They can be easy to miss walking through the Getty Museum’s decorative arts galleries. Looking closely, however, you start to see them everywhere, embellishing everything from porcelain to furniture, tapestries to metalwork. I’m referring to the fleur-de-lis, a familiar symbol with varied meanings and a rather obscure origin.
If you read the labels of the objects bearing the fleur-de-lis (in French, fleur de lys, pronounced with the final “s”), you might notice that they share another similarity: they were all made in France before the French Revolution of 1789. What’s less apparent is that the fleur-de-lis marks objects that bear witness to a dramatic history of monarchy, democracy, and war: they speak to the inherent power of trappings commissioned for and by France’s pre-revolutionary kings.
Adopted as a royal emblem in France by the 1100s, the fleur-de-lis can be traced to early Frankish monarchs including Clovis I, who converted to Christianity in 496, and the renowned Charlemagne. A French word, fleur-de-lis translates literally to “lily flower.” This is appropriate given the association of lilies with purity (and the Virgin Mary) and given that France has long been known as the “Eldest Daughter of the Church.”
In truth, the stylized flower most closely resembles a yellow iris. As a heraldic symbol used in the arms of the French monarchy, the fleur-de-lis often appears in yellow or gold tones and set on a blue shield. (And in case you’re wondering, the iris depicted in Van Gogh’s Irises is yet another iris, known as a German or bearded iris.)
Given its intimate royal associations, the fleur-de-lis invoked the ire of revolutionaries even before the fall of the monarchy in 1792. In addition to toppling royal statues, vandals chipped away at crowns and fleurs-de-lis adorning the façades of buildings.
Extraordinary survivors of an extraordinary time, objects sporting the fleur-de-lis are of a remarkable variety. Next time you visit the Getty Center, see how many fleurs-de-lis you can spot in the South Pavilion—and until May 1, 2016, in the special exhibition Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV. Here are some pieces to look out for.
1. Cabinet on Stand
French artists working in the 17th and 18th centuries made full and creative use of the fleur-de-lis to celebrate the power and glory of the Bourbon dynasty. During the reign of Louis XIV, skilled furniture makers incorporated the fleur-de-lis into elaborate marquetry veneers.
Dominating a gallery in the South Pavilion, an imposing cabinet-on-stand attributed to André-Charles Boulle could almost stand in for the Sun King himself. In addition to containing two cast bronze medallions of Louis XIV in profile (one visible above the central door and the other hidden inside), the cabinet is topped off with a pair of top drawers, each of which features five fleurs-de-lis in bronze marquetry.
2. Folding Table
This tripod table with a folding top is also embellished with fleurs-de-lis, only here in tortoiseshell marquetry, a costly material made from the shells of sea turtles. When opened, the top reveals two pairs of stylized dolphins, a possible allusion to the dauphin or crown prince Louis of France. Known as the “Grand Dauphin,” he was the only legitimate son of Louis XIV and heir to the throne until his untimely death in 1711. Although no documentation exists confirming the table’s ownership by the Grand Dauphin, the combination of dolphin and fleur-de-lis suggests that it was made for him.
This table’s small size and ingenious design, attributed to the Dutch-born cabinetmaker Pierre Golle, would surely have appealed to Louis XIV’s fashion-forward court.
#3. Portiere “aux armes de France”
More explicit in its display of the fleur-de-lis as an expression of the king’s majesty, a tapestry from the reign of Louis XIV’s successor and great-grandson Louis XV is dominated by royal emblems including the king’s scepter, hand of justice, and crown. Flanked by military trophies, the royal arms of France—three fleurs-de-lis on a blue ground—appear front and center. Woven at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris, such a tapestry likely embellished a door in a royal palace or possibly a French embassy.
#4: Lidded Bowl and Dish
This soft-paste porcelain bowl with a lid, known as an écuelle, prominently features the fleur-de-lis. The two lozenge- or diamond-shaped shields on the lid help identify its owner as a female member of the French royal family. One contains the Bourbon coat-of-arms, three gilt fleurs-de-lis surmounted by a royal princess’s crown; the other contains the monogram ML, used by Louise-Marie of France, the youngest of eight daughters born to Louis XV and his Polish-born queen, Marie Leczinska.
The bowl and its dish were made at the royal porcelain manufactory at Sèvres and delivered to Versailles for use by the princess, known as Madame Louise, in 1764. In form, the bowl was designed to hold a hot broth, known as a bouillon, commonly consumed by elite women over the course of their elaborate dressing ritual or toilette. Kept warm thanks to the lid, the contents could be sipped directly from the bowl. For all its elegance and refinement, the bowl was among the many objects abandoned by Madame Louise when she took the veil as a Carmelite nun and left Versailles in 1770.