Germain Pilon

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PILON, GERMAIN (1525/1527?1590)

PILON, GERMAIN (1525/1527?1590), considered the greatest French sculptor of the sixteenth century. Born in Paris to the sculptor Antoine Pilon, who is believed to have trained him, Pilon was chosen for the most prestigious commissions of Catherine de Médicis and her sons Francis II (ruled 15591560), Charles IX (ruled 15601574), and Henry III (ruled 15741589). Catholic and funerary subjects dominated his oeuvre as they did those of most of his contemporaries. The transcendent spirituality of Pilon's sculptures, however, was unequalled by any other artist of his time. His oeuvre combines traditional French prototypes (his Virgin and Child in Notre-Dame de la Couture in Le Mans, from 1570, for example, follows fourteenth-century models) with the breathtaking sophistication of a dying court style and the superhuman power of Michelangelo's figures, which must have been transmitted to him by Francesco Primaticcio (15041570).

None of Pilon's earliest documented works (nor any of his father's) has been preserved. It is logical, however, to suggest that he worked at Fontainebleau even before receiving the commission in 1561 for wood statues intended for the queen's garden there: not only would this contact have provided a fundamental inspiration for his elegant style, but it also would account for the fact that many of his earliest known extant sculptures were commissioned for projects overseen by the supervisors of royal architectural works, Philibert de l'Orme (1515?1570) and Primaticcio. Among these early sculptures were allegorical figures of children holding inverted torches, symbolizing the extinction of life, commissioned in 1558 for the tomb of Francis I (Saint-Denis), but never included in that monument. A sculpture in the Musée National de la Renaissance (Écouen, France) is usually identified as the only one that remains today, but another can easily be attributed to Pilon among the three that were instead used for the monument to the heart of Francis II (Saint-Denis).

The reliefs of the evangelists, sorrowing putti, and the Resurrection of Christ (c. 1559) on the underside of the canopy of the tomb of Francis I can also be attributed justifiably to Pilon. Their exquisite chiseling in extraordinarily low relief shows a brilliance unknown in the technique of any of Pilon's contemporaries, and the dimpling of the draperies occurs, without any other precedent, only in the three female figures carved for the monument to the heart of Henry II (Louvre, Paris), popularly called the Three Graces. This is Pilon's earliest (15601563) extant documented work, and his best known.

Pilon was among several sculptors chosen by Primaticcio to realize Henry II's tomb in Saint-Denis (15631570). Pilon's sumptuous bronze praying figures of the king and Catherine de Médicis are on the upper level of this two-tiered monument, while his marble sculptures of their corpses rest beneath. Four bronze Virtues stand at the tomb's corners; of these, Justice and Fortitude are Pilon's. The authorship of the four marble reliefs on the base of the tomb is still debated, although it is likely that Pilon carried out two of them: Faith and Religion (the relief traditionally believed to represent hope).

By 1572 Pilon had also completed the over-life-size marble Resurrection (Louvre), toward which the praying figures of the king and queen were oriented. This would be complemented by elaborate effigies (1583) of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis and the mystical Virgin of Sorrows (1586, marble example in Saint-PaulSaint-Louis, Paris; terra-cotta in the Louvre), all intended for the Valois Chapel, the mausoleum envisioned by Catherine de Médicis.

Charles IX's unhappy reign brought commissions for a grand figure of a horse, known only through the posthumous inventory of Pilon's workshop; the gigantic decorative frame for the clock of the central courthouse in Paris; and appointment as overseer of the Paris mint. Only during Henry III's reign was the frame of the clock, renowned in its time as the Horloge du Palais, completed. (It was replaced in the nineteenth century.) Indeed, the most fecund period of Pilon's career coincides with the fifteen years of Henry III's desperate attempts to restore peace and religious toleration in France. Pilon was commissioned to do fifteen funerary monuments, ranging from a simple epitaph to the costly bronze and mixed-marble tombs of such courtiers as the chancellor René de Birague (1584, surviving elements in the Louvre) and the king's three favorites (1578, formerly in Saint-Paul, Paris), which were destroyed in Pilon's own lifetime in a bloody uprising against Henry III.

Less than half of Pilon's work is preserved today, mostly in the Louvre. Nonetheless, his oeuvre not only constitutes the artistic apogee of the end of the Valois dynasty, but also marks a significant transition in style to the peculiarly disciplined restraint of French baroque sculpture of the seventeenth century. Pilon's influence, paradoxically, also brought a mannered classicism to the sculpture of the Low Countries and England.

