Story Behind the Artifacts: What to See Besides the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum

This is the first of a series about the not only the artifacts and art in the incredible European museums we saw but also the stories behind why they are interesting. Not only are these beautifully crafted pieces in and of themselves but they all tell us something deeper about the cultures that produced them. To me, it fosters a deeper appreciation and inspires me to share them with you.

The Mona Lisa is a must see, of course, but there is a vast wealth of human artistic expression and deep history that stretches back to the beginnings of our transition from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers across the fertile crescent. The Louvre houses one of the largest collections of Near East artifacts ever. France’s obsession with all things Middle Eastern was sparked with loot brought back from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1789. The interest in foreign art and antiquities spawned new, complicated art movements called Orientalism, several pieces of which I will expand on in a future Musee D’Orsay post.

For now, let me take you on a trip through some of the many fascinating artifacts in the Louvre museum, starting with my personal favorite.

Code of Hammurabi

The foundation of the Western legal system: Code of Hammurabi

This monumental stele of black stone is one of the pillars of Western civilization. It lays down and publicly displays the laws of the land, going on to influence the Western legal system and the courts, procedures, attorneys, civil codes and criminal punishments for the rest of time.

Punishment and fairness flows through the legal system as opposed to a “Wild West” of laws, revenges and feuds. Instead of taking matters into your clan’s own hands, you contact a legal expert or official to help solve your problem.

The Code of Hammurabi represents the foundation of the legal system that Western civilizations rest upon. It is a carved text that lays down personal and financial repercussions for harmful actions in Babylon. The Code reduces violence between clans and family groups by providing a public framework for resolving disputes instead of resorting to revenge and violence.

The carving shows Hammurabi meeting with the Sun God as he is handed the divine laws. Hammurabi is of the most famous “law-givers” of the ancient world, highly influential figures who may or may not have existed exactly as described. Law-Givers offer a new framework for society to function under. One famous example is Moses, who also received commandments from God crafted in stone that lay down the laws for his tribes. These laws helped lay down the foundations of Western government. In fact, Hammurabi’s portrait hangs in the US Capitol building as an example of what the U.S. legal system is based on.

This entire section of the Louvre is severely underrated. Everyone goes to see Mona Lisa but real treasures to me were on the first floor. The artifacts removed from Egypt and the Middle East are a spectacular tribute to the lasting influences of their early cultures and a reminder of French colonialism.

The pyramid outside is actually to remind people that Louvre contains incredible collections of Near East artifacts, not just French paintings. I highly recommend spending a few hours wandering the comparatively empty lower floors with fantastic artifacts before or after seeing the Mona Lisa. 

Helmet and Shield of Henry II, King of France

Colorful banners fly high in the wind, fully adorned knights in intricate armor gallop towards each other at full speed as the noble crowds watch and cheer. There is much to celebrate today. The King’s daughter is to marry his longtime rival in a sign of peace between countries, decades of war were coming to an end, and this deserved a tournament on the grandest scale. 

I can only imagine the anticipation and fervor of the crowd as the King himself mounted his steed and donned his helmet. Curiously he was dressed in the colors of Diane of Poitiers, not of his wife, Catherine de Medici. He was flaunting his extramarital affair with Diane, and seeing as the backhanded gift from the Pope of a statue of Diane the Huntress did nothing to temper his relationship with her, I would not have wanted to be seated next to the Medici matriarch at this moment. 

Horns would have sounded, horses would have charged and the spectators would have held their breaths in anticipation of the King’s joust. His opponent was someone he trusted with his life, the head of the personal bodyguard of the king, the Scots Guard. The connection between France and Scotland was an opportunistic one that united politics and religion. Both were Catholic kingdoms with disdain towards England. In fact Henry II helped raise and protect Mary Queen of Scots from the English who were threatened by her claim to the royal throne. 

Scottish knights had been protecting French Kings for over a hundred years by now. Now it was time to fight the king, in a mock battle of course, but the role reversal is an interesting one. They aimed their lances at each other, eyes peering through narrow openings in their helmets, intent on showing the world their bravery, grace and combat skills. The two knights collided, lances broke and splinters flew through the air. The horses wheeled about. But something was wrong. Horribly wrong.  

