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The tomb of Henri II and Catherine de'Medici

The tomb of Henry II and Catherine de Medici is one of the most majestic funerary buildings in the Basilique de Saint-Denis. Explore the history of this fascinating monument, in the heart of the royal necropolis.

Discovering the Rotunda of the Valois

Son of François I, the future Henri II marries Catherine de'Medici, duchess of Urbino, in 1533. He was crowned in 1547, perpetuating the Valois-Angouleme dynasty. However, he accidentally received a shard of spear in the eye during a tournament on June 30, 1559. He died 10 days later, despite the efforts of doctors including the famous Ambroise Paré. Having become regent of France, Catherine de'Medici continued to mourn her husband.

In 1559, the design of a funeral chapel outside the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the royal necropolis, was entrusted by the queen to an Italian artist, Primaticcio. Catherine wished to make a mausoleum for the burial of Henry II and their future children. But when Primatice died in 1570, the chapel had yet to be built. It was not undertaken until 1572, following the project of a French architect, Jean Bullant, who in turn disappeared in 1578, when the building did not exceed the first floor. He was then replaced by Baptiste Androuet du Cerceau who built the second floor by modifying considerably the previous project.

The building takes the form of a gigantic rotunda of 30 meters in diameter, adjoining the northern arm of the transept of the basilica. Its composite style, in which references to Italy, France and Roman antiquity are mixed, contrasts with the medieval silhouette of the basilica.

Vue de la rotonde des Valois par Jean Marot

© Archives départementales

An exceptional renaissance architecture

The centered plan of this chapel, a rotunda with six side chapels grafted onto it, is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the plans for the great church of St. John of the Florentines in Rome. During the Renaissance, this form was considered very suitable for monuments dedicated to great men and martyrs, the ancient temple of the Pantheon in Rome being the most beautiful example.

The building, commonly known as "Notre-Dame-de-la Rotonde", was to be covered by a dome, but this was never executed because the work was interrupted when the Valois dynasty died out in 1589, with the last son of Henri II and Catherine de'Medici. Left abandoned thereafter, the rotunda of the Valois eventually fell into ruin.

In 1719, it was dismantled and the tomb of Henri II and Catherine de'Medici, which was placed in its center, was repatriated to the basilica, then moved again during the Revolution to the Museum of French Monuments in Paris, before returning to Saint-Denis in 1816. It was not returned to its final location until 1863, and has thus been moved four times in the course of its history!

Today, a touch terminal installed near the tomb allows you to admire a digital reconstruction of the rotunda destroyed in the 18th century. You can also enjoy a unique immersive experience in virtual reality during scheduled visits. Initiated by the Centre des monuments nationaux, this project is supported by the Dassault Group and the Établissement public territorial Plaine Commune.

Restitution de la Rotonde des Valois

© Art Graphique et Patrimoine / Centre des monuments nationaux

A monumental tomb

The majestic tomb of Henri II and Catherine de'Medici was designed by Le Primatice, a painter and sculptor appointed superintendent of the king's buildings. It was then executed by the sculptors Germain Pilon and Ponce Jacquio between 1560 and 1572.

The whole looks like an ancient temple. The taste for marble has known a great development in France from the reign of Henry II. But the mixture of materials was new in the 1560s, when the tomb project was elaborated; it had few examples, even in Italy.

On the tomb, the king and queen are represented twice, according to a principle of duplication that was first found in Saint-Denis with Louis XII and Anne of Brittany.

At the top, the king and queen are kneeling, dressed in their royal mantles, but without crowns. The gestures of these prayers are a bit difficult to understand today without the prie-Dieu and the prayer books they had in front of them. If Catherine de'Medici's clasped hands evoke prayer, Henry II's movement is more original: he brings his hand to his heart, which he symbolically offers to God.

The four bronze statues at the corners of the tomb represent the cardinal virtues, Strength, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. Their execution is typical of Mannerist art, an artistic movement of the late Renaissance.

Inside the tomb, the naked bodies mark the humility of the sovereigns in the face of death. However, the recumbents of Henry II and Catherine de'Medici are no longer decomposing trances as for Louis XII and his wife, but magnificent bodies, which reflect the passion of Renaissance artists for anatomy. If the faces of the sovereigns are realistic, their almost naked bodies are very idealized: the posture of Catherine de'Medici is even inspired by a famous ancient prototype, the Venus Medici. Moreover, Catherine refused a first recumbent, too cadaverous, commissioned from the Italian Girolamo Della Robbia, which can be seen in the Louvre!

Tombeau d'Henri II et Catherine de Médicis, Vertu, La Tempérance, Germain Pilon

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

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