On 2 December, 1804, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was the theatre for the sacre or coronation of Napoleon I. 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. 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 homage to the person who had played such an important role in preparations for the coronation, notably: sketches of the costumes, explanation of – and rehearsals for – the ceremony with wooden figurines, Josephine’s makeup 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.)