The Great French Imperial Coat of Arms, door hanging for the Emperor’s “grand cabinet” at the Palais des Tuileries

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The “grand cabinet” of his “grand appartement de représentation” [great reception apartment] was, in Napoleon’s eyes, the most important room in the Tuileries Palace. It was here that he held the Council of Ministers and received the oaths of the dignitaries and great officers of the Empire. As he was never satisfied with the decor and furnishings of this room, he was constantly trying to enrich them throughout his reign.

Among the surviving objects of this ensemble, this “portière” (a tapestry intended to be placed in front of a door to block draughts), woven at the Gobelins Manufactory (from a cartoon by Jacques Dubois after a design by Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange) is without doubt the most significant piece. It was part of a set of six “portières” delivered in May 1811, illustrating four allegorical subjects – Victory, Fame, the Genius of the arts and sciences, the Genius of Commerce and Agriculture – and two heraldic subjects – the “Great Coat of Arms” of the Kingdom of Italy and that of the French Empire). Five of these hangings were destroyed on 25 May 1871 when the Gobelins Manufactory was burnt down by the Paris Commune, and these are today only known from Dubois’s cartoons. The one shown here representing the “Great French Imperial Coat of Arms” was the only one to survive the fire.

The Great French Imperial Coat of Arms, door hanging for the Emperor’s “grand cabinet” at the Palais des Tuileries
Les Grandes Armes de l'Empire Français, door hanging for the Emperor's grand cabinet at the Palais des Tuileries
Gobelins tapestry (325 x 235 cm), woven between 1808 and 1811(Mobilier National, GOB 23), photo: Isabelle Bideau

This tapestry is a condensed version of the imperial symbols. The heraldic shield bearing the arms of the Empire, perfectly matching the description laid down by the decree of 10 July 1804: “of azure, with a gold eagle in the antique style, clutching a thunderbolt likewise gold”, is set against an imaginative background: the escutcheon itself is surrounded by the great necklace of the Légion d’Honneur (made up of sixteen gold eagles symbolising the sixteen cohorts of the Légion) and bears a helmet topped with an imperial crown. The escutcheon is set upon a purple mantle strewn with golden bees and bordered with a frieze of gold laurels and lined with ermine fur. The imperial sceptre and the “hand of justice” are placed in saltire behind the shield. Two horns of plenty, laden with fruit, are placed at the foot of the composition, superimposed upon a trophy of arms and cannons. The whole composition is set against a poppy-red ground dotted with golden bees. The border is decorated with palms alternating with bees and an “N” in each corner. The ensemble is reminiscent of the decoration designed by Percier and Fontaine for the canopy of the throne in the Throne Room, the space which preceded the Grand Cabinet.

In this abundance of symbols, we can identify the two main stylistic inspirations for that of the Napoleonic regime: namely, the neo-antique on the one hand, and the neo-monarchic on the other. From Greco-Roman antiquity come eagles, palms, trophies and horns of plenty. And from the former French monarchy we have the crown, the helmet, the sceptre, the hand of justice, the heraldic mantle, and even the bees, which are straight out of the famous “treasure of Childéric”. Over time, Napoleon sought ever more to be closely linked to the symbols linked to the latter. On 11 November 1812, in the middle of the retreat from Russia, he announced to Cambacérès from Smolensk his plan to organise a “solemn and religious” ceremony at the Church of the Invalides where a speech would be given “with the purpose of re-establishing in all its purity this fundamental maxim of the monarchy: “In France the king does not die”.

Thierry Sarmant, director of collections at the Mobilier National [French National Furniture Repository](translation RY)

This exceptional piece which survived not only the destruction of the Gobelins but also outlived the Palace for which it was created, The Tuileries, can be seen during the Napoleon I’s Lost Palaces 15 September 2021 – 15 February 2022, partner of the 2021 Année Napoléon label.


Date :
1808 - 1811
Technique :
wool, textile, silk
Dimensions :
H = 325 cm, L = 235 cm
Place held :
Mobilier National, GOB 23
Photo credit :
Mobilier National, photo: Isabelle Bideau
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