The Baptism of the Prince Imperial

Author(s) : PAPOT Emmanuelle
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In the late afternoon of 14 June, 1856, the grandiose ceremony of the baptism of the of the Prince Impérial took place in Notre-Dame de Paris. Born on 16 March, 1856, the Prince had suitably august god-parents, namely, Pope Pius IX and Queen Josephine of Sweden, daughter of Eugène de Beauharnais.

Notre Dame and her sumptuous decoration

The decorations inside Notre Dame were arranged by Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who had overseen the décor for the sovereigns’ wedding on 29 January, 1853. And the latter were a large step up from the former.
The nave was hung with heavy drapes embroidered with golden bees. Special stands were erected in the choir and the transepts for the seating of Corps diplomatique, the Sénat, the Corps législatif, The Conseil d’Etat, high-up civil servants and VIPs. A large Savonnerie carpet had been spread on the floor, and a tall baldachino was set over the platform – six steps high – upon which were placed the imperial couple’s prie-dieus.

The cortège

At about 5pm, the cortège impérial, comprising twelve state carriages pulled by a grand total of 96 horses, set off from the Tuileries palace. The Emperor and Empress were in Charles X’ monumental carriage redecorated with the arms of the Second Empire. The little prince, in his white lace christening robe picked out in blue ribbons, was in the empress’s personal carriage, accompanied by his nurse, a large lady from Burgundy dressed in her regional costume, and Madame Bruat, wife of Admiral Bruat, the governess of the “children of France” (i.e., the imperial progeny).
The cortège route was as follows: leaving the Pavillon de l’Horloge, the carriages crossed the Tuilerie gardens, passed through the Place de la Concorde, travelled the length of Rue de Rivoli, then turned right into the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, crossed the Pont d’Arcole and took the Rue d’Arcole as far as the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. A double guard of honour lined the route, Garde nationale on the right and Garde impériale and the Troupe de ligne on the left (Le Moniteur Universel, 15 June, 1856). Thousands of spectators bearing flowers and flags watched the cortege, cannons blew and church bells pealed.
On their arrival, the imperial couple were greeted by the Archbishop of Paris, Mgr Sibour and they received the holy water and incense under an ombrellino carried by ten canons.

The ceremony

More than six thousand people were invited to the event. Pope Pius IX being ill was unable to be present and sent his legate, cardinal Patrizzi, to celebrate the sacrament before the bodies of state, as protocol demanded.
The infant had already received a summary baptism shortly after his birth, and so the service was one of chrism and confirmation. Madame Bruat carried him during the service, during which he wore a mantle of ermine.
The papal motet, Tu es Petrus by Lesueur, originally performed at the coronation of Napoleon I, was performed – despite the absence of the Pope.
A special font had been made by the Sèvres manufacturer and the copper baptismal ewer used dated from the end of the 12th century and had been brought back by Saint-Louis after his crusades.
At the end of the ceremony, the child was to have been presented by the Empress to the congregation, but she was too overcome by the event and had the emperor do it, as had happened with Napoleon I and the baptism of the King of Rome.

A surrogate coronation

The sumptuousness of the ceremony and approval of all was such that Emperor was later to say that this baptism was just as good as a coronation. The fact is, Napoleon III was never crowned, despite the negotiations with the Pope begun in 1852. Pius IX was not willing to perform the ceremony whilst the French government refused to rescind the organic articles of the Concordat and to make religious marriage obligatory. Furthermore, Ultramontain and Gallican tensions threatened to explode in civil unrest. The matter was shelved, and in the end, the baptism acted as a surrogate.


The baptism was the source many subsequent official and popular celebrations and festivities lasting three days, with balls, free shows, illuminations, and firework displays etc.
The event was immortalised by a cantata written by Auber, photos were taken, engravings were made, and a painting by Thomas Couture, pupil of Delaroche, was commissioned. Commemorative medals with the image of the child were struck.

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