Knowing how silent crowds get when there is a serious injury in modern sports, I can extrapolate that feeling of hushed worry and silent screams back in time. Who knows what Catherine was feeling, seeing her husband bleed in his mistress’s colors. 

Incredulously the lance held by the King’s most trusted bodyguard had fractured and sent a segment straight into Henry’s eye. The splinter passed through the narrow opening in his helmet to stab him in a place where doctors could not help. The wound was infected and Henry II died about two weeks later, passing his reign on to his son who soon after died of poor health. 

Nostradamus  was in Henry’s court as an astrologer on behalf of Queen Catherine, and may have perhaps made a vague statement that resembled what happened on that fateful day. Whether he said it before the event or after is debated, and either way he was full of shit, but one of his more famous prophecies is regarding Henry II’s death in this tournament. 

The connection between Italy and France at this time was obvious, the Medici’s were an Italian family after all, and France occupied parts of Italy during Henry II’s reign. This helmet too shows the connections between France and Italy. It was made by a famous Milanese family that specialized in intricate armor, the Negrolis.

Although this is not the helmet Henry was wearing when he was injured, it is in a similar style of the time known as a Bourguignotte. The pieces above were created some time in the 1550’s for the King. His injury and subsequent death led to a decline in the popularity of jousting throughout the French kingdom. His sickly son died soon after he did, Mary Queen of Scots never panned out like he imagined; she was eventually imprisoned and beheaded by the English. His royal family, the Valois, lost power within a generation or two and Catherine exiled Diane for the rest of her life. 

Niobid Krater

Naked Greek men drunkenly dip their cups into the large communal bowl of wine. Flutes fill the air with the sounds of traditional songs. Poets read aloud the philosophical musings about politics, gender or simply debate what the best wine is. Old men recline on day beds as slaves attend to those too drunk to continue. Young men sit up straight as they can, swaying in their hazy state of mind, singing along and cheering those with the best arguments and songs. 

This symposium is probably unlike any you have been to, unless you lead a pretty interesting life. The Krater, or large wine bowl, above was used in countless of these ceremonies over its life. More than just a drinking party, symposiums were places for Greek men to commune, bond and wax poetic about the politics and ideas of the day while drinking and feasting. 

Not every occasion was a complete mess of slurring i individuals. Oftentimes the wine was watered down quite significantly in order to keep the participants coherent and the debate lively. Greeks did not allow women, other than slaves or hired pleasure, to attend. This was an early form of a male drinking society, the roots of which helped found modern “Greek Life” in American Universities. 

Our ideas of “civilized” people have obviously changed over time, seeing as drinking pure wine and not having a tiny penis are both completely acceptable and I would dare say encouraged in today’s minds. No Frat boy today will brag about a small penis and drinking watered down alchohol. 

This Krater contained opposing elements on each side. The side pictured above depicts Artemis and Apollo mercilessly slaying fourteen children with their weapons. The mother of the children, Niobo, was caught bragging that her offspring were more beautiful and bountiful than the god Leto’s were. The dramatic killing of these children on the façade of this Krater must have been a constant lesson in hubris in the face of the gods as the participants drank, debated and boasted together. 

The slaying of seven male and seven female children is thought to relate to the even more ancient tale of the Minotaur who devoured the same amount of youths every year in his required sacrifice. It is interesting to see how adjacent cultures adapt and incorporate elements of each other’s cultures, including myths, into their own. The confluence of human cultures, ideas and foods is always a net positive in the long run. 

The Niobi Krater was made some time between 470 – 450 BCE and is attributed to a specific but unnamed artist called the Niobid Painter from Greece by art scholars. The artist was active from 470 BCE – 445 BCE during the Classical period.

The style of the Niobid Krater is red-figure Severe style pottery. The Severe style is known for stiff and lifeless figures embedded within a strong sense of place and space. Differing forms are placed on differing planes, some in the foreground some in the background, in order to evoke a sense of depth.

Scholars think the style was based on Greek Wall Paintings, of which almost none survive. We know about the fabled wall paintings from writing and copies of their styles onto other mediums, like the pottery above. 

Sarcophagus of the Spouses

The terra cotta sarcophagus is considered some of the finest examples of Etruscan art ever discovered. Two were found in the “City of the Dead” in Italy, one is housed in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome while this one can be found in the Louvre in Paris. The similarities in style between the two suggest the same artist’s workshop created them, possibly the same artist.

