The Richelieu Wing of the Louvre

The Louvre, being such a huge museum, is divided up into three “wings”:

  • The big hollow square at the back, meaning the East, is called the Sully Wing, named after Maximilien de Béthune, the first Duke of Sully (1560–1641), who was the finance minister and chief advisor to King Henry IV.
  • The north wing, which runs for several blocks along the Rue de Rivoli, is called the Richelieu Wing after Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis, 1585–1642), who was not only a Cardinal but also the Chief Minister of King Louis XIII, the son of Henry IV.
  • The south wing, which stretches along the right bank of the Seine, is called the Denon Wing after Dominique Vivant, Baron Denon (1747–1825), an archeologist, diplomat, author and artist who was appointed by Napoléon as the first director of the Louvre Museum in 1802. The Denon Wing is the most popular of the three (and hence the most crowded), because the Mona Lisa is on display there, also the Crowning of Napoleon and other well-known works.

In 2013, I had the great pleasure of spending a day at the Louvre in the company of the Belgian art connoisseur Eddy Dijssel, whom I had met through the now-defunct website VirtualTourist. We decided in advance to concentrate on the Richelieu Wing, where I hadn’t been for six years, because he wanted to show me some of his favorite paintings there and because I wanted to see the large collection of medieval and renaissance tapestries under his guidance.

In my first photo (above) Eddy is taking pictures of two famous paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). On the left is The Lacemaker, from 1669-1671, and on the right is The Astronomer from 1668. These paintings are on display in room 38 on the second floor of the Richelieu Wing.

Quentin Metsys, Sainte Madeleine

This portrait of Saint Madeleine (aka Mary Magdalene), by the Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (1466-1530), was bought by the Louvre in 2006 for a reported five million Euros. It is on display in room 9 on the second floor of the Richelieu Wing, along with three other paintings by the same artist.

Quentin Metsys, The Moneylender and His Wife

This is another painting by the same artist, Quentin Metsys, called The Moneylender and His Wife. Here we have a contrast between the greedy money-lender, who is weighing pearls, jewels, and pieces of gold, and his pious wife, who is being distracted from the religious book she is reading. The Louvre’s website says that this painting “is an allegorical and moral work, condemning avarice and exalting honesty,” and that it was once owned by the painter Peter Paul Rubens.

A point to note is that the moneylender’s wife is reading a religious book, but it is not the Bible. In Catholic Flanders in the sixteenth century, reading the Bible was considered a subversive act, something only Protestants would do. In 1543, thirteen years after the death of Quentin Metsys, his sister Catherine and her husband were both put to death for reading the Bible — his head was chopped off and she was buried alive in the square in front of the church.

In another post, I quoted a short passage from the novel L’Œuvre au Noir, by Marguerite Yourcenar, which is set mainly in Flanders in the sixteenth century. This passage was about “the hanging of a certain tailor named Adrian, who had been convicted of Calvinism. His wife was also guilty, but since it would be indecent to have a creature of her sex hanging in the open air with her skirts dangling above the heads of the passers-by, it was decided to follow the age-old custom and bury her alive.”

So far, I have read two books by Marguerite Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir and Mémoires d’Hadrien, both of which were recommended to me by Eddy Dijssel.

Joachim Patinir, Saint Jerome in the Desert

Another painting in the same room is this one of Saint Jerome in the desert by Joachim Patinir (1480-1524). Patinir was a student and friend of Quentin Metsys; when Patinir died in 1524, Metsys became the guardian of his children.

École de Fontainebleau

Next door in room 10 is this famous French painting from the Fontainebleau school of the late 16th century. It is presumed to be a portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the chief mistress of Henry IV, and her sister, the Duchess of Villars. According to the label by the painting, the “ostentatious gesture” of the Duchess pinching her sister’s nipple “may be an allusion to Gabrielle’s pregnancy and the birth in 1594 of César de Vendôme, the illegitimate son of Henry IV.”

Location and aerial view of the Louvre on monumentum.fr.

This is my 900th blog post here on Nemorino’s Travels.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on the Louvre in Paris.

24 thoughts on “The Richelieu Wing of the Louvre”

  1. I think it’s a testament to the power of blogging and the mark of a good blogger that often a single blog post can be remembered by a reader for much longer than the content of a magazine article or book. Another great read.

  2. At least three of the props in Metsys’ “The Moneylender and His Wife” are of considerable interest. First, an important point about book is that however spiritually instructive it might be, it is a very expensive object – viewers of the time would have noticed this immediately. An illuminated book of hours such as this would not have been within everyone’s reach. Second, the weighing scale would also have been familiar as a recurrent symbol of the balancing act one makes between spiritual worthiness (the book) and temporal necessity (the money to buy it). There is a dramatic example of this iconography in the portrait of Sir Thomas Chaloner (NPG, London) by an unknown Flemish master: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01173. Third, the mirror. It is generally agreed that whenever a mirror appears in portraits of the time it is an invitation to the viewer to examine his own modus vivendi before drawing any hasty conclusions about that of the sitters. Considered together, the three props certainly provide food for thought. Another thing that always strikes me about this painting is the engagingly melancholy mood of the moneylender’s wife. It seems to suggest more than a mere passing distraction.

