French Decorative Bookbinding - Sixteenth Century

A study of

l'atelier des reliures LOUIS XII et FRANÇOIS Ie
the decorative bookbindings from the workshops of Louis XII and Francis I

L'écu aux armes de France - shield with three lis (fleur de lis)


Fig. 1 - Charles VI (1380-1422), AV écu d'or à la couronne, 3e émission (septembre 1389)
compared with a Louis XII écu imprint (reliure No. 14, c. 1513)

When I began my study of the three fleur de lis within the armes de France that are part of the armes of Louis XII , I soon started to wonder just when and where this 'écu' with three lis became popular. If you search the internet on this you soon discover that the first écu was a gold coin (the écu d'or) minted during the reign of Louis IX of France, in 1266. Ecu (from Latin scutum) means shield, and the coin was so called because its design included a shield bearing a coat of arms. The écu of Louis IX, shown below contains six fleur de lis, they say that the number was reduced to 3 fleur-de-lis or in 1376, by order of Charles V the Wise. However you do not see the typical shield with three lis on French coins until Charles VI.

1270 ecu
Fig. 2 - The first écu, issued by Louis IX of France, in 1266.

click on this image to see an enlargement

Fig. 3 - A collection French Royal coins, in a chronologic order and each with an enlargement of an extracted lis
(click on this image to see an enlargement)

The other issue in this search was to try to discover what the ancient form of the lis was. I wondered if it had changed since the first coins but soon discovered that the motif was amazingly constant and stable from the time of Charles VI up to Louis XIV, as can be observed in the graphic above (click on the image to see an enlargement). My interest in all this was inspired by the observation that the lis in my example showed distinct irregular characteristics by which they could be easily, or more easily, recognized. To learn how they differ is bit like trying to recognize Chinese characters... to aid in my description of how these lis differ, I have made a diagram which will greatly simplify the matter.

click on this image to see an enlargement

Fig. 4 - Fleur de lis variables with a diagrammatic terminology
(click on this image to see an enlargement)

In a perfectly symmetric motif the head and tail would be aligned as per example "1", however in the case of the Louis XII example, the upper right lis, shown here as "a", the head has shifted a bit to the left of center and is angled so as to be pointing towards the left foot instead of the tail. Now looking at the lis in the upper left Louis XII example, shown here as "d" we see just the opposite, with the head shifted slightly right of center and a bit tilted so as to be pointing at the right foot. The bottom center lis is more symmetric but has longer feet compared with those of "a". The tail is the next most obviously varying feature. It can be short and stubby as in example 'a' or it can be long as per 'd'" as well as angled to one side, as per 'a" where it is distinctly leaning to the left.

click on this image to see an enlargement

Fig. 5 - Fer "G" from, J. Guignard, Premieres reliures parisiennes a decor dore, dans Humanisme actif... 1968 t.II. p. 229-249, pl. 1.
compared with an actual imprint (extracted from No. 14)

In Jacques Guignard's 1968 follow up paper on the atelier de Louis XII bindings, he was clearly concerned with the previous lack of precision in the illustration of this imprint model, and reproduced an improved model that is shown here in Fig.5. We can see however that this 'improved' type model lacks precision and further distorts the actual form of the lis, here we get the impression that the arms are continuous with the feet passing through the shoulder, this design was actually adopted during the reign of Louis XIV but is not what we see in the Louis XII imprints.

click on this image to see an enlargement

Fig. 6 - Stained glass window in the shape of a fleur-de-lys, Bourges cathedral, 15th c.

The photo shown above comes from an excellent page on "fleur de lis" at Heraldica org , that you must visit if you want to know all there is to know about the history of this motif. We see in this stained glass window the archetypal form of the lis as it was conceived in the 15th century. As I have shown in Fig. 3 the motif remained stable for centuries. We see that the 'arms' of the lis rest on the shoulders and are not a continuous extension of the feet. Further to this Guignards model ignores the tilt and off center position of the heads. What he does point out however and is perhaps the most obvious detail that will help recognize this imprint, is the longer tail of the upper right lis (see Fig 5). Below I show what I think is the next most obvious aberration to look for in these Louis XII examples.

click on this image to see an enlargement

Fig. 7 - Detail of lis "a" Fig. 4, extracted imprint from No. 14 and scanned imprint from No. 37
(click on this image to see an enlargement).

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