The Etruscans were a people in what we now call Italy that pre-dated the Romans. They flourished during the early Iron Age and had regular contact cross the Mediterranean world with cultures like the Greeks and Egyptians. The Etruscans were conquered and assimilated as the early Roman Republic expanded, with both cultures having strong influences on the other.

The figures on the sarcophagus are lounging in a reclining position and have almond shaped eyes reminiscent of Eastern art styles in my opinion, showing a wide range of influences and contact. The hand gestures by the woman figure are also very intriguing to me although we do not know much about the significance or meaning.

Like other terra cotta artifacts this sarcophagus was once brightly painted in vibrant hues. Sadly once these objects are exposed to oxygen the colors rapidly fade and deteriorate. This is a major reason many modern archaeologists today avoid excavating similar objects. They instead prefer to use ground penetrating radar to find sites and wait for appropriate technology in the future.

Some archaeologists are worried the current excavation methods which destroy things like paint on terra cotta artifacts will be seen as crude and blunt by future scientists. Archaeology differs in that you must destroy some of your evidence to investigate. Digs must be documented and preserved in a way that future scholars can read your notes and use your drawings and models as accurate scientific information. Self-reflecting, many archaeologists today realize the glory of uncovering a prestigious object will in the future be overshadowed by the information we lost while digging it up.

Diana of Versailles

This is Artemis, Goddess of the hunt. Or, she is Diana of Versailles. Her name has changed through the ages but her ideals of being a huntress, goddess of the countryside and protector of childbirth remain.

She draws an arrow from her quiver, deer leaping at her feet, in a perfect resemblance of her hunting reputation. It is thought that she may have held a bow in her left hand that has broken off and been lost to time. Like many statues from antiquity parts of her have been restored. Her left hand is partially rebuilt and the original animal may not have even been a deer at all.

I was especially impressed by the detail on her flowing dress and her hairstyle, full of motion. I just do now know how sculptors could create such magnificent movement from a block of marble especially without modern tools or electricity to power them.

Diana of Versailles was created in the 1st or 2nd Century CE in the Roman Imperial era. Romans took much of their cultural influences from the Greeks, this statue is a perfect example. It is likely a copy of a bronze statue by the Athenian artist Leochares created in the 300s BCE. Leochares was well known in his time and worked on the venerable Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This original bronze statue must have been spectacular, maybe comparable to the Artemision Bronze we still have today.

This statue was given by the Pope to the French King Henry II as a “gift” in 1556 CE. It is inescapably beautiful and well crafted, but the King must have been starkly reminded by the religious authority that they knew of his mistress, also named Diana. A backhanded gift of sorts. It was one of the first ever prominent displays of Roman statues in France. Diana was transferred to the Louvre Palace, which later became the Louvre museum we know today. In part this statue helped spark further interest in Renaissance France for Roman art.

Borghese Hermaphrodite

This statue is a tongue in cheek joke of sorts, a playful surprise to be revealed only on closer inspection from different angles. It was meant to deceive and then to delight, first enticing the viewer with a feminine form from behind. The graceful carved stone reveals expert craftsmanship as well as an attention to the finer details of how gender and sexuality was viewed in the past. 

Despite the seemingly female form this sculpture has a penis.

Although displaying a naked gender fluid person in sculpture is not all that common today, apparently this was a normal topic in the Roman and Greek worlds. Several statues of sleeping Hermaphroditus have been found leading scholars to believe they were somewhat abundant in Classical times. 

The stigma and shame associated with sex, nudity and the fluidity of it all was not nearly as present then as it is today. Of course Romans struggled with other aspects of sexuality and consent, this was no free-for-all paradise, but the acceptance of what we would consider polysexuality and non-binary genders was considered the norm. There are definitely lessons to be learned from our past. Viewing LGBT+ identities as a recent phenomenon is not rooted in accuracy. Displaying gender fluidity and having a range of sexualities is a proven part of humanity. Evidence is drawn from a deep well of anthropological research and historical objects like the above. Anthropology can help illuminate these topics and educate those who believe only in a binary existence.