See also Catherine de Médicis ; Sculpture ; Valois Dynasty (France) .


Babelon, Jean. Germain Pilon. Paris, 1927. Although some of the attributions are out of date, this well-illustrated book remains a fundamental reference.

Levkoff, Mary L. "Précisions sur l'oeuvre de Germain Pilon et sur son influence." In Germain Pilon et les sculpteurs français de la renaissance. Paris, 1993.

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York, 1985.

Mary L. Levkoff

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Germain Pilon

Germain Pilon (ca. 1535-1590) was the leading French sculptor of his time. Trained in the Italianate mode of Fontainebleau, he developed an independent style that combined realism and emotional intensity.

Germain Pilon, the son of a mason, was born in Paris. He may have been a pupil of the sculptor Pierre Bontemps. The Italian painter and designer Francesco Primaticcio constituted a more important influence on Pilon's early work. In 1560 Pilon worked for Primaticcio on the monument for the heart of Henry II (now in the Louvre, Paris). The Three Graces that support the urn transcend the formal elegance of design and cool, graceful figures of the Fontainebleau school in their beautifully manipulated draperies and intelligent, piquant faces. By 1561 Pilon was active at Fontainebleau, where he carved four wooden statues of classical figures for the Queen's garden.

Between 1563 and 1570, under Primaticcio's initial direction, Pilon executed the monumental tomb of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis in the Valois chapel at Saint-Denis. This tomb is at once grander and more somber in its elaborate sculptural program than the monument for Henry II's heart. Above the tomb of Henry II and Catherine are the kneeling bronze figures of the King and Queen garbed in all the regal splendor of their robes of state; they are in dramatic contrast to the recumbent marble figures of the sovereigns poignantly shown as nearly naked corpses below. The lower part of the tomb has four standing bronze figures of Virtues and a series of bas-reliefs in marble and bronze.

In 1570 Pilon was named sculptor to the king, Charles IX. No large-scale work survives from the 1570s, when Pilon was chiefly active making a distinguished series of portrait busts and medals of royal and noble personages. One of his strongest characterizations, the bronze bust of Jean de Morvilliers, foreshadows the incisive portrait of Chancellor René de Birague a decade later. This later portrait belonged to one of the two major projects that engaged Pilon in the 1580s: the continued work for the Valois chapel in Saint-Denis and tombs for the Birague family chapel in Ste-Catherine du Val-des-Ecoliers, Paris.

The sculpture that remains from Pilon's work for the Valois chapel shows an astonishing range, from the almost Spanish emotionalism of the St. Francis (now in the church of SS. Jean et François, Paris), to the Michelangelesque breadth of the Risen Christ (in the church of SS. Paul et Louis, Paris), to the formal grace of the marble Sorrowing Madonna (in the Louvre). The painted terra-cotta model for this Madonna is more personal and expressive, recalling the austere dignity of the Virgin of the famous Avignon Pietà.

Pilon's tombs for the Birague family were largely destroyed in the French Revolution, but the portions that remain (now in the Louvre) show his full powers as a sculptor in their assured characterizations of the praying chancellor and the more delicate interpretation of his wife, Valentine Balbiani. The jewellike precision of her costume and the gaiety of the supporting angels make all the more haunting the ravaged features of her cadaver carved in low relief at the base of the tomb. The bronze relief of the Deposition was also executed for the Birague chapel.

Pilon died in Paris on Feb. 3, 1590. He left no followers capable of carrying forward his expressive late style, but his carefully wrought earlier portraits continued to serve as models for later generations of sculptors.

Further Reading

The most important sources on Pilon are in French. Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970), includes an appreciative and thoughtful account of Pilon and his contemporaries. □

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Germain Pilon (zhĕrmăN´ pēlôN´), 1535–90, French sculptor. He was court sculptor under the later Valois sovereigns. He executed several sculptures on Henry II's mausoleum at Saint-Denis. In the Louvre are a number of his vigorously realistic works including The Three Graces, supporting an urn that once held the heart of Henry II; portrait busts of Henry II and Francis II; The Virgin; and, his masterpiece, the figure of Chancellor René de Birague. As controller of the mint under Charles IX he made the finest medallions, medals, and coins of his time.