    1. Thanks for your insights into the props in this painting.
      (I imagine mirrors must also have been quite expensive in those days. Didn’t Venice have a monopoly on mirror-making during this entire century?)

      1. Venice had a (de facto rather than de jure) monopoly on most items of luxury glassware until well into the late 16th century. But the real masters of mirror making were the Germans. It is a complicated story, but in a nutshell the Venetians made an effort to learn the finer points in the late 15th century, but the visiting German craftsman left before he could fully impart his techniques. Since the Murano glass industry had more than enough trade to be going on with, Venice eventually granted the German mirror men access to the international Venetian glass client base via the German trading HQ in Venice, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Thus everyone was happy. The mirrors we see in paintings of the period would have varied in price according to their size and the presence or lack of flaws, distortions and so on. These convex mirrors were not, as one might think, concave on the other side – that form, involving grinding rather than blowing, was not attempted until the early 1590s. The earlier mirrors started life as a glass bubble on the blowpipe, The glassblower would insert a cocktail of tin, lead, antimony etc into the centre of it, to impart a reflective quaility, the same as “silvering” the back of a flat mirror. The resulting sphere, a glass bubble with a ‘reflective” inner core, would then be “sliced” into however many mirrors one could get from it. The convex mirrors were enormously popular and earned a couple of nicknames. In France, “the witch’s eye” reflected some inevitable medieval superstitions about the supposed magical properties of mirrors. In Flanders and later in London they came to be known as “banker’s mirrors”, because they were handy in giving the moneylender/shopkeeper an all-round view of what was going on in his premises. On a more esoteric level, the production of mirrors proceeded hand in hand with the medieval school of speculum (mirror) literature, William of St-Thierry’s Speculum fide, etc. Edward IV’s illuminated copy of Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiae contains an amusing picture of Vincent at his lectern, with a handsome convex mirror standing on the desk nearby.

  3. Also, any Jewish viewers of the painting – stretching a point perhaps -might have been captivated by the 36 (very expensive) pearls on the table by the balance. In the Midrash, the light created by God on the first day of creation shone for exactly 36 hours and was replaced by the light of the Sun that was created on the Fourth Day. Another tradition holds that in every generation there are 36 righteous people, the “Lamed Vav Tzadikim”. That’s just my theory. At all events, I think there must be a reason for having having 36 pearls. Metsys and his contemporaries were far from being random painters!

  4. I didn’t see any of those paintings two years ago. I am sure we were mostly in the Denon wing. Is that where the sculptures like the Venus di Milo is located or are they in the Richelieu Wing? (Richelieu is the only name that I was familiar with)

        1. Was this the tour where you had a guide who followed her own interests more than yours? I seem to recall reading what you wrote about it at the time.

          1. Yes – this was with Hildegarde. . https://grandmarfrance.travellerspoint.com/14/
            I think part of the problem was that she had very little sense of direction and she had apparently never traveled with anyone who could not just use the stairs. So when she had to go off her beaten path to use an elevator, she was confused and disoriented. And I had not expected to have to help her so I hadn’t done any research about where things were and the path to get there.

          2. Yes this was when I went with Hildegarde. https://grandmarfrance.travellerspoint.com/14/

            Part of the problem was that I am a quick glancer/picture taker and she was an art class teacher/picture dissector. Also she was not told (or didn’t understand) that I was using a scooter and had apparently never had to deal with someone who could not just go up the stairs. When we had to use the elevators, she would get disoriented and confused. And I was relying on her to know and had not done much research in where things were so I couldn’t direct her. Generally if I have seen a map or have a map, I am pretty good at finding my way.

            This was a completely different experience from my first visit in 1950. All I remember of that was seeing the big important statues all lit up at night.

          3. I only have to approve your first comment. After that, they should appear right away, if you are sending from the same address.

  5. None of the facts mentioned in this blog were known to me. My visit to Louvre was like a guest appearance and these stories provides more reasons to visit again. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Vijay. The Louvre is so huge, and has works of such high quality, that it is always worth visiting again. (I hope to return soon, after the Covid pandemic runs its course.)

  6. Excellent entry. When we go to the Louvre, we always have a particular goal in mind. I do have to visit George Washington and Ben Franklin avoiding each other in the sculpture gallery, but otherwise we head for a specific painting or sculpture. After that we’ll wander for a while, but you could spend your whole vacation in there if you didn’t have some parameters. We’ll find the tapestries you blogged about on our next visit.

  7. When I visited the Louvre, I also bought the book of “A guide to the Louvre” at the gift store. It is a very good quality book with many pictures of the art work. It has the painting of “Gabrielle d’Estrees and one of her sisters” by School of Fontainebleau as you mentioned in your blog😊 I only had very limited time in Louvre as a tourist in Paris. It is nice to look at some painting at home too. Thanks for your blog.

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