This particular statue is especially renowned for its pillow-y cushion carved by the famous Renaissance artist Bernini on which Hermaphrodite dreamily lays. Hermaphrodite and the cushion which they lay on were carved over one thousand years apart from each other. The statue itself is from the 2nd Century CE and is likely a copy of a Greek bronze. How original. It is possible that the original Greek bronze was mentioned in the wide ranging work of Pliny’s “Natural History”. We may even know the name of the bronze sculptor, Polycles.

We are actually lucky the Romans liked to copy Greek art so much. The only reason we have an idea of what many ancient Greek bronzes and wall paintings look like are from Roman admirers centuries later. Testament to the enduring power of art, pieces like the above that deeply influenced the Renaissance movements were themselves copies of an even earlier artistic tradition. Renaissance artists were admiring and copying Roman artists who were admiring and copying Greek artists. Incredible. Some day it is imaginable that the Italian influences from Roman copies of Greek originals will themselves inspire another revolutionary artistic inspiration in generations far down the line. The Greeks also drew their inspirations from older cultures like the Egyptians and Minoans. Humanity’s intertwined history and interwoven culture can be traced through art.

The Borghese Hermaphrodite was re-discovered when a church was being constructed on the former grounds of the Roman gardens of Sallust. It was found by 1618 or maybe 1608. The exact date is not 100% certain, it was likely unearthed during construction. Obviously the excavators then did not keep the same meticulous records that modern archaeologists do but I would have at least thought someone would have written down when they dug up something so magnificent!

Cardinal Borghese claimed this for his collection, adding to his growing number of exquisite works of art. His family would later fall on hard times but was offered redemption at a cost. The prince who inherited the collection married into the country’s occupying force, the infamous Bonaparte family. In 1807 much of the collection was sold to France as part of the wedding deal.

Gigantomachy by the Suessula Painter

An eclectic group of heroes, all with their own unique powers and personalities, team up to fight their ultimate battle. They must overcome the anti-heroes that threaten their very existence and save their world. 

A young demigod tries to prove himself worthy of the gods themselves while the son of a powerful being rebels and fights against his father’s harsh rule. Legend has it that only a special mortal can help them win, the demigod finds his calling and emerges victorious.

This isn’t a pitch for a Superhero ripoff script, however similar the themes may seem, but actually the description of the vase depicted above. 

Zeus hurls a lightening bolt from above as Herakles uses all his strength in combination with an entire pantheon of Olympian gods to defeat their enemies, the Giants.

What myths and stories we choose to elevate about ourselves reveal much about the culture they emerge from. Myths from an anthropologists perspective are not simply stories from the past or fables that we tell children. They can reveal deep rooted beliefs and reflect the politics of their times.

That is likely the case with the vase above. During this time period we see an elevated focus on the victories of the Greek Olympic pantheon over their enemies. This reflects the political reality of Athenian domination and victory over the Persian Empires invading forces and the elevation of Athens to the prominent role in Greek city-state hierarchy.

The lifelike and detailed portrayal of the subjects on this vase has led scholars to speculate that a specific artist made this among several other high quality cases in Athens and the nearby areas. The shading techniques on the gods also uniquely indicate this was likely created by who we know as the Suessula Painter. 

This work was crafted between 400 – 410 BCE when the Greek world was rapidly entering it’s Classical zenith. Sparta was mostly defeated in the Peloponnesian war, Persia was a much diminished threat and Athens was rising to the most dominant position it had ever held.

Athenians held a secure network of city states under it’s control known as the Delian League. Athens seized the treasury of the Delian League, their own allies, in order to “protect” it and retain control over the league’s finances. This either represents the consolidation of a democratic alliance or the beginning of an Athenian Empire depending on who you ask. The generations following this rise to power represented the domination and hegemony via their art.

The god’s victories likely reflect the feeling that Athens was on top of the world. It’s long time enemies were retreating. They had built an alliance of city states and now clearly sat atop it’s power structure. However the world would again shift in fundamental ways only a few decades later. Alexander the Great would emerge from the north to sweep away Athenian hegemony and establish a new type of Greek alliance, one that would eventually conquer the known world.

Make sure to check back from time to time as this post will be periodically updated with new write-ups and artifact photos.

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Future Louvre Updates include…

Child with Goose

Egyptian Stele

Assyrian God Drinking Bowl

Wall Archers

Joan of Arc

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