Europe in the 14th century had not yet undergone the territorial consolidations that would result in the modern notion of the nation state. Individual courts vied with each to assert their pre-eminence, with the wealthiest rulers attempting to attract the most important artists to convey their cultural sophistication.
It was amid this political background that the 26-year-old Charles V of France came to the throne in 1364, and shortly after his accession he commissioned one of the most important sculptors in Europe to carve tombs for himself, his father and his paternal grandparents.
Documents show that André Beauneveu executed these tombs between 1364 and 1366, and that they were set up in the royal necropolis of the Basilica of St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris. Considered to be one of the most important art-historical monuments of the period, Charles V’s own tomb remained at St. Denis for more than 400 years.
‘The tombs were very elaborate and they had architectural elements surrounding them and around the base of the sarcophagus,’ explains Donald Johnston, Christie’s International Head of European Sculpture. ‘These lions, which have now resurfaced, were originally at the feet of the effigy.’
Johnston describes the lions as ‘a beautiful work of art’ which have ‘a certain monumentality, and great character’. They are also, the specialist adds, an important document for Beauneveu: ‘For his style, and for the whole history of patronage of the royal courts in northern Europe in the 14th century.’
During the French Revolution, which erupted 409 years after the death of Charles V, the French royal family came to represent everything that people hated about the Ancien Régime. In 1793 the revolutionary government organised for the tombs at St. Denis to be dismantled.
The archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir (1769-1839) recognised the significance of the sculptural heritage at St. Denis, and attempted to salvage what he could from destruction by the government and populace. The effigy itself was saved for a newly established museum of French monuments, but the lions that originally sat at the feet of the effigy were separated from it.
In 1802 an English aristocrat, Thomas Neave (1761-1848), the son of a wealthy merchant and former governor of the Bank of England, acquired the lions, probably from Lenoir, while on the Grand Tour. Neave was known as a serious collector, and it would seem that he used his Grand Tour as an opportunity to acquire works of art that were coming onto the market as a result of the political instability of the period.
Until their recent re-emergence, the survival of the lions in the collection of Neave’s descendants had been unknown to scholars of André Beauneveu.
‘The Neaves recognised their importance,’ explains Johnston. ‘They added a small silver plaque describing exactly when they were bought and by whom, and the fact that they came from the effigy of Charles V.’
The specialist explains that he and his colleagues were always confident that these lions were by Beauneveu. ‘There is an existing drawing from the 18th century of how the effigies looked with the animals at their feet,’ he says. ‘Although the lions are very small in the drawing, you can see the very distinctive way the tails curl up behind the hind legs of each of the lions and intertwine.
‘I have been several times to St. Denis to look at the effigy, and the marble is the same. The carving of the details has the same sort of crispness, the polish is the same, but most importantly, on the back of the lions are the remains of two small dowels, and these would have been used to dowel into the soles of the feet of the effigy.’
The clinching detail, Johnston reveals, came when he measured the distance between the holes of the dowels on the effigy and then the distance between the holes on the lions. ‘They matched up perfectly,’ he reveals. ‘That, for me, was the final confirmation.’