Snuff box containing a golden leaf from the coronation crown

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
Artist(s) : BIENNAIS Martin-Guillaume
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Snuff box containing a golden leaf from the coronation crown
© RMN (

On 2 December, 1804, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was the theatre for the coronation and consecration of Napoleon I (otherwise known as the “Sacre”). And in correspondence to the splendour and grandeur of the ceremony, particular attention was paid to the imperial insignia. In addition to the “honneurs de Charlemagne”, in other words the ancient ornaments partly reconstituted from the coronations of earlier French kings, Napoleon had the “honneurs de l’Empereur”. Crown, sceptre, hand of justice, orb, necklace of the Légion d’honneur, and the emerald ring, such were the regalia specially made for the ceremony by the goldsmith Biennais (all apart from the ring, that is, which was assembled by Marguerite). Napoleon wore what was called the “grand habillement” (coronation robes) – an imperial mantle fashioned from purple velour dotted with golden bees and lined with ermine, a white silk tunic, gold-embroidered slippers and white gloves – when he entered the cathedral, as immortalised by David, Ingres, Gérard and Girodet. And since some of these insignia have disappeared, the paintings by these artists are the only evidence we have for the magnificence of the event. After the coronation, the insignia were exhibited in Notre-Dame for public viewing, only to be removed however in 1815 and in 1819 melted down into a single gold ingot(!) at the Paris mint. A sad fate for the golden imperial laurel crown, blessed by the Pope and which Napoleon placed on his own head in the choir of Notre-Dame.

Of the antique style wreath/crown, originally composed of 44 large and 12 smaller leaves, 42 golden seeds, all mounted on an oval band ganished with velvet and opening at the back via a clip, this one small golden leaf is all that remains(Since the writing of this article, another leaf surfaced in an auction  (November 2017). According to an anecdote told by Isabey’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Renée de Valroger in the magazine “Historia” in 1958, during the first fitting of the crown at the Tuileries Palace, the Emperor found the object much too heavy. Isabey is said to have replied: “It is the weight of the victories, Sire. It takes so many leaves to remember them all”. To which Napoleon is said to have retorted: “Then let us forget some of them, for I cannot bow my head under their weight”. Back in his shop at the “Singe Violet”, Martin-Guillaume Biennais set about lightening the crown by removing six leaves. He placed them in small boxes and, when he got home, offered one to each of his daughters”.). It was given to the painter Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855) by the Emperor himself under circumstances described by the painter (and written on a piece of paper stuck to the back of the snuff box): “At Saint-Cloud in 1805, before the departure for Milan, I was helping the Emperor as he tried on the royal crown which was supposed to go above the golden laurel wreath made for the coronation in Notre-Dame. One of the leaves fell off. Just as I was about to give it to the head chamberlain, His Majesty said to me: ‘Keep it; it will make a good souvenir of your clumsiness'”. Souvenir of clumsiness, perhaps, but the gift was also a homage to the person who had played such an important role in the preparations for the coronation, notably: sketches of the costumes, explanation of – and rehearsals for – the ceremony with wooden figurines, Josephine’s make-up and, later, the illustrations for the Livre du Sacre. In 1852, Isabey had the snuff box made by the jewellers Leferre as a place of safekeeping for the precious relic.

Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)

February 2002 (updated by Rebecca Young in December 2021)

Date :
1804 (gold leaf) 1852 (box)
Technique :
Thuya, tortoise-shell, gold
Dimensions :
H = 0.020 m, L = 0.102 m, P = 0.045 m
Place held :
Musée national du château de Fontainebleau - Musée Napoléon Ier
Photo credit :
Crédits : © RMN
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