscripts often is so delicate that it would be damaged by being handled. “The parchment itself looks and feels like heavy-duty paper. You realize how incredibly strong it is: It doesn’t disintegrate or crease. That’s one of the reasons we have so many fabulous books that survive from the Medieval period.”
Other objects of note include a relief created by St. Louis sculptor Walter Hancock, who was featured in the book and movie, Monuments Men. The relief depicts Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight—not in a literal way, but through an illustration of Louis IX as the metaphorical Spirit of St. Louis releasing a falcon to flight. There also is an altar piece from the Basilica of St. Louis, King (The Old Cathedral) that features Louis IX kneeling before the Crown of Thorns. “Louis was admired by Christians in those days because he was pious, charitable and fed the poor, and that reputation followed him; but the single-most important thing associated with him is the Crown of Thorns,” Mann says.
The exhibition will run from Aug. 29 through Nov